Monday, November 28, 2011

Trail Report: Appalachian Trail Woody Gap to Duncan Ridge Trail and Coosa Backcountry Trail

During the first part of Thanksgiving week, I went on my mostly annual Fall Hiking Trip Extravaganza. I say mostly annual because I had to skip the trip last year because of requirements for my masters classes and my procrastination issues. Having earned my degree after that semester, I had no excuses this trip and chose to do a route in northeastern Georgia composed of a section of the Appalachian Trail between Woody Gap and the Duncan Ridge Trail (only a couple of miles shy of Neel's Gap), a short section of the Duncan Ridge Trail, and the Coosa Backcountry Loop. Click any of those links for GPS maps of those trails. Like most of my trips, Mickey from Prettiest Denny's Waitress was along for the hike, but Daniel, whom we hiked with on our last Fall Hiking Trip (and whom I was with the time I broke my tooth) couldn't make it. We replaced him with my cousin, who will go by D for this post.

That's D and his elderly golden retriever during our lunch break the first day of the trip. We headed out on Sunday and got back to the car on Tuesday. The Woody Gap trail head is incredibly easy to get to. Unlike the majority of trail heads I've used for backpacking trips, this one is reached by a paved road and has ample parking, which is good. It's a busy trail head. The AT is always busier than most of the trails I hike, but it didn't seem excessively so this trip, despite what the full parking lot would have suggested.

The fogginess of the images isn't the camera. Most of the hike took place shrouded in mist. Apparently, the southern Appalachians are just foggy in November. We had this problem on our last Fall Hiking Trip. Ironically, I have absolutely no photos from Monday afternoon when we actually had clear views and clear skies.

The dog pretty much spent every moment we weren't on the move in this position. Despite the exhausted dog, this section of the AT is pretty gentle. There are a couple of steep and rocky sections, but these are pretty short and not exactly extreme. As has been my experience with every section of AT I've visited, the trail is very well marked and quite obvious. Not a lot of views after the overlook around the first mile, but it's not a bad section of trail.

I spent part of my time on the AT hiking behind a guy who worked for the Gwinnett County school system, which has 20 high schools, some of which have more than 4,000 students. The county where I live and work has one high school with fewer than 800 students. They are counties of comparable physical size.

It was here that we left the AT for Duncan Ridge. The DRT is a lengthy trail, but we were only on it for about 3 miles before we hit the intersection of the DRT and the Coosa Backcountry Trail where we set up camp. I think the DRT can get a little strenuous at times, but the section connecting the AT to the Coosa Backcountry was pretty gentle. It is, however, less well travelled than the AT and less well marked. Sometimes it's not so obvious where the trail goes and so requires a little more attention than the AT.

The forecast for the trip had looked pleasant only two days before we set out. Even the night before the trip, the chance of rain was fairly low so we didn't pack tents. D set up an ultralight tarp shelter over his tent's rainfly, which he had mistakenly grabbed instead of the tent's footprint when packing for the hike. Mickey and I shared a larger tarp shelter. Of course it rained both nights we were out on the trail, but we never got wet. Well, we never got wetter than the mist that formed beads of moisture on my beard made us.

Monday morning while we were eating breakfast, I caught a flash of bright orange moving up the side of the ridge near our campsite. It was a hunter, off-trail, moving quietly, rifle in his hand. The slow gait and misty morning gave him a bit of a ghostly look. I just hoped he wouldn't shoot me later. I made a mental note not to wear my deer suit on the trail.

This was going to be our "long" day. We were only doing about 15 miles, but the terrain would be a little tougher than the previous day and the days are pretty short, especially when the sky is heavily overcast. Our original intention was to just do the entire Coosa Backcountry Loop and get back to campsite where we left our shelters and had hung all of our evening food and cooking supplies. Instead, we got distracted by this waterfall near where the Coosa Backcountry intersects with the Bear Hair Trail (on the end farthest from Vogel State Park), which was barely visible from the main trail, but tempting enough to lure us off trail and across the stream. By the time we bushwhacked down the steep hill and crossed the stream, we decided it would be easier to take the Bear Hair (which continued on the side of the stream where we ended up) down to Vogel State Park where it reconnected with the CBT. That's the dog at the top of the falls, by the way. He wasn't carrying his pack this day and seemed to enjoy the sense of weight loss enough to decide to make the trip between the bottom and the top of the fall multiple times.

The Coosa Backcountry Trail was significantly more rugged than the other two trails, but surprisingly, I was able to tackle even the toughest sections without really tiring. I attribute this to the fact that I'm only a couple of weeks past my half marathon training. If I can run 13.1 miles at an 8:30 pace with energy left over to run the last quarter mile much faster, then I guess stomping up and down mountains at a walking speed isn't so hard anymore. D hasn't been training for a half marathon so while Mickey and I waited for him to catch up at one of the trail junctions, I hiked up to the top of Coosa Bald and got another picture of a US Geological Survey Benchmark. That was pretty much all I could see. Too foggy otherwise.

We ended up not getting back to camp until well after dark, though. Luckily, most of us had thought to bring our headlamps and we were able to get back to camp without any major problems. The late arrival was actually kind of nice. When it's dark before 6 p.m., there's a lot of time to fill between supper and bed. Getting back to camp late made for less time spent staring into the dark and trying to think of something new to say to people who have been walking with you the entire day.

One thing I noticed most in the dark was that this is definitely not the most remote stretch I've hiked. Many sections of trail I've done are reached from trail heads well down rarely used Forest Service Roads where the only man-made sound you'll hear is the rare jet far above. At night on this trail as you looked out from the top of the ridge you could always see lights in the surrounding valleys and it never seemed like we fully got away from the noise of the paved roads despite spending a lot of the hike inside of the Blood Mountain Wilderness area.

I look pretty good for a guy who hasn't taken a shower in two days and has been sleeping under a tarp that's open at two ends for two rainy nights, don't I? I honestly have to say that this was my least painful hike ever. Even earlier this year I had moments when I was tired of climbing hills on the Art Loeb Trail, but this time there was no chafing, no exhaustion, no sleepless nights where I couldn't get warm enough. Nothing ever ached or otherwise hurt. Part of this is a lighter pack. We carried only what we needed for the day's hike on our long day and I didn't carry a tent or hammock at all, but the other part is the fitness level I've managed from a year of training for a triathlon, 10k, and a half marathon. I would have liked a few more clear views, but the temperatures were nice (high 60s, low 70s during the day, high 50s at night), but that's a pretty small complaint.


Julie said...

Sounds like a great trip! How rewarding that all your training paid off in such an obvious way.

Courtney said...

Mickey was impressed with the great shape you're in. Keep at it and you'll be smoking him down the trail.

Jacob said...

Mickey has an unfair advantage. He just has to not get fat or injured and he'll always be able to keep up with me. There's a reason you don't see guys with my height and build in the elite class of endurance sports. They're all built more like Mickey.

I do think I could get myself to the point where he has to start huffing and puffing to keep up, though. I would make sure to mock him the entire freaking trip if he did.