I enjoy hiking and love exploring new routes. Living in Atlanta, I have access to great hiking an hour and a half away at the start of the Appalachian Mountains, host of the famous Appalachian Trail (AT) that runs from north Georgia, all the way to Maine. There is nice hiking closer to Atlanta but for longer and more strenuous hikes (and overall better vistas), I like going up to the north Georgia mountains. I was looking for a long hike to do on a daytrip and was seeking a loop, instead of an in-and-out hike. A good friend who also enjoys hiking offered to come along (I don’t hike solo) and we set out to do Jarrard Gap Trail connecting it to the Slaughter Creek Trail by traversing a 1.85 mile stretch of the AT for a total hike of around 5.75 miles.
While I have hiked in interesting places (like the Transylvanian Alps in Romania and Mt. Kilimanjaro), I am not an expert hiker who knows all the tricks of the trade, who is used to half-missing signage, who is secure in his inner compass, etc. So I rely on maps and stuff I find on the Internet to create a route. (My friend Val in Real Life would probably laugh her rear off at my lack of innate outdoor skills!) On this occasion, my friend and I got a little complacent thinking we had clear in our head the route we were taking. I will first share with you the hike we DID as it was definitely diverse in terrain and views, and enjoyable, if long. I will then tell you what we THOUGHT we were going to do that day and highlight the difference between the two. And then, I will share some lessons I learned!
The innocent start to the hike
After driving about 1.5 hrs, we arrived at Winfield Scott Lake, a rather small lake at the start of our hike. To get there, we passed the entrance where visitors are supposed to take an envelope and place $5 in it and drop it in a locked box. One is supposed to tear off part of the envelope and hang it on the rear view mirror of the vehicle (the number on that stub and the envelop in the locked box would match, telling the part ranger that this car has paid). There were no envelopes to be found so we improvised and dropped the fee with a label that indicated my license plate in case someone checked. We doubted anyone would be checking on this Sunday but we preferred being good citizens. I took a picture of what I dropped in in case I needed it later to fight a citation!
The hiked route: from Winfield Scott Lake via Jarrard Gap to the top of Blood Mountain and back
We entered the trail and, after crossing a narrow and single-side handrail bridge, we were dumped on a paved road where we saw a house with Halloween decorations still on the mailbox (this would prove useful later!). There was a simple sign indicating the way and we walked maybe 0.25 miles on the road until the real entrance to the real Jarrard Gap Trail.
The terrain was a nice upward slope but not too intense. Nice views of the downhill on this winter day. Once we exited this trail at the Jarrard Gap, we walked a little to the next set of signs which helped point the way in this 4-way intersection. Except it was not all too clear as it did not have any of the names in our map.
Someone told us which way was the AT and we walked little on it until we saw the white mark that is used to mark the AT so on we went. So we entered the AT in the direction of Blood Mountain. There were slight (rolling, I would call them) downhills and flat bits of terrain. We passed a camp area on the left after having taken a quick break, and soon on the right we saw the trailhead to the Freeman Trail which sort of parallels the AT (it re-meets the AT on the opposite end). At that point, we were 2.6 miles from our beginning point and so we went off on Freeman Trail.
Freeman Trail is about 1.8 miles of very different terrain than what we had been on on the Jarrard Gap Trail and the AT. At parts narrow, often very rocky (small and big), it was actually a fun trail to hit as long as one is not expecting a cozy walk. We were not. We even passed an icy spot on our way to the other end of the trail.
We understood we would exit Freeman Trail and take the AT in the direction back towards the entrance to Freeman Trail. But, before setting on the AT, we stopped to eat our lunch at this popular intersection. At this intersection, besides the AT and the Freeman Trail, there is a trail that leads to a parking lot 0.7 miles away. That parking becomes probably the point with the shortest route up to Blood Mountain.
By taking the AT in the direction of the entrance we took into the Freeman Trail, we were proceeding to ascend Blood Mountain which, at near 4,400 ft, is the fourth tallest mountain in the state of Georgia and one of the most popular mountaintops in the state with breathtaking views all the way to North Carolina and Tennessee.
The climb to the summit was hard. Rocky and steep with many switchbacks, with vegetation everywhere. It definitely worked out my gluteus maximus and my hamstrings! I had the same trouble I had had on Day 4 on Kilimanjaro after passing the Barranco Wall segment of that hike. I carried a 16-lb backpack as part of my training but ended up emptying my extra bottle of water (one that I carry precisely as a way to drop backpack weight should I feel like I need to; it is not the water I expect to consumer during the hike). It indeed was a challenge – an unexpected one – but I am glad I did it as it was good training for my upcoming hike and a great workout.
At some point, we reached a clearing with large smooth rocks replacing the ground, like how Stone Mountain is when you are climbing it. We stopped briefly and chatted with some folks who had gone up ahead of us; they had not heard of Slaughter Creek (which was a little unnerving but they had come from the “nearby” parking lot so they were likely not expecting to hit the creek on the other side of the mountain). From this clearing, one could see Stone Mountain and Atlanta in the distance. That was very impressive given how far north we were.
The AT is well-marked with rectangular white boxes painted on trees and rocks so no issues knowing where we were so we continued on it as we knew the AT would connect to the Slaughter Creek Trail. Not long afterwards, we reached the summit which has a neat rock outcropping from which to soak the entire view. It is located right next to a nice shelter structure for those who stay overnight (further down, there is a “privy” or basic toilet facility). After checking the view and confirming which of the two possible ways was the way down (other than the one we came up from), we began our descent which I welcomed as going up had been hard. I read later that the side we went up was harder but I am glad we did it that way because going down that way would have killed my knees with all the rocks…
The descent was uneventful. We passed a campsite area on the left and it was a little mis-leading as the white box marking the trail made us think we had to detour at the campsite because the other part of the trail did not have the white rectangular boxes. But the crude wooden map on the campsite and a brief exploration of the other trail (where we saw a sign that said “Water” and pointed down that path) led us to determine that the unmarked way was the way to go. Confidently we moved forward and downward and soon we ran into a trio that confirmed for us that was the way down indeed. So it was nice to have that validation. They told us that we would make a left at the steps at the bottom that were still iced over. The descent was not too rocky at all so that made it better for our knees.
We reached the iced-over steps and felt really good that we were on the final stretch. We walked maybe 0.4 miles before we hit the entrance that we had taken to enter the Freeman Trail and then returned to repeat backwards the way in – a final 2.6 miles to get to our parking lot. Along the way, we had forgotten about the road we had been dumped into before hitting the real Jarrard Gap Trail. Thankfully, the house that still had Halloween decorations on the mailbox saved the day as we remembered having passed it.
The intended route: from Winfield Scott Lake to Jarrard Gap to Slaughter Creek
So after having read what we did. Here is what we had intended to do…
We were supposed to get on Jarrard Gap Trail (check) and hike it until it ended at the Jarrard Gap (check) and then connect with the AT (check) and walk towards Freeman Trail (check) but continue 0.4 miles past the entrance to Freeman Trail without taking Freeman Trail (NOT CHECKED!). After the 0.4 mile stretch, we would encounter the trailhead to Slaughter Creek Trail which would have taken us back to the road near Winfield Scott Lake. End of a moderate day hike.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what we were supposed to do. 5.75 miles that could have taken us 2.5-3 hrs, perhaps.
What went wrong on this north Georgia mountain hike? No, no banjos or bears
The map from the website where I got the route instructions did not label the trails the proposed route would take us on. Thank goodness there was a clear map at the parking lot by the lake that had trails with names on them. We could not quite reconcile this map to the one in our printout so we took a photo of the map so we could have handy along the way (boy, was that a good idea!).
However, the map sort of helped get us confused – we saw that there was clearly a way from Freeman Trail on to Slaughter Creek Trail (via the AT) so we thought we were good. But, what we failed to grasp was the increased distance such a route meant: instead of our intended 5.75 mile plan, we ended up doing about 10.5 miles (per our reconstruction of the facts once back in the comfort of our respective homes). This is how…
Remember when I said earlier that we encountered the start of the Freeman Trail so off we went on it? Well, as you read on the “intended route” bit above, we were not supposed to take Freeman Trail. The route instructions we had printed were just highlighting that at mile 2.6 we would encounter the trailhead for Freeman Trail. The explanation of the route was peppered with beautiful photos that certainly kept us from focusing on reading the text carefully as, upon careful reading later, we realized it never indicated that we needed to get on the Freeman Trail!
0.4 miles after passing the Freeman Trail, we were supposed to find the start of Slaughter Creek Trail at which point we would be returning along the same-named creek. After a while on Freeman Trail we wondered if we had missed a turn 0.4 miles after we had started on it to find Slaughter Creek Trail (the connection to that trail was not evident in the map from the parking lot).
We should have turned around… However, the map we had taken a picture of did show that we would hit the AT again and would swing back to hit Slaughter Creek Trail at some point (which we didn’t realize was much later than expected…).
And so we kept going on the rougher trail that is Freeman Trail. Partly perhaps because we were distracted by our conversation and maybe partly because the trail was unusual (narrow, rocky, with more interesting vegetation that leafed-out winter trees). Maybe it was just such a nice day for a hike so why rush it? Eventually,we ran into a man and his dog and we asked him how far to hit the AT and he told us “one mile or so.” We were taken aback but pressed on as we knew this way we would get to where we wanted to go. We finally hit the AT and decided it was time to sit down and eat our lunch. We had worked hard and had, at least, the same effort to go still to finish!
As we continued the hike by getting back on the AT, I still didn’t realize we were headed all the way to the top. I thought this trail would swing on the south side of the mountain and some other trail would take hikers all the way to the top since I didn’t think the AT would run through mountaintops. But we agreed we didn’t want to backtrack across the Freeman Trail so we went forth. I think this was a good decision as, at least, we experienced reaching the top of Blood Mountain.
The descent from Blood Mountain was uneventful except that we totally missed the entrance to the Slaughter Creek Trail! When we reached the spot where we were supposed to turn off, we ran into a group of folks and we briefly chatted as we passed each other (after having seen a sign indicating the trail was coming up) and seemed to have missed the trailhead. We had seen a little of the creek but missed the fact that we lost it at some point. Or we assumed that for part of the trail, it would not be right by us. I am not really sure. Anyway, we realized something was amiss when… we encountered the sign that marked the entrance to Freeman Trail that we had seen a few hours before!
At this point, I don’t think we were in the mood to backtrack and find Slaughter Creek Trail. We understood we had missed the entrance and, given how much we had done already, we decided to back out the way we had come in via the Jarrard Gap.
So, there you have it. A series of mis-steps that, while annoying, did give us what looking back was a challenging and rewarding day of hiking. However, there are lessons to be learned and that is also a good by-product of this experience!
Key lessons learned for future hikes
- Read the route carefully and if it does not explicitly say to take a trail, do not; do not be distracted by pretty pictures!
- Corroborate the route on another website if possible.
- Use a clear map that labels all the trails and shows a scale so you can properly estimate things.
- Take a photo of whatever map you find once you arrive on-site and compare to your map to be sure you are clear.
- Signage will not always be clear so the points above are important.
- Cell service, though not always available, can be at some clearings.
- Be prepared with enough food and water (we were, mercifully).
- Bring a headlamp even if you think you are hiking in the daytime (had the hike been even longer than we thought, it would have started getting darker).
- Always hike with someone. Certainly, solitude can be an aim of hiking for some – but not for me! If something goes wrong, I want another head thinking about things along with me!
- Never stop hiking because you had one hike were you were not “with it.” That is how one learns and it can still be very rewarding and worthwhile – plus it gives you a good story to laugh at and not take yourself too seriously! And one does learn.
Regardless of all this, if was great to be able to do such a long hike to help my training for Patagonia and to prove to us that we were fit enough for such a hike combining length and climbing.
Read about other hikes in Georgia: