Monday, October 2, 2017

Blood Mountain

Georgia Blue Ridge Mountains from atop Blood Mountain
 6 miles loop, 1600 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate; Freeman Trail is rocky and brushy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no pass required

The rocky summit of Blood Mountain is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and provides beautiful views of the southern Blue Ridge just two hours driving from Atlanta. This loop hike visits the summit via a well-traveled stretch of the AT but make a loop for the return, following the little-used Freeman Trail along the southern slopes of Blood Mountain. It's also possible (and perhaps recommended) to simply hike round trip to the summit of Blood Mountain via the AT for a 4-mile round trip hike that avoids the rockier and more difficult terrain on the Freeman Trail. The numerous rhododendrons along the trail suggest that this would be a gorgeous late spring or early summer hike when the flowers bloom. This was a beautiful and enjoyable hike, especially when done as a round trip to the summit of Blood Mountain on the AT; I recommend it to anyone who lives in or is visiting the Atlanta area.

I hiked Blood Mountain 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 and hiked Blood Mountain in the morning, later doing other short hikes at Brasstown Bald and Anna Ruby Falls. Hikers looking at a map may wonder why this hike starts from the Byron Reece Trail north of Neels Gap rather than following the AT from Neels Gap; the answer is that the parking area at Neels Gap is dedicated for customers of Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi, an outdoors equipment store housed in a historic stone building. As Blood Mountain is an extremely popular hike, the larger parking area at the Byron Reece Trailhead is better suited for accommodating hikers.

From Atlanta, I took Highway 400/US 19 north from the city past Roswell and Alpharetta until the freeway ended; I continued following US 19 north, following signs to stay on the route as it went through various turns, passing through Dahlonega and entering the Blue Ridge, crossing the mountains at Neels Gap. I took the turnoff on the left for the Byron Reece Trailhead shortly after crossing the gap and parked at the trailhead.

The first 2/3 mile of the hike follows the Byron Reece Trail from the trailhead up to the Appalachian Trail at Flatrock Gap. Byron Reece, as a memorial at the trailhead notes, was a twentieth-century poet who grew up in Blairsville, just north of Blood Mountain, and became distinguished for his writings about the north Georgia Blue Ridge before his early death. The trail itself entered the Blood Mountain Wilderness soon after leaving the parking area.

Entering Blood Mountain Wilderness
The initial stretch of trail followed a creek flowing down from Flatrock Gap. Large patches of mountain laurel and rhododendron lined the trail; I imagine this stretch of trail would be gorgeous when those flowers bloom in May and June.

Rhododendron along the trail
The Byron Reece Trail maintained a steady ascent until reaching Flatrock Gap, where I came to a junction with the AT and the Freeman Trail. I took the right hand turn, which placed me on the Appalachian Trail going south. There are just under 80 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia; from Flatrock Gap, it is a mere 30 miles to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT. I followed the white blazes uphill from the gap, ascending towards the summit of Blood Mountain.

When I see the white blazes, I feel at home
Although summer was ending and a hint of fall already tinged the oaks and the poplars, a few scattered wildflowers still bloomed along the trail.

Trailside wildflowers
I've spent most of the past four years hiking in the conifer forests of the Northwest that are by turns stately, austere, and passionately verdant; I have to say that part of me has yearned for the gentle forest of eastern hardwoods. Here, the canopy is not so thick that sunlight is kept out; instead, the morning light was cast about the trees and the trail.

Appalachian Trail on Blood Mountain
The trail switchbacked often as it climbed the slopes of Blood Mountain and was at times quite rocky. Peek-a-boo views began emerging, improving as more openings in the tree cover occurred higher up on the mountain. Finally, a little over 2 miles from the trailhead, the AT came out onto a large, exposed rock outcrop. Standing at the uphill edge of the outcrop, I gazed across the tops of nearby trees to the rolling landscape of the Georgia Blue Ridge.

First views on Blood Mountain
These peaks and hollows were strangers to me: I couldn't name any of the mountains in the viewshed. All the same, this gentle but still rugged landscape reminded me of the Virginia Blue Ridge: it reminded me of home.

To the south, I gazed out into the Piedmont, spotting Yonah Mountain near Helen, one of the few Georgia mountains that I recognized. Layer upon layer of hills faded out into the Piedmont, reminding me of the rolling hills of Albemarle, Nelson, and Madison Counties that I once gazed out at from the mountains outside Charlottesville.

View into the Piedmont
Later in the day, I visited Brasstown Bald, where it is apparently possible to see the Atlanta skyline on a clear day. As Blood Mountain is barely shorter than Brasstown Bald- it, too, rises well over 4000 feet- and Blood Mountain, lying further south, is closer to Atlanta, I would imagine that Atlanta should be visible from this summit on a clear day as well.

Continuing past this initial viewpoint, I soon arrived at a second overlook on a broad rock outcrop, this one with a view wider than the first view. This time, I could gaze out along the crest of the Blue Ridge to the west, my eyes straining to spot Springer Mountain and the starting point of the 2,200-mile long Appalachian Trail. The highest peaks in the view formed the watershed divide between the Chattahoocee and Tennessee River watersheds.

Blue Ridge view from Blood Mountain
To the east, the Blue Ridge lived up to its name, with ridge after ridge fading into the blue-tinged haze and Yonah Mountain rising at the edge of the Piedmont.

Yonah Mountain and the Blue Ridge Mountains
Further down along the summit ridge from the overlooks, I came to the Blood Mountain Shelter, a well-built stone shelter for AT hikers, about two and a quarter miles from the trailhead. A large rock next to shelter provided good views to the west similar to those that I had seen earlier at the overlooks. Unlike the AT shelters in Virginia and Maryland, which typically have bunk spaces, this shelter consisted of two rooms with stone floors. I signed the shelter guest log, which, like other AT shelter logs, was filled with odd doodlings, winding stories, and passionate outbursts.

Blood Mountain Shelter
Next to the shelter was the only view to the northeast on this hike: from the top of a nearby boulder, I spotted Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia, across a wide and beautiful valley. Behind Brasstown Bald were the Appalachian ridges of North Carolina.

Brasstown Bald
Hikers who prefer an easier hike or who are only interested in the summit views should turn back after the shelter; the views ended after leaving the shelter. From here, the AT dropped downhill, descending via switchbacks to meet the Duncan Trail about a third of a mile past the summit. I stayed to the right to remain on the AT and descended to a junction with the Slaughter Creek Trail about 3 miles from the trailhead. At this junction, the AT made a sharp switchback, while the Slaughter Creek Trail continued in the direction of descent after crossing Slaughter Creek itself; once again, I stayed on the AT here, bearing left at the junction. The AT then cut along the side of the mountain with fairly little elevation gain or loss over the next two-fifths of a mile to its junction with the Freeman Trail at Bird Gap. A nice, large campsite lay west of the AT at the gap, just across from the Freeman Trail junction.

Junction for the brushy Freeman Trail
At this junction, took the left fork and left the AT for the Freeman Trail. While the AT was well maintained and obviously saw high traffic, the Freeman Trail was very brushy and appeared much less frequented. Over the next two miles on the Freeman Trail, I spent much of my time pushing away vegetation and brushing off the hundreds of spider webs that had collected on my clothes and my body. The Freeman Trail had a less pleasant trail tread as well, traversing over rocky terrain. The rising temperature and humidity as noon approached didn't help either.

The Freeman Trail followed the southern slopes of Blood Mountain for a little under 2 miles, with occasional ups and downs but no extended climbs or descents. There were no views but the hardwood forest was pleasant to hike through. At about half a mile in, the trail crossed over a small stream where a few autumn leaves decorated the water. Hickory nuts and acorns littered the forest floor.

Autumn leaf on the Freeman Trail
Further along the Freeman Trail, I found a hollowed-out spiral tree trunk right next to the trail; there were no burn marks inside the trunk, so I wondered how it might have formed.

Hollowed-out spiral trunk
After making my way around the south ridge of Blood Mountain, I found substantial areas of blowdown on the Freeman Trail. While many of these trees appeared to have fallen a while ago, quite a few were clearly fresh, with the leaves on the fallen trees still green. I speculated whether these trees might have fallen when the remnants of Hurricane Irma swept through Georgia about a week and a half before my hike in the area.

Irma's work?
Soon after passing the area of fresh blowdown, the Freeman Trail made a slight downhill and returned to Flatrock Gap. From here, I followed the Byron Reece Trail the final 2/3 mile back to the trailhead.

Blood Mountain was an enjoyable hike along the Appalachian Trail with good views of the Georgia Blue Ridge. I was happy to be back in the Blue Ridge, albeit much farther south than the Blue Ridge with which I'm most familiar, so I found this to be a very satisfying experience, especially on a weekday morning when I did not have to share the trail with many other hikers. This circuit is highly recommended for hikers living in or visiting the area.

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