An End and The Beginning
We could have chosen any number of places to visit in celebration of the new year but we settled on one… the AT Approach Trail! Over the years, I have read and watched multiple people comment on how difficult the Approach Trail was. Truthfully, I had some anxiety about it. Could we even do it? We have hiked some very difficult trails but have always been able to get it done. Elevation was one of my main concerns. The highest mountain in Alabama is Mt. Cheaha standing at a graceful 2411 ft. So, anything above that would be new territory.
There was rain in the forecast but the temperatures were rather mild considering it was January. So, we packed up our gear and drove over on New Year’s Eve. We planned to get a campsite at the Amicalola Falls Campground and start our hike on the the following day. Once we got to the park entrance, we faced our first real challenge. It was dark and the fog was thick on top of the mountain. Visibility was about five foot. I almost asked Chicken to get out of the car and direct me and keep me from driving off the side of the mountain. Having never been there before, even with the best of conditions, it may have been difficult to navigate. Add dense fog and it made for an extremely taxing arrival.
Glitter and Sequins
In all the excitement, I completely forgot about it being New Year’s Eve. That was until I was standing in my fuzzy jacket and leggings at the check-in counter of the Lodge. The Lodge is the most prestigious of places or at least it was on this night. The peaceful sounds of elegant piano music played in the background as the light of the 12 ft. glimmering Christmas tree sparkled throughout. The room was filled with quiet chatter from the extravagantly dressed people anticipating their dinner. My lack of glitter and sequins made it obvious that I was completely underdressed for the occasion.
After finding our campsite through the fog, campsite # 17 in fact, we set up our tent and climbed in to unpack.
We had stopped by REI on the way there to pick up rain gear. Usually, we would plan our hikes around the rain. If rain was in the forecast while we were on trail we would just take a zero and rest that day. If rain approached as we were hiking, we would find a good spot to set up our tent and before the rain got to us, we would crawl inside and wait it out. So, not only would this be out first hike in the Georgia mountains but this would also be our first full day of rain-hiking. How exciting!
Happy New Year!
We brought in the wet and foggy New Year to the sounds of droplets bouncing off the top of the tent. This made it easy to stay up until midnight… and even later. Our plan was to get up about 6:30 am, which we thought would be daylight and pack up to hit the trail. However, I did not anticipate the time difference and we were able to sleep in until 7:30 am instead. Once everything was packed up and we were ready to go, we moved the car down to the parking lot and started our journey.
The Bypass and The Journey
Now, we will confess, we cheated a little. The thought of 604 steps in the rain was a BIG NO for me. So, we parked at the top of the falls and began our journey in the upper parking lot. It was raining moderately and still rather foggy so we did not bother trying to get a photo at the falls. In fact, I still have not seen the falls. Chicken walked over and took a look at the top while I was freshening up in the bathroom. But I figure I will save my official falls experience for my thru hike. Besides, I can walk up stairs anywhere. This bypass took about a mile off of the distance to Springer Mountain. The fact that it was raining cats and dogs made it even more justifiable at that moment. No regerts! (spelling intentional)
Chicken is normally the lead when we hike. He hikes faster than me and is a great lookout for things coming, dangerous rocks etc. This day was no different. We began the ascent toward Springer Mt. with wide eyes and cheerful hearts.
Not What I Anticipated
Mile after mile, footstep after footstep, incline after incline we kept looking at each other shrugging our shoulders and I would say, “maybe we haven’t made it to the hard yet?”. Don’t get me wrong, I was panting on the inclines and suffering knee pain on the descents. But I had worked myself up listening to others and seeing people’s stories of the AT Approach Trail. I had basically talked myself out of being able to complete it before we got there. Throughout the first day on trail, I continued to constantly be waiting on the one section that was bound to be impossible for me complete. Not only did I never find it, I actually enjoyed the entire first day’s hike.
When we got to Black Gap Shelter it was about 3 pm. The shelter is located at mile 7.3. We were soaking wet from head to toe, and I was happy as a lark to get out of those wet clothes. It was about 50 degrees outside. We quickly got changed and pulled our air mattresses so we could snuggle up in our down quilt and sleeping bag to warm up. I guess walking through the cold water all day did me some good… my feet didn’t even hurt! After only a few minutes in the shelter, we met a couple of men who stopped by for a moment on their way to Springer Mountain Shelter.
It was interesting to hear their adventure tales. One of the men had started at Flagg Mountain, the southern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail in Sylacauga, Alabama. He was planning to walk from Alabama to Maine. How inspiring!
We decided that it would be better set the tent up just in case the wind were to pick up. We have camped on top of many ridges and we know how windy it can be. After several hours of our clothes hanging in the shelter, they showed no signs of drying. We decided to let them hang overnight in hopes that no mice would enjoy a tasty polyester snack. The rest of the evening was pretty uneventful. We did check out the privy though. It had a closed sign on it, due to COVID.
We enjoyed Mountain House Stroganoff and MH Spaghetti and had no encounters with wildlife with the exception of the glowing spider eyes and the one owl that alerted the forest that we had placed our food in the bear box. The rain finally stopped but each time we left the tent for various reasons we found that the air was still filled with tiny water drops as the clouds still covered the ridge where we camped.
The following morning, our clothes remained cold and wet. In an attempt to help Chicken out, I boiled some water and poured it into the old Mountain House bag and placed Chicken’s shirt around the outside of the package. I was hoping the heat from the hot water would help with evaporation to dry the shirt. Fail! Through the packing-up process, I bumped the MH bag, which busted open, and the water spilt all over the shirt. This made it much wetter than before. But, at least it was warm-wet, right?!
After choking down some almond butter on a protein bar and packing up camp, we continued our trek towards Springer Mountain. Thankfully, the sun was shining bright and our clothes dried before we even made it to Springer.
If I could pick a part of the hike in to Springer Mountain, that I would consider harder than the rest, it would be that last .5 mile before the top of Springer. There were switchbacks which helped but it was on the tougher side for sure.
There were several people trail running this morning. It was fascinating to think about how much I have to concentrate on each step to avoid an ankle injury and these people are RUNNING on the trail. I was amazed. I am still amazed sitting here typing this! Knowing about trail running and seeing it in action are two different things. These people were rock hopping and everything. Oh to be strong and carefree like that! I can just see myself “supermaning” down the trail, and not on purpose. One rock upside my noggin and I would be done for!
So, once we made it to the top, we found about 15 people taking photos and gathering together discussing trails and adventures, most of which had driven up to Springer Mt. on a nearby road. We took our proof pics, touched our first white blaze, and took off towards the car. Afterall, we had a long hike back.
Remember how we kept waiting to find “the hard” on the way in, well we found it on the way out! The lack of calories and the thousands of descending steps were taxing on this ol girl’s stamina, feet, and knees. We stopped and ate a couple of protein bars and slid down a few GU packs but the amount of calories I was burning vs. eating was not sufficient to keep me chipper. Chicken hiked like a champ, as usual, having to sit and wait down the trail for me several times.
The hardest incline on the way back was the hike up out of Nimblewill Gap. It was one of those situations where I had to eye a level area above me and walk up those steep 10 or so feet, just to get there and rest. Then do it again. And again, until I finally make it to the top. Do you know those type of inclines? Am I the only one?
Now, by the time we made it to the car it was getting close to sunset. Chicken had walked ahead and got the car unlocked. He then came back to meet me at the trailhead for a victory, “you made it mom” hug. We finished loading the car and skedaddled on back to the house.
Never Too Old to Learn
We learned a lot on the AT Approach trail, especially during the rain. I learned about my gear, whether I either loved or hated it. We have purchased a larger tent since our trip because our little Lanshan 2 was too small for this rainy twosome. It works ok in the dry, but when wet, we need more space because you can’t touch the sides! And who knew, I like rain-hiking! Chicken, not so much. But any day where I get to camp without aching feet is a good day! Even if I am soaking wet! I may think differently in the cold though…
Also, I am taking back the non-rainproof rain gear we purchased at REI on the way to the trail. Why do they sell that crap? And, why does it cost so much if it does not actually work?
Finally, being able to experience the difference between enough calories to burn and lack thereof was a reminder that we have to bring better lunches.
I hope you have enjoyed our first Appalachian Trail experience. The AT Approach Trail was a blast! It’s not nearly as hard as I anticipated but definitely worthy of respect! We hope to get another couple of sections under our belt before the official start.
Stay tuned and be safe!
PSALMS 37:23-24 The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth him with his hand.