Friday, January 2, 2009

Rocky Mountain Trail

While planning a stay in Unicoi State Park in August 2008 we were looking for some hikes in the area. Several guides mentioned a loop hike that included the Rocky Mountain Trail. However, every source I looked at started from a trailhead on United States Forest Service Road 283. If possible, I wanted to avoid repeating previous adventures we had while driving on the Forest Service Roads in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Fortunately, it's possible to keep your car on paved highways by using the Appalachian Trail as a 0.9 mile approach to the loop.

So our hike started at Unicoi Gap on SR 75. The gap is well-marked on the highway, and there is a sizable parking area on the east side of the road where the hike begins. Near the south end of the parking lot is a boulder on which the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club has placed a bronze Appalachian Trail plaque. Just beyond this the Appalachian trail heads into the woods and up Rocky Mountain on the way to Maine. That's where we started climbing.

The trail does climb rapidly up from the parking area. We had read that for part of the ascent we were going to be hiking along a creek that we'd cross at 0.6 miles, but drought conditions were severe that summer and we didn't see any water at all. (Back in the valley, the Chattahoochee River was too low for tubing.) In fact, of the three water sources along the route that we read about, all three were dry. Hopefully rainfall will pick up again before Atlanta residents have to give up washing their cars and watering their lawns.

One landmark that turned out to be certain was the intersection of the Appalachian Trail with the Rocky Mountain Trail. At a bend in the trail the blue-blazed Rocky Mountain Trail went off to the left, while we kept to the right and stayed on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. We had read that this intersection was 0.9 miles from Unicoi Gap, so the summit of Rocky Mountain at 1.3 miles from the gap must be another 0.4 miles further on. This is probably true, but it's hard to tell when you're actually at the summit. As you reach the top, the slope of the trail gradually decreases, so it's hard to tell when you're actually at the peak--assuming the trail crosses over the peak. When the trail started going down again, we concluded that we had been at the summit, but we weren't sure when. There are some attractive grassy spots near the trail in this area which seem to have been used for camping.

Shortly after we started down the mountain, the trail crossed some rock outcroppings; the absence of trees at these points gives you unobstructed views to the south. We made our lunch stop here. One unmistakably odd-shaped mountain in the distance was Yonah Mountain, probably the only mountain that I could pick out of a line up. The guidebooks invariably mention that John Muir stopped by Yonah in 1867. The visit has been mentioned so often that I decided it must have been an important episode in Muir's career. So I looked it up in his 1916 book, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf:

Reached Mount Yonah in the evening. Had a long conversation with an old Methodist slaveholder and mine owner. Was hospitably refreshed with a drink of fine cider.

Well, not as exciting as I thought.

After lunch, we continued on the rapidly descending trail toward Indian Grave Gap, yet another macabre place-name on the Georgia Appalachian Trail. At this gap, 2.7 miles from Unicoi Gap, the Appalachian Trail intersects with the Andrews Cove Trail, the blue blazes of which we saw heading off to the right. The trail also crosses USFS 283, where we turned left, leaving the Appalachian Trail to follow blue blazes up the road. We were now on the Rocky Mountain Trail. We were a bit concerned about missing the spot at 3.3 miles where the trail left USFS 283 to head left into the woods, but we needn't have worried. The Forest Service had put out a highway sign to mark the turn: ROCKY MTN TR NO 114. I'm not sure what all that was supposed to mean, but for us it meant, "Turn here!"

Once in the woods we resumed climbing along the slopes of Rocky Mountain. This time we weren't going to the summit, we were just headed back to the intersection of the Rocky Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail, where we'd complete the loop. This was 4.4 miles into our hike, just past a small campsite. We turned right onto the Appalachian Trail and started to make our way back down the mountain to Unicoi Gap. It's as steep going down as it is going up, and though the ascent works your hearts and lungs, you certainly feel the descent in your knees and thighs. Even so, it was faster work in this direction and we were soon back at our car in Unicoi Gap.

Here's a summary of the route:

MILEAGE

NOTES

0.0

Unicoi Gap (2949 feet). Start from the parking lot on the east side of SR 75. Find the white-blazed Appalachian Trail near the boulder adorned with a bronze Appalachian Trail plaque, and begin climbing.

0.9

Intersection with the blue-blazed Rocky Mountain Trail. Continue to the right, following the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail.

1.3

The summit of Rocky Mountain (4017 feet).

1.5

Rock outcrops with some great views to the south, including a view of Yonah Mountain.

2.7

Indian Grave Gap (3113 feet). Intersection with the blue-blazed Andrews Cove Trail and with United States Forest Service Road 283. Turn left onto USFS 283.

3.3

Turn left, following the blue blazes of the Rocky Mountain Trail off of USFS 283 and into the trees.

4.4

Back at the intersection of the Rocky Mountain Trail and the Appalachian Trail. Head to right retracing your steps along the Appalachian Trail, starting the descent back to Unicoi Gap.

5.3

Unicoi Gap (2949 feet).


I found these books useful in planning the hike:

Grove, Doris (1998). Exploring the Appalachian Trail: Georgia North Carolina Tennessee.

Homan, Tim (2001). The Hiking Trails of North Georgia.

Jack Coriell, et al. (ed). Appalachian Trail Guide to North Carolina-Georgia.

Herb...

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