Waterfalls, an epic trail, and color everywhere
By Laura Williamson
Outside Online correspondent
here may be no finer place in Georgia to view the changing of the seasons than the top of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail.
Dense with oaks, sourwoods, dogwoods, and maples that burn bright red and yellow by mid-October, the 8.1-mile approach trail from the base of Amicalola Falls is one of the state's most popular hikes. Through-hikers like to use it as a practice run for the six-month trek to Maine, but this time of year it's populated by hikers on shorter, two-week journeys to the Carolinas or overnight trips from Amicalola to Springer.
A few hardy souls will even hike the full 16 miles up and back in a day, carrying little more than a fanny pack and a water bottle. But the 1,800-foot climb, rated "moderate to strenuous," challenges hikers with a succession of peaks and valleys that can be downright unforgiving, particularly during the final 580-foot ascent. Most choose to spend the night alongside the trail or snuggled into a water-tight shelter about a thousand feet from the plaque and the stunning, clear-blue vistas that mark the start of the A.T.
The approach trail begins at the visitor's center at the base of Amicalola Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia. Those who don't want to make the overnight trek to Springer may choose to tackle instead the mile-long climb up the side of these spectacular, rushing falls--at 729 feet the tallest in the state.
From the top of the falls hikers can admire a 50-mile expanse of colorful foliage and catch a glimpse of the parade of cars pulling into Burt's Pumpkin Farm, where would-be jack-o'-lanterns can be purchased on the way home. There's also a lodge, tent sites, and cabins near the top of the falls for those who prefer to drive up and admire the leaves without breaking a sweat.
Fall offers the perfect hiking weather, with breezy 70-degree days and cool, 50-degree nights. Even a drenching rain the day before we left and the night we camped failed to bring temperatures down to below comfortable.
Along the trail, blankets of knee-high purple and white wildflowers create a colorful floor for the crimson forest above. Halfway up--at the top of Frosty Mountain--hikers will find a flat, grassy area where a fire tower once stood, the perfect stopping place for lunch and a few snapshots. Further up rest the remains of a small plane wreck.
At the top of Springer, hikers will find a boulder with a drawer that swings open to reveal a registration book filled with observations from those who have made the journey before them, many of them making their first stop on the way to Mount Katahdin, Maine. The expansive view of the Blue Ridge from the rock outcroppings here is enough to make you forget, at least temporarily, the five and a half hours of huffing and puffing it took to get here.
It's another thousand feet or so to the shelter for those who want a roof over their heads for the night or access to a rough privvy, picnic tables, and mountain spring. The roomy shelter, built in 1993, offers a loft and a roofed-in stone porch of sorts where you can relax and enjoy a campfire before turning in. One word of caution: the mice enjoy the shelter, too.
Laura Williamson is an Atlanta-based journalist.