Glencoe

Everything You Need To Know When Planning A Walk On The West Highland Way

This post was originally published on All Women All Trails, an online community of dynamic women sharing their experiences in the outdoors.

Rarely a day goes by when I’m not thinking about future trips and outdoor adventures. I often check Southwest and Google Flights for deals and am subscribed to email lists like Airfare Watchdog, Scott’s Cheap Flights, and Cheap Flights. The Points Guy is another great travel resource and he often posts when airlines are offering deals. So one day I happened to be casually checking Google Flights to see what the fares to Scotland looked like. My husband and I had traveled there in April of 2018, and had such an incredible time. A small peek at flights could never hurt anyone. Sure enough, I happened to be looking during a two day fare sale where flights were literally half what we’d paid 5 months earlier to fly into Edinburgh. Naturally, I called my husband and said, you want to hike the West Highland Way next year? His response was less than enthusiastic, but at the same time, I think he knew…there was no way he was getting out of this.

Our flights were booked in September of 2018 for the end of April 2019. I knew nothing about the West Highland Way (WHW) aside from postcards I’d seen at a gift shop in Fort William. This was a “ready, fire, aim” situation with these flights. Upon quick research, I learned the trail is 96 miles long and travels into the highlands from Milngavie, just 6 miles outside of Glasgow, into Fort William, which sits at the foot of Scotland’s highest peak, Ben Nevis. Typically the trail is completed in 5-7 days, which makes it a very reasonable excursion for anyone who works full time and doesn’t get a ton of paid time off each year.

There are many tour companies in Scotland who will book your entire WHW trip, including accommodation, baggage transfers, and any other needed transportation such as trains and buses. For those of you who are planners and want to save some costs along the way, I’m going to focus on the steps we took to book the entire trip ourselves.

Social Media Groups

Some Facebook hiking groups provide excellent information where hikers and walkers can ask questions and get feedback from people who’ve already walked the trail. I found this very helpful and informative, and would suggest joining one or all of the West Highland Way groups on Facebook.

Maps & Navigation for the West Highland Way

  • If you don’t already have one, obtain a guidebook as soon as your flight is booked. There are many, many options for guidebooks on the WHW, so it’s likely you’ll be fine with several of the options available. The one I decided to go with is by Charlie Loran and can be purchased HERE. I do believe this has been updated as of 2019, so be sure to look for the seventh edition. What I liked about this book is that it includes information on places to stay in each town, camping locations, distances between each segment, time estimates, gear needed for the trip, conservation and nature info, wildflower ID photos, and detailed maps that include lots of helpful notes for every step of the way.
  • Download the Guthook app on your phone. For those of us used to hiking on long trails in the U.S., Guthook will be a familiar friend. You can either download the entire UK Trailblazer Guides package for $24.99, or just the WHW map for $5.99.
  • Download the maps.me app on your phone. If you want a backup navigation option just in case, maps.me is my go-to. Some friends who are world travelers told me about this app years ago and I’ve never looked back. maps.me is an offline map resource, so you need to make sure to download all maps for the regions where you’ll be traveling beforehand. It’s primarily for driving, but trails are also visible on the map and I’ve used it countless times to double check my location or get myself back on track while hiking. Users have the ability to save locations by starring them on the map so they can easily be found later. The app does take a bit of getting used to and is not as user friendly or detailed as Guthook, so I would suggest practicing with it before taking a trip.

Accommodation Along the West Highland Way

For those hiking the WHW there are a number of options for places to stay which will fit into every budget. Hostels, bunkhouses, and campsites are an economical choice for those on a tight budget. For anyone wanting to sleep in a plush bed at night after grabbing a pint and a warm meal at the pub, there are some lovely hotels, inns, and B&Bs along the way. These will cost more, but also make this trail appealing for anyone who doesn’t want to rough it in a tent every night.

Due to the fact that I was booking this trip less than a year out, I worried about being able to find accommodation in some of the towns we would pass through. Many of the villages are small with only a handful of places to stay. First and foremost though, I had to figure out our schedule and decide which route we’d be taking. Below is our daily planned mileage and accommodations. This does not include midday stops or side trails off the WHW.

Using the guidebook and looking online, I immediately started booking our hotels for each night. One thing I did not know and hadn’t accounted for is that the Pre ’65 Scottish motorbike trials will be taking place in Kinlochleven just as we are walking through. A few days later in Fort William, the Scottish Six Days Trial will be starting the day we finish the WHW. Honestly, I was devastated when I found this out.

My first thought was that the peace of nature would be destroyed with the sounds of dirt bikes whizzing past us as we all tried to use the same path. Realizing that this trip was happening no matter what, I needed to re-frame this story in my mind in a positive way. I forced myself to remember that we are going to another culture that has different views about land use. The mindset of conservation and wilderness is an American concept, which other parts of the world have started to embrace over the past couple of decades. For example, Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park, which the WHW traverses, was only established in 2002. However, Scotland’s unique view of the land also makes it an ideal place for people to wander and explore. Statutory Access Rights are as follows:

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 (which came into force in 2005) gives everyone rights of access over land and inland water throughout Scotland, subject to specific exclusions set out in the Act and as long as they behave responsibly. These rights are sometimes referred to as ‘freedom to roam’.

Due to the trials, finding a place to stay in Kinlochleven was nerve wracking. Every single place I looked up was fully booked the night we’d be there. I started thinking about staying in another town and getting transportation there and back, but the logistics of that would have been tricky. Finally, after a glass of wine and another panicked online search, I found a small B&B called the Bank House Bed & Breakfast. Somehow, they were literally the only place in town with a room left and I can only imagine it was due to a cancellation.

Luckily Fort William is large enough that there were still several options available in spite of the trials. The only other town on the way that was almost completely booked was Rowardennan, most likely because it’s small with few options for hotels. We will be at the Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel which is situated right on the banks of Loch Lomond. We were able to get a private room and I purchased the breakfast option when booking.

Baggage Transfers on the West Highland Way

Another very appealing aspect of the WHW is that you are not required to carry a heavy pack as you traipse through the highlands on the way to your next pub. It’s possible for some people to have an authentic backpacking and camping experience, which would drastically reduce the cost of this trip. However, many folks opt to have their bags transferred from place to place so they can enjoy the walk with nothing more than a daypack on their back. European slack packing! Baggage transfers typically run £40-50 per bag per person for the entirety of your trip. Some popular transfer companies include:

Transportation

  • If you fly into Glasgow, you will need transportation to the start of the WHW in Milngavie. A bus, train, or taxi will take you there. I would suggest looking into each and deciding what suits your needs based on timing and cost.
  • At any point on the WHW, you might decide that you’d like to stay in a different town, or be forced to if accommodations along the trail are full. We decided to skip staying in Kingshouse in favor of staying at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe because, having visited before, we were completely in love with the scenery in that area. This meant finding either a bus or taxi from the Glencoe Ski Centre. The buses are far and few between, so I decided it would be worth it to shell out the £50 roundtrip for a taxi. I started looking in January to book a reservation for early May, and most of the taxi companies were already booked on that day. Thank goodness, I was able to find one and reserve our seats in a shared cab. Booking ahead is extremely important!
  • Once you finish the WHW, there is the option of a bus or train back to Glasgow. We will be taking the train from Fort William to Glasgow Airport, which will require several changes on both buses and trains. Our hotel for the last night is a very short walk from the airport. I would suggest booking your trips on Trainline because tickets become available much earlier than they do on the Scotrail website. I paid the fee to have physical tickets mailed to us because mobile e-tickets are not available for use yet at the station we’ll be traveling from. At this point I’m not sure how long it will take us to walk the miles we’re doing each day, so in case we miss the hours of operation for the ticket counter, we’ll have the tickets in hand and be ready to go.

I’m so excited for this trip and can’t wait to see how all the details fall into place. Sometimes the best laid plans end up changing due to unforeseen circumstances, but hopefully this experience on the West Highland Way will be a memorable one we’ll treasure for years to come. Now, the focus will be on gear and how to efficiently pack everything we’ll need for the hike into a 60L duffel bag. Not to mention leaving space for a bottle or two of Scotch whisky!

Related Posts:

Arriving In Scotland At The Edge of Paradise: Luss & Loch Lomond

Into The Highlands We Go: Glencoe’s Lost Valley & Clachaig Inn

Appalachian Trail Georgia

You’re Not “Just” A Section Hiker

This post was originally published on All Women All Trails, a community of adventurous women sharing their experiences in the outdoors.

 

 I have a memory from when I was a little girl on a trip to Vermont with my family. I can’t remember the exact spot, but we were driving through a park and noticed a wooden sign with white letters on the left side of the road. It said “Appalachian Trail.” My dad commented that he didn’t realize the AT went right through there. Little did I know that a seed had been planted. Someday, later in my life, a dream to hike the entire 2,192 mile length of that trail would become an obsession of sorts.

Amicalola Falls

Life happens, you develop a career, a family, put down roots, and still the dream persists. Somehow in the middle of that, I’ve managed to hike 1,500 miles over the past few years on trips to national parks, day hikes, and my beloved local trails that prep me for every adventure. While I’ve been able to do small bits and pieces of the AT over the years, I hadn’t done any multi-day trips. Over and over I’ve had people tell me to quit my job, just go for it, don’t wait around. While I love the passion behind these sentiments, I don’t want to throw away a career I’ve worked hard to build and a job I feel really blessed to have. So I decided that 2019 would be the year I officially start section hiking the AT. It’s time to combine all the bits and pieces and start highlighting the trail map with finished sections.

When I realized I had two days off over President’s Day weekend, an idea quickly hatched and I headed to Amicalola Falls to begin the journey. I felt physically sick to my stomach. I’ve done some small backpacking trips now, but would I be able to handle this? What if I got out there and realized I hated it? What if I didn’t fit in out there? What if my body fell apart on me? What if I was scared out of my mind? What if this whole dream was a sham? I choked down these fears as I drove, along with a protein bar I was forcing myself to eat because I knew I’d need the energy.

The weather was overcast with dense fog and so much mist that droplets fell from the trees like rain. I filled out the information at the Amicalola Falls Visitor Center and was told to park my car up a dirt road in a specified area that would be “really obvious.” I drove up the dirt road three times, not sure where to park, looking for the famous arch, until a truck drove by and someone who tests the water pointed to a spot. When I asked him where the arch was and where the Approach Trail started, he pointed through the woods and said to just walk until I came to a trail. Uh, ok. All alone, on some random road, with my pack on my back and my stomach doing somersaults, I headed into the woods with Guthook pointing the way until I came to a trail. Ok, here we go. What I didn’t realize until later is that I was on the East Ridge trail, the original Approach Trail to the AT. It goes to the same place as the new Approach Trail, but instead of walking straight until you hit the stairs, you start going directly uphill in the woods.

I passed a man day hiking who asked if I was going thru. “No, I’m just section hiking through the weekend.” Just section hiking? Hmm. Throughout the day, I had people stop me on the trail. “Are you a thru hiker?” “No, I’m just a section hiker?” They’d nod, tell me to have fun, and keep going. Somehow, unconsciously, I felt like I didn’t deserve to be out there as much as the people who were accomplishing a feat of endurance that would last for the next 4-6 months. Even though we’d all be walking the same terrain at some point in time.

There is so much emphasis placed on thru hiking long trails. Podcasts focus on it, countless books have been written about it, social media groups attempt to prepare folks for the arduous journeys they embark on…and yet, most of us in our lifetime will not be able to leave our jobs or take 6 solid months out of life to be able to do that kind of hike. While it is a dream for many, it is a reality for few. I wish there wasn’t an unconscious stigma that seems to imply that section hiking isn’t as important or as valid as thru hiking. Don’t get me wrong, I have so much respect for thru hikers, and I wish with all my heart I could do the same. What an incredible experience to have, and what athleticism and mental strength it takes! But at the end of the day, when years go by, section hikers and thru hikers all walk the same steps, hike the same miles, and treasure their experiences on these trails in much of the same ways.

Appalachian Trail Georgia

I get it now. I understand why people skip the Approach Trail. I put my headphones in and hiked uphill to the beat, counting down the miles until I would reach Springer Mountain. My anxiety from the drive melted as my feet found their natural rhythm among the roots, the rocks, and the mud. I was home. The trail is where I belong. Closer and closer to Springer until finally the mountain laurel cleared and the rocks that held the plaques signaling the start of the AT appeared. There were two hikers there who were just packing up to head to the Springer Mountain shelter. One was carrying a full sized guitar, the other was talking about how loud he planned to snore that night. I immediately decided to hike on to Stover Creek shelter for my first night’s stay. I was exhausted from the approach and wanted to sleep well. After they left, I sat next to the white blaze and the hiker plaque and cried tears of joy. I was actually here. I made it. This wasn’t just a dream. This was the reality I was sitting in. After years of seeing pictures of this rock, I was touching the first blaze, thinking of all the people who’d had their hands and feet in the same place over the decades, gathering strength from them.

Springer Mountain

That night, I set up with another woman in the shelter, just the two of us since the guys had decided to sleep under their tarps. Everyone here was thru hiking and couldn’t have been nicer. All from different backgrounds, different states. Some of us planning to do the same miles the next day. The rain sang on the tin roof as I drifted off.

I was on the trail for 4 days, completing the 8.8 mile Approach Trail (I went back at the end and got pictures by the arch and did some stairs), 38.2 miles of the AT, and 1.2 miles getting to each shelter, for a total of 48.2 miles. It was such an awesome 4 days, and I can’t wait to head back for 9 more days later this year. I was the only section hiker out there, and everyone I met was wonderful. I’ve never had the experience of being in a group of strangers, all in the same situation, helping each other out by sharing food, gloves, hand warmers, gear, and stories.

In 4 days I had two instances of trail magic, which were such a surprise and so kind that I was really quite touched. A thru hiker from last year who lived in the area hiked up and over Blood Mountain in the howling winds and rain just to bring some fresh fruit and candy to us in the shelter before hiking back that night. Then, the shuttle driver who took me from my endpoint at Hogpen Gap back to Amicalola wouldn’t let me pay for my ride because he’d enjoyed our conversation and said he loved helping hikers out. I completely understand why faith in humanity is restored on these trails.

This section ended up being an incredible confidence builder for me. I realized that all the research and investment into lightweight gear has paid off. Even in terrible weather, I can enjoy myself out there. Being alone is a peaceful, necessary experience for me. And most of all, I have the strength inside of me that is needed to continue chipping away at sections of this trail until I’m able to complete it. When I was saying my goodbyes to the hikers I’d met, one of them said, “I hope you get to do a thru hike someday.” And I replied, “I’ll be happy if I’m ever able to say I’ve completed the trail, no matter how long it takes.”

Appalachian Trail GA: Approach Trail To Hogpen Gap

Things I Learned On My Appalachian Trail Shakedown Hike

Appalachian Trail Georgia

Things I Learned On My Appalachian Trail Shakedown Hike

I recently went on a four-day shakedown hike on the Appalachian Trail. The purpose was to test gear, understand what works and what doesn’t, and figure out which unnecessary items to leave at home. I’ve day hiked a lot and have done a few shorter backpacking trips, but over the years I’ve been switching out gear and doing everything I can to lighten the load on my back. Including food and 1L of water, total weight was 24 lbs., which is considered lightweight. Aside from fine tuning the items in my pack, there was a lot to learn mentally, emotionally, and nutritionally.

These are some personal observations that might be helpful when planning a section hike or a backpacking trip. They do not include basics of backpacking, such as not wearing cotton clothing, etc.

MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, MISCELLANY

  • I never thought I’d be into listening to music out in the woods, but it turns out I am. This makes sense since I listen to music on my training hikes, but in the wilderness?! When hiking in the Smokies I’m usually on high alert for wildlife, so I don’t think I’d feel as comfortable with earbuds there. This also wouldn’t make sense for areas where mountain lions roam. However, on this particular trip, music helped me power through Georgia’s mountains on the AT. Must update the playlist!
  • Seeing the first white blaze of the AT on Springer Mountain was an emotional moment, a sign that the dream is starting to become a reality, even through section hiking.
  • I need sleep at night so I can function the next day. Shelters are great in the rain because gear doesn’t have to be set up and then taken down wet. However, there are a lot of snorers out there, and I haven’t found an earplug yet that will block out the sound of a chainsaw snore reverberating over shelter floorboards.
  • Georgia never goes around the mountain, only up and over.
  • The kindness and generosity of strangers is truly touching. A former thru hiker hiked up and over Blood Mountain one night in the worst weather to bring fresh fruit and candy to us before setting back out in the wind and rain. The shuttle driver at the end of my hike wouldn’t let me pay him because he said he enjoyed helping hikers out. Why are people so incredibly kind and generous to a bunch of vagabonds who decide to walk in the woods for a while? I will never understand this, but I am moved by it.
  • Over the past few years, I’ve started to become more comfortable with not wearing makeup, but there is still insecurity about showing my untouched face. I have dark marks, circles under my eyes, the olive skin just looks so dull and brown some days, a myriad of imperfections I could nitpick all day long. It’s not easy to let go of these things when meeting new people and hoping they don’t see an ugly mess before them. Part of being outdoors is learning to fully embrace our natural selves in all our humanity. In daily life, we cover up the blemishes, cover up the smells, fix the hair just so, and endlessly worry about our appearance to others. In the woods, everyone stinks and looks just as they are. While it’s still hard for me, I am learning to let go here.
  • I had to keep reminding myself that I could do this. As silly as it sounds, when you’re out there feeling tired, facing another big climb, sometimes a dip into the well of inner strength is required. Repeating a phrase that will get you up the next incline, or help ignore that throbbing blister, is a good way to keep your mind from going to a negative place.
  • Negativity accomplishes nothing and is pointless in every way. It’s going to rain. Your body is going to ache in ways you never thought it could. Mud will get all over everything. Coldness will creep under your skin. Food will taste gross or not fill you up. Your hair will look like pelicans have been nesting there for years. Gear will fail. You will be tired beyond belief. But you know what?! The sun is going to come out again to warm up the earth and you. You will get to town and have a wonderfully filling meal. A shower will make you feel like a new person. The views will be spectacularly soul refreshing. You are living your best life without having to sit at a desk everyday. These memories will last forever. You will find inner strength you didn’t know you had. You will make new friends who understand this experience better than anyone else in your life can. You will reclaim your spirit and see God in new ways.
  • If you want an extra dose of strength before setting out on a journey, read books by hikers you admire who’ve done these trails before. Jennifer Pharr Davis, Heather Anderson, Liz Thomas, Cheryl Strayed, Bill Bryson, David Miller, Gary Sizer, Ben Montgomery, Zach Davis…there are SO MANY. Knowing that others have been in the same place, experiencing the same range of emotions while powering through, can be inspiring and motivating.

CLOTHING

  • I didn’t need the extra pair of waterproof gaiters “just in case.” The small gaiters I had worked great over my trail runners and were fine, even in wet weather.
  • Merino wool is an awesome fabric with magical powers that will keep you both cool and warm at the same time. I wore merino socks, leggings, shirt, and hat.
  • Bringing the Patagonia Nanopuff jacket was a smart move over a down puffy due to all the rain and humidity. I think my down jacket would have gotten wet and been a sopping cold mess.
  • Backpacking in trail runners is not the same as day hiking in trail runners. The extra weight really does make a difference and I need wider, more cushioned shoes.
  • I brought 5 pairs of socks, which is considered totally excessive by backpacking standards, but I used every single pair and will do this again. Two pairs of merino liner socks, two pairs of Darn Tough hiker socks, one pair of waterproof socks for rainy days.
  • Need to purchase a merino wool t-shirt for summer hiking.
  • Need to get a lightweight shirt I can keep clean and wear on town days so I don’t smell as bad.
  • While hiking, it will seem like you can’t make up your mind about how warm or cold you are. You will shed layers like it’s 90 degrees in winter. You will add layers like it’s the arctic in July. You will do this all day long.
  • My hands were freezing at some point every single day and the pair of gloves I brought ended up getting wet and being useless. Shell mitts kept me dry, but not warm, even when used with gloves, without gloves, and with wool socks on my hands. I tried everything and my hands froze. Next time I’m bringing the shell mitts, a pair of merino liner gloves, and a pair of warm mittens for camp that will remain in my pack until camp. Also, in winter, Hand Warmers will be a staple in my kit from now on.
  • Not a piece of clothing, but having an umbrella in the rain and wind made the bad weather tolerable and kept me protected from the elements. I lashed it to my pack with bungees so I could still use trekking poles. It was worth every bit of the 7 oz it weighs.

FOOD

  • The things you think you’ll want to eat on the trail when planning your meals at home, will actually not be things you want to eat on the trail.
  • I don’t drink caffeine, so I never made coffee in the morning, but having a cup of tea at night was the perfect end to each day.
  • Pre-packaged freeze dried and dehydrated meals are expensive and not all of them taste good. Before I head out on my next trip, I plan to dehydrate a bunch of meals at home (chili, spaghetti, fruit, veggies to add to ramen) to save money and weight.
  • Tortillas are really heavy. They weigh a ton, but they have 26 carbs each and work a lot better than bread. My lunch was a packet of buffalo chicken on a tortilla, and while this worked for a few days, I can see it getting old really fast. Jury is out on whether I’ll go the tortilla route next time.
  • If you cook in your pot, you will need to clean the pot, and the last thing I want to do at the end of the day is wash dishes or drink swill. Rehydrating in Ziploc freezer bags worked really well thanks to a homemade coozy made from an old windshield protector.
  • Must bring more fruit snacks!!! I craved these like crazy and hadn’t brought any with me. Gummy bears are great too, but fruit snacks, mmmm.
  • I could barely stomach breakfast. I’d lost my appetite a bit, so eating in the morning was the hardest thing even though I knew I needed to start with some energy. Peanut butter crackers ended up being palatable, but I was pretty jealous of the guy eating warm ramen for breakfast.

NAVIGATION

  • I don’t know how to use a compass yet, and I know this is shameful. I’m planning to learn. I need to learn. Get on it already!
  • Guthook app was amazing! I could see how far I had to go to the next water source or shelter, elevation profiles, photos of viewpoints. Really incredible resource to have handy.
  • AWOL’s Appalachian Trail Guide is my preferred guide over the smaller Data Book. I ordered the loose leaf version and kept the page for each day in a Ziploc in my pocket. When planning miles or where to camp each night, this is the easiest way to see what lies ahead.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this hike, as with most hikes where I go solo, is to not let fear get in the way of doing the things your heart wants to do. There will always be reasons not to go. The timing will never be perfect. And for some of us, the butterflies will beat their wings relentlessly every time we decide to set out on our own.

Fear might always be present, but it should never be the loudest voice in the room.

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Appalachian Trail GA: Approach Trail To Hogpen Gap

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Appalachian Trail Georgia

Appalachian Trail GA: Approach Trail To Hogpen Gap

This past weekend I had a couple of days off and was planning to go to the Smokies for a short backpacking trip. The weather put a wrench in my plans with rain in the forecast everyday, so I made the last minute decision to head to Amicalola Falls and start section hiking the Appalachian Trail instead. Later this year, I have a 9-day section planned, but I figured if I start now, I could get farther north when I go then. I stressed over my gear, added things, eliminated things, weighed my pack 18 times, and finally decided that it was as good as it could get at 24 pounds, including food and water. Moment of truth…

The morning I drove to Amicalola I felt physically sick. My nerves were completely shot and I was gagging on a protein bar I forced myself to eat because I knew I’d need the energy. So much of me was worried I’d fail at this. Maybe I couldn’t make it up the hills. Maybe this dream wasn’t meant to be a reality for me. What if my body completely gave out on me? What if the other hikers weren’t friendly? So many insecurities and fears swirled in my mind. All my previous hiking experience didn’t seem to matter because I’ve held the AT on a pedestal in my heart. This is the trail that means the most to me. If I can’t do this, am I really a hiker? (The answer to this question is yes, by the way)

THE APPROACH TRAIL

When I got to Amicalola Falls Visitor Center, I registered and paid $5 to park my car for a few days. I was told to drive up a dirt road by the kiosk where there would be “really obvious” parking. I drove up the dirt road, saw some parking signs that couldn’t possibly be right, so I kept going up this crazy steep incline, freaked out, turned around, went back down, couldn’t see a trailhead, didn’t know what to do, turned around, drove up again, came back, WHERE THE HELL IS THE TRAIL?! I finally flagged down a man who was testing the water that day. He didn’t work for the park, but directed me toward the vague parking area and said that if I just walk through the woods toward the visitor center, I’ll hit the trail. Uh, ok. I was looking for the famous arch that signals the beginning of the Approach Trail, but there was no arch, there wasn’t even a trail to get to the trail. So I pulled up Guthook and headed into the woods until I came to a trail and turned right. Rather an anticlimactic way to start. What I didn’t realize was that I was on the East Ridge Trail, the original approach trail to the AT, but not the present day one that includes a ton of stairs up to the falls.

Immediately the trail headed uphill. The threat of rain was weighing heavily on everything, and before I knew it, I’d hiked up into the mist that would be a constant companion for the rest of the day. The familiarity of hiking in clouds surrounded me, taking my mind back to the Great Smoky Mountains, wondering how hard the rivers there were raging right now. I decided to put some music in my ears as the uphill slog continued. The second I heard the first song of my hiking playlist, something changed for me. I looked down at my feet as they navigated the roots, rocks, and mud, and felt…at home. This was familiar. When I reached the Amicalola Falls parking area, I couldn’t see anything. Visibility was as low as it could possibly be and I could barely make out a brown sign signalling the continuation of the Approach Trail.

As the day wore on, I played mental games with myself. Maybe this trail sucked so much because I’d already heard it sucked so much, and my mind had already made up its mind about it. Is it me, or does it look like a tornado tore through these woods and made a big old mess of them? I hate the fact that these 8.8 miles don’t count toward the AT! Why on earth don’t they just add these on so people don’t feel like they’re wasting all this energy before they actually start the AT?!

SPRINGER MOUNTAIN

Everything in me was focused on Springer. I just needed to get to Springer. The plaque, the register, the first white blaze marking the start of the AT…these were the motivation that got me up every crummy hill on the Approach. Finally, the mountain laurel cleared and I could see large boulders and I knew I’d made it. Two men were already there, one older who had just flew in from Maine and forgotten a bunch of things, the other younger and carrying a full sized guitar in a case. I signed the register, talked with them a bit, took a few pictures and waited for them to head on. As soon as they were gone, I sat next to the plaque with the hiker and the first white blaze and cried. The gratitude I felt at being in this spot after dreaming about it for so many years was overwhelming. I’ve hiked small bits and pieces of the AT, but to be starting at the beginning and wrapping my head around a goal was very meaningful. A few more moments and it was time to move on.

STOVER CREEK SHELTER

The start of the AT presented a visible change in the way the trail looked. More rhododendron, laurel…green. My stop for the night would be Stover Creek Shelter. As I skipped over the streams and heard the rain pounding on my umbrella, happiness filled me. The shelter materialized through the fog and I could see several people already there eating dinner. Several guys had set up tarps outside the shelter and one other woman and I would have the entire place to ourselves. Perfect! We talked a bit, but all of us were tired after the Approach, so we ate, set up gear, and fell into bed around 7 pm.

The next morning everyone packed up and headed out at different times. I used the privy, got myself situated, unpacked and repacked my food bag, made sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, and set off into the mist. The hemlock forests and thick rhododendrons were a welcome sight after the brown of the Approach Trail. Streams were heavy with rain and flowed freely. Bridges provided safe passage.

The morning brightened up as the miles wore on and soon enough the sun was shining! There is nothing more glorious than a sunny day following a really tough one in the rain. Trees were silhouetted by deep blue sky and dark mountain curves could be seen in the distance as clouds made their way across. This was the first day I became conscious of the mountains beneath my feet. When I hike in the Smokies, there is usually the goal of a particular mountaintop or location, and a steady 3,000 foot climb to get there. In Georgia, the distance between a starting point and an endpoint is filled with the ascent and descent of every mountain in between. Some refer to the trail as a roller coaster or PUDs (pointless ups and downs). Yes.

If there is a “gap” on the map, this means you will climb a mountain, then descend into the gap, then climb another mountain out of the gap. This is your new normal. Climbing each mountain will mean you go up until you think you can’t possibly go any higher, then you round a bend and the trail continues skyward. Music was my saving grace in these moments. There are plenty who think that listening to music takes away from the experience of being in nature. I disagree. I can experience it with both, and need the extra ounce of motivation to keep my pace moving quickly.

GOOCH MOUNTAIN SHELTER

The destination for the second day was Gooch Mountain Shelter, a spacious, double platform shelter with many tent sites surrounding it. When I arrived there were already quite a few people. Several had claimed spots in the shelter and I immediately decided to tent camp. I needed the privacy and wanted to have my own space away from everyone. Talk around the picnic table turned to the weather, gear, where folks were from. I was the only section hiker. Part of me felt like I didn’t deserve to be there as much as those who were thru hiking, and I had to constantly fight this feeling. I was hiking faster and farther than some of these folks, and my gear was fine-tuned and lightweight. I was prepared. I deserve to be here as much as anyone else. I belong. I belong. I belong.

That night I could hear the rain in my tent and knew this would mean packing up wet gear in the morning, but having my own space was worth its weight in gold. Introverting is a necessity. I learned later that a couple of snorers kept the rest of the shelter awake that night, and I was thankful for the sleep I was able to get. In the morning, I choked down some peanut butter crackers before packing up my tent with freezing hands that soon turned red and painful before going numb. The rain was still coming down softly, so I lashed the umbrella to my backpack, wore my rain kilt and rain jacket, and set out looking like a homeless bag lady.

HIKING TO WOODS HOLE SHELTER

The goal today was the Woods Hole Shelter. The wind from the east was FIERCE, constantly blowing, trees creaking against each other, rain driving sideways at times. My pace was quick and I adjusted the umbrella to shield myself from the wind, raising and lowering it on the uphill/downhill, shifting it to the side when the wind picked up. The vision of a shelter where I could get warm burned in my brain and drove me on. I thought about resilience and how days like this only make a person stronger. Staying positive in the middle of miserable conditions only helps a body press on. Negativity accomplishes nothing in moments like this. I was not alone out there. Evidence of bears searching for late winter snacks were evident on logs throughout the forest.

I stopped beneath some giant boulders to eat lunch, hoping they would shield me from the gusts. Sitting in the middle of the woods completely alone, while wind and rain whip madly about was a new concept for me. Every time I stopped the cold immediately began to creep into my bones. Moving was the only way to stay warm. I quickly ate as much as I could, jumped back up, and was claimed again by the air’s strength.

A small sign saying “SHELTER” emerged from the fog and I nearly ran the .4 miles to the tiny structure that would be my home for the night. Two men from the previous night were already there and we were talking about the cold and rain that were supposed to get worse. Another hiker arrived and decided to set up a tent, then another, then two more. Five of us would sleep on the platform of the shelter and one would sleep on the picnic table, also inside. The wind continued howling and everyone worked to string up tarps over the openings to shield us from the elements and provide warmth.

TRAIL MAGIC!

Soon we noticed another hiker, someone unfamiliar, heading down the trail toward us. He’d climbed up and over Blood Mountain from the difficult side and had come to bring fresh fruit and candy. A former thru-hiker from 2018, trail name Dine and Dash, played a beautiful song on ukulele while we ate dinner and tried to keep warm. I’ve heard many stories of trail magic, but have never experienced it myself. The fact that another hiker would come out in this weather just to bring smiles and fruit to those who’d just gotten on trail really touched my heart. After we’d asked him lots of questions about his thru hike, he went back into the weather to head home for the night. I keep thinking about him, feeling thankful that we met. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his kindness. Something as simple as an apple and a song can turn a hard day into a blessed one.

BLOOD MOUNTAIN

The night was cold and I didn’t sleep very much as the rain pounded on the tin roof of the shelter. We all woke up at the same time and frantically packed our gear, wanting to get moving before the cold set into our bones. When we stepped out from behind the tarps, blue sky appeared and pink clouds were sitting atop peaks that we could see through the trees. It was going to be a clear day!!! We’d get views on Blood Mountain!

The highest peak on the GA section of the AT did not end up having the worst climb. My muscles were tired, but imagining the views from the top kept me going. They did not disappoint!

NEELS GAP – MOUNTAIN CROSSINGS

Leaving the mountain was hard. I wanted to stay and enjoy the hard-earned vistas, but Neels Gap was calling. The Mountain Crossings outfitter store sits right on the AT and is a welcome stop for hikers who want a shower, resupply, or gear upgrades. They make a ton of money helping hikers trade out heavy gear and offer a free pack shakedown to help eliminate unnecessary items. The day we were there the showers weren’t working, so those who had been planning to stay there decided to head on. I bought a t-shirt, a sticker, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Neels Gap also has the distinction of being the spot where one third of thru hikers quit. The fact that I’d made it here and was planning to continue felt SO AMAZING. Another milestone. Another reminder that maybe I’m stronger than I think I am sometimes. Even though today was my last day on trail for this section, I was continuing on another 7.1 miles to Hogpen Gap where I would meet a shuttle driver who would take me back to my car at Amicalola. The climb out of Neels Gap seemed to go on forever, but food and candy was giving me the extra boost needed to get to the top.

TO HOGPEN GAP

Once again, thankful the sun was shining! This ended up being a gorgeous section of trail, traversing ridge lines, providing views through the trees of mountains on all sides. There are several places to stop and take pictures or camp along the way. I’d set a time to meet my driver and felt compelled to press on as quickly as I could, stopping briefly to breathe and absorb the beauty of each view before dashing on.

There are still several climbs along the way here, but in the last 1.5 miles when I started descending, I was sure I was heading into Hogpen Gap. As I neared the bottom of a very steep hill, I looked ahead to see a white blaze on the other side of a small parking lot nestled below another enormous hill directly in front of me. SHIT! You have to be kidding me!!! I was dying. I couldn’t believe this. I’d been hiking as quickly as I could, thinking I was close to the end, but here I was faced with another ridiculous climb. I swore, ate some more candy and started telling myself, “I can do this. I can DO this!” Well, I don’t know if it was in my head or not, but the climb out of Whitley Gap felt like the hardest one I’d done in the four days I’d been out so far. There are a ton of switchbacks that keep going until you think you’re going to die. I had to stop at the end of every one, breathe, and force myself to continue. So close to the end. SO CLOSE! UGH!! Don’t let anyone tell you this is isn’t hard. As awesome as it is to be out in the woods, walking along the AT, it is so hard at some points.

Finally, I made it to the top, raced along the summit, and navigated the descent as nimbly as possible until I could see the parking lot where my driver was waiting. Seeing him there, knowing I’d accomplished the goal of this first section, brought so much happiness. This is only the beginning.

When we got back to Amicalola Falls, the man who drove me kindly offered to take some pictures by the beginning of the other Approach since I’d missed it when I started. He really was the sweetest man, and I loved talking with him on the ride back.

When we were done I headed up to the top of the falls to take in the view that was obscured by fog a few days before. Magnificent. If so much beauty exists at the start, what must the rest of the way be like?

Related posts:

Things I Learned On My Appalachian Trail Shakedown Hike

Life Lessons Learned On The AT: Clingman’s Dome to Cades Cove