Saturday, September 30, 2017

Brasstown Bald

The Blue Ridge Mountains stretch into the distance from Brasstown Bald
1.2 miles round trip, 440 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, $5 entrance fee required (Federal Interagency Passes accepted)

The 4784-foot high summit of Brasstown Bald is the highest point in the state of Georgia and hosts an observation deck with views over four states. While it's possible to ride a bus shuttle to the summit, a slightly more rewarding though almost equivalently easy approach is to walk up a paved trail to the visitor center and observation deck atop the mountain from the large parking area on the mountain's shoulder.

I visited Brasstown Bald on a one-day whirlwind tour of the north Georgia; after arriving at Atlanta Hartsfield early in the morning on a red-eye, I hopped in a car and drove north, doing other short hikes at Blood Mountain and Anna Ruby Falls. The road up to Brasstown Bald had closed following Hurricane Irma, so I was lucky that it reopened shortly before my visit. For hikers driving up from Atlanta, the fastest approach is through Helen by taking I-85 north, then I-985 north until it turns into US 23 and the freeway ends; turning left onto Georgia 384 a while after passing Gainesville and following it until coming to Georgia 75; turning right onto Georgia 75, merging onto Georgia 17 and following it through faux-Bavarian Alpine Helen and across Unicoi Gap to the junction with Georgia 180. Turn left at Georgia 180 and follow it west uphill to a saddle on Brasstown Bald, where the Highway 180 spur leads steeply uphill to a parking lot just short of the summit.

The entrance fee for Brasstown Bald is $5 per person including the shuttle, or $3 per person for those who choose to walk up instead of taking the shuttle. As Brasstown Bald is operated by Chattahoochee National Forest and thus run by the US Forest Service, entrance to the site is included with any federal interagency lands pass, including the America the Beautiful Pass; however, my experience both here and at Anna Ruby Falls suggests that these passes very rarely show up in north Georgia, as USFS employees at both sites were initially hesitant to accept the pass before I explained the scope of lands covered by the federal interagency passes. If you have a federal interagency pass and it is refused at the site, you can direct USFS employees to the Chattahoochee National Forest webpage covering this site.

The paved trail from the parking lot to the summit started between the waiting pavilion for the shuttle to the summit and the gift shop. Although the path is short- less than 2/3 of a mile each way- it packs in over 400 feet of elevation gain, so it's a pretty steady, steep incline the entire way. The trail wasted no time getting into the ascent, immediately heading uphill through a tunnel of rhododendron and mountain laurel. I'd love to revisit the southern Appalachians in June to see the mountaintop rhododendron blooms; I'm sure Brasstown Bald would be even lovelier at that time of year than it was during my visit.

Rhododendron and mountain laurel line the paved trail
The trail quickly passed a junction with the Wagon Train Trail, which headed north into the Brasstown Wilderness, one of the Chattahoochee National Forest wilderness areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Interpretive plaques along the trail explained aspects of both the mountain's history and ecology. At two-fifths of a mile, the trail crossed the shuttle road to the summit and a couple hundred meters later, I arrive at the visitor center itself.

The visitor center and fire lookout atop Brasstown Bald
The visitor center had a number of exhibits on the area's natural and human history; notably, it addressed the role of gold mining in catalyzing the European-American settlement of the area and discussed how this led to the removal of the Cherokee from the Southern Appalachians on the Trail of Tears. Brasstown Bald was known to the Cherokee as Enotah, though some severe misunderstanding led European settlers to believe that "Brasstown" somehow approximated the Cherokee name for the mountain. This highest summit in Georgia is part of the Blue Ridge Mountains but is separate from the main Blue Ridge crest in Georgia and is situated fully in the Tennessee River watershed.

I took the stairs up from the visitor center to the large, circular observation deck, which provided a view encompassing parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The front ranges of the Blue Ridge stretched to both the southwest and the northeast; other Appalachian ranges were layered one after another to the north into North Carolina and Tennessee.

View from Brasstown Bald towards Tennessee
Looking along the Blue Ridge in Georgia, I spotted Blood Mountain, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and the spot that I had hiked at earlier that morning. Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, was less than 100 miles away. The parking area was clearly visible below and lone sentinels at the edge of the Piedmont like Yonah Mountain were also visible. On clear days, both the Atlanta skyline and Stone Mountain are purportedly visible to the south in the Piedmont.

Showers and shadows; Blood and Slaughter Mountains and the Blue Ridge in the distance
To the north, the ridges of Enotah stretched out towards the town of Hiawasee on the shores of Lake Chatuge; beyond the town was the state of North Carolina and the height of the Appalachians. While the Georgia mountains remained mostly cloaked in summer green, touches of fall color had begun to settle on the trees near the top of Brasstown Bald. As I gazed out at the endless views (there were surely no less than a hundred peaks visible from this summit), a late summer thunderstorm began to roll in. Not wishing to be atop the summit in a storm, I made a quick return to the parking area.

A tinge of autumn and a late summer thunderstorm sweep across the north Georgia towards Brasstown Bald
This isn't much of a hike- it's more of just a spot to visit- but it's certainly worth visiting as it's hard for me to imagine that the state of Georgia has any better views (I'd be more than happy to be proven wrong if you know of one, though!).

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