By KEVIN HENSLEY
ELLIJAY, Ga. — Outsiders and natives alike often think of two key elements when analyzing what brings visitors to Gilmer County: the Apple Festival and the downtown shopping area.
However, nestled in the northeastern tip of the county is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine.
The view from the summit of Springer Mountain in Gilmer County. At 3,782 feet, it is here that the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail begins. (Photo by Kevin Hensley)
As Joe Sewell, information specialist for the Gilmer County Chamber of Commerce, aptly puts it, “We are a designated Appalachian Trail community. That means tourism, in more ways than one.”
The popularity of the trail brings aficionados from all points of the world to Gilmer County, in hopes of conquering the 2,160-mile journey.
What is the Appalachian Trail?
New England resident Benton MacKaye conceived the idea of the trail in 1921. After the initial portion of the trail opened in New York in 1923, the crafting of the path was completed in 1937. It was deemed a National Scenic Trail in 1968 and is maintained by the National Park Service and volunteer coalitions in the states it covers.
Earl Shaffer was the first hiker to complete the trail during one season, finishing the journey in 1948. He then repeated the feat in 1998, at the age of 79. New Hampshire resident Andrew Thompson hiked at a pace of 45 miles a day to finish the trail in 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes, the quickest in the history of the trail.
The 14-state journey originally started at Mount Oglethorpe in Pickens County, before being moved to Springer Mountain (also home to the head of the Benton MacKaye Trail) in Gilmer County in 1958. The trail concludes at Mount Katahdin in Maine, The path providing some unusual elevations; its native state of New York reaches a low point of 124 feet, while its highest peak is at Clingman’s Dome (elevation: 6,643 feet) in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
The trip can take anywhere from five to seven months to complete, with around 80 percent of hikers quitting before completing the trail.
Prepping for the Trip
Ellijay resident Travis Crouch just completed a thru-hike in August 2015. He chose to break up the trip into 12 sections, which led to the trek lasting six years. The 58-year-old Crouch offered some sound advice for aspiring hikers.
“It’s a mental game to keep going,” Crouch said. “If you talk to long distance hikers, they’ll affirm it. A lot of people will quit, not because they’re hurt or injured; they just give up. I would encourage anyone from any station in life to do it. Pack as light as you can (laughs). The key is to stay active and stay in shape, but the trail actually whips you into shape very quickly.”
Completing the Journey
After investing the time and effort into completing the hike, there are many that do it more than once.
Doug Kimmel just concluded his third thru-hike. Unlike Crouch (a UGA graduate), Kimmel dropped out of college to pursue his passion. He says he is very content with his decision.
“It’s an addiction,” Kimmel said. “I got that bug and I can’t stop coming back out. I was a freshman in college and I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. I basically said, ‘what are you doing sitting in this class?’ Nobody’s going to support a teenager that’s dropped out of school. So, I had to work hard. I realized what I didn’t want to do with my life. I needed something. I’d heard about this trail that went from Georgia to Maine. I didn’t do much research, but I got a bus ticket out of Gainesville, Georgia, and it started. It was pretty magical for me.”
A hiker navigating the trail frequently finds that they are not alone. Although there are many that are unable to dedicate the time to hike the trail, people are eager to help those that do. Hikers deem the good deeds these people perform “Trail Magic.”
Kimmel finds solace in the experiences he has with the Trail Mahic.
“It restores my faith in humanity every time,” Kimmel said. “I’m watching political slander start a year before the election; it’s just chaotic. We’re obsessed with technology. You see people at dinner and they’re on their iPhones and they’re not even having conversations. That doesn’t always sit well with me. So I come out to the trail and realize, ‘Holy cow, there’s a lot of people that think like me, feel like me, believe many of the things I believe in.’ It grounds me. There will be people at the trailheads with coolers of sandwiches, hot dogs, beers, soda, you name it. That kind of stuff happens so much, you can’t make it up.”
Crouch echoed the same sentiment Kimmel expressed about humanity, adding, “It’s been a fantastic experience. Words can’t describe it. I experienced a lot of human kindness along the way. A lot of people are eager to help, either by giving you a ride to town, or sharing what they have with you. You’ll reach a point where the trail crosses the road and there’ll be a cooler full of cookies or hot coffee. There will be someone cooking hamburgers for hikers. There’s a lot of neat encounters.”
Access to the Southern Terminus
In Gilmer County, Doublehead Gap Road will take hikers to Georgia Forestry Service Road 42. After a 6.5 mile journey, a parking lot will allow the closest access to an approach trail of the terminus. Hikers then take a 0.9-mile trip to the peak of Springer Mountain (elevation: 3,782 feet), where the terminus is marked.
A plaque marks the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. (Photo by Kevin Hensley).