Blue Ridge, Georgia Has Something For Every Generation

Blue RIdge Lake seen from a distance, surrounded by trees, with mountains in the background
The view from our deck

With family living far apart, we have tried in recent years to find someplace in the middle to spend some quality time. Rather than staying in hotels, we choose to rent a house, both to save money and to facilitate bonding moments. With three separate households and pets, finding the right place takes coordination, but is not as difficult as it may sound. We found Blue Ridge, Georgia to be a good choice.

While not quite in the middle, it was a manageable distance from South Florida and Philadelphia (except for our choice of dates – Thanksgiving week). The area has much to offer at any time of year and vacation rentals were abundant.

The home we chose was on the side of a mountain, not far from Blue Ridge Lake. The road to the house was steep and narrowed the higher up the mountain we traveled. Though the locals zoomed up and down the road, we stayed put for most of our trip, venturing out only a couple times to see more of the area. What we found was a charming town and plenty of outdoor activities to entice us to visit again in warmer weather.

A bench in front of  a Christmas tree. A couple sits on the bench, a younger woman standa beside them
Christmas in downtown Blue Ridge

The town of Blue Ridge is nestled in the mountains of North Georgia, near the Chattahoochee Forest and not far from Springer Mountain, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. Originally a railroad town, the town was founded in 1886 and soon became known for its pure mineral waters. once known as the “Switzerland of the South.” Today visitors can ride the train or watch as it departs the station daily at 11:00 am in season. Those who choose the two-hour (26 mile) train ride along the Toccoa River on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway have three options: an authentic indoor car, an open rail car or Premier Class. The train makes a two hour layover in nearby McCaysville, before returning to Blue Ridge.

Home to the Blue Ridge Mountain Arts Association’s Arts Center as well as a number of art galleries, antique and specialty shops and a self-guided historic walking tour, there are plenty of things to see and do. There are also many restaurants to choose from as well as three craft breweries. It hosts family-friendly events such as Light Up Blue Ridge, the annual Christmas festival the day after Thanksgiving. The full festival schedule also celebrates other holidays in style and highlights the area’s arts, music, food and heritage.

A large lake with a small building and tall trees on the far side. They are reflected in the water
The lake at Mercier Orchards

Just outside of town, Mercier Orchards is much more than a farm stand. The sprawling store includes local produce, its own bakery and wine tasting room and a wide range of gift options. A large lake on the property provides a nice backdrop for photos (we chose this spot for our large family group photo) or simply a casual walk. There are other wineries and farm stores nearby as well. The North Georgia Farm Trail provides information on area farms and their offerings whether it be pick-your-own, seeing friendly farm animals, wandering a corn maze, staying the night or sampling food or drinks fresh from the farm.

a street sign pointing out the intersection of Duck Town and Blue RIdgeIn nearby McCaysville, you can stand in both Georgia and Tennessee at the same time – the state line is clearly marked by the Blue Line that travels directly through a busy intersection (though some argue that the line is not accurate). Copperhill, Tennessee was, as the name indicates, once a thriving copper mining town. In 1843, the metal was discovered in Ducktown and the area grew rapidly. At the Ducktown Basin Museum, visitors can learn more about the history and see the former Burra Burra mine site. McCaysville also has its own self-guided walking tour.

The Ocoee Whitewater Center, originally constructed for the 1996 Olympic Canoe and Kayak Slalom competitions, is now operated by the National Forest Service as a multi-use recreation and education area. In addition to the paddling playground, the OWC offers more than 20 miles of hiking/bicycling trails as well as picnicking, a visitor’s center, environmental education programs and the requisite gift shop. Local outfitters also offer whitewater rafting trips on the Ocoee, which boasts 14 rapids rated Class III-IV in the Middle Section. With a drop of 260 feet in five miles, there is little flat water, so Tennessee regulations state that participants must be 12 or older. For a calmer river experience, families with smaller children can opt for kayak, float and tubing trips on the Toccoa River. (The Toccoa becomes the Ocoee as it flows into Tennessee.)

a lake surrounded by trees, some of which have started to turn red
Blue Ridge Lake

Blue Ridge Lake also offers water activities, with kayak, stand-up paddle board or pontoon boat rentals, fishing, swimming and camping at Morganton Point. Other points of interest are the Chattahoochee National Fish Hatchery, where visitors learn about raiding trout, and gem mining at Aska Mining Company, Cohutta Cove Mini Golf or the Lillly Pad Village.

Other things to do in the area include horseback riding, zip lining and adventure courses as well as hiking to one of several area waterfalls, the Swinging Bridge (the longest suspension bridge east of the Mississippi) or even part of the Appalachian or Benton MacKaye Trails.

A Walk on The Appalachian Trail Is What You Make of It

a panoramic view of mountains with trees on both sides and rocks in the foreground
Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.”  This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.

a cement trail marker post with the AT logoIn 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.a teal blue marker set in a block of cement

There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.

Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, with March 1 through April 15 the most popular dates to start. There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This northern section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, so most experts suggest building up to that level.

Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (so you would then progress to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.

Preparing for your hike

the trail is a series of rocks
This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
a trail with a downed tree across it that has been cut out to provide access
A section in Shenandoah

switchbacks on a trail with leafy trees above a path through the woods with trees on each side and rocks off to the left

There are a number of excellent websites and  books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name for yourself, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone.  Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is of course a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where camping is allowed and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).

Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you (not to mention helping with preparations), it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.

Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.

The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.

Enjoy the trail’s beauty

Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.

The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border).  I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.

The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail. The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome, hopping into NC, then back to TN and back to NC once again.

a man looks at a map in front of a trail sign
We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
trees and a rock jutting out with a woman perched on the end
Just off the trail in Tennessee
the foggy view of a mountain through trees bare of foilage
The view looking into North Carolina

A couple years ago, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.

The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).

a stone foundation of a ruined building
The ruins of the Episcopal Mission
a crude shelf holding objects presumably found among the ruins
A makeshift shrine to the Pocosin Mission

a wood structure partially collapsedparts of a stone foundation among trees

While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! Now that sounds like a manageable goal!

 

This was previously published as A Walk on The Appalachian Trail