Posted by: pjbarr | March 27, 2010

Tour de Georgia

Start: Low Gap Shelter
Finish: Tray Mountain Shelter
Distance: 15.0 mi.
Trip Distance: 56.5 mi.
Side Trips: Horsetrough Mountain, Spaniard Knob, Back up Tray Mountain
Side Trip Miles: 3.2 mi.
State: Georgia
Highlights: Easy Bushwhacks, AT plaque at Unicoi Gap, Rocky Mountain, Tray Mountain

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer” -Albert Camus, French Novelist and Playwright

Today felt like a mountain stage of the Tour de France. Ironically they held the Tour de Georgia in these very mountains for several years at the end of the last decade. I had a good view throughout the day of Brasstown Blad, the highest peak in Georgia and location of a stage finish in that race.
Today, my finish would be a top Tray Mountain, but not before handfuls of climbs that increased in intensity throughout the day.

Today started with an easy, graded Category 5 climb around the east side of Horsetrough Mountain. This being a Georgia 4,000 footer, I made the steep and lengthy bushwhack to the summit. I was endlessly fortunate that it was through open woods and not briers, mountain laurel, or especially rhododendron. The AT formerly traveled over Horsetrough Mountain – Earl Shaffer and Gene Espy summited on their hikes. I looked for old markers or blazes but time has made the trail’s former route invisible.

Shortly thereafter I passed through Chattahoochee Gap – location of the highest headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. A side trail led five miles to Brasstown Bald. Through the clear views of its lookout tower were enticing – no way. Even I have my limits. While the views from its summit were surely great today, that’s a long way and I’ve been there before.

A Category 3 climb took me up Blue Mountain. Before reaching the 4,000ft. summit, I side tripped up to another 4K peak, Spaniard Knob. I was also lucky to have open woods, though I encountered some thorned blackberry on its eastern peak. On its western peak I found wind chimes hanging in a tree.

I also stopped for lunch at Blue Mountain Shelter. It was cold and windy but I prepared my chicken with mayonnaise and Chick-fil-a sauce in tortillas. It was fantastic and reenergized me for the last leg up Blue Mountain. I last saw Carlos here and despite his intentions, he did not show up at the shelter tonight. I’m sure the killer climbs at days end stopped him short like it appears they did for many. I hope to see him again.

I reached Unicoi Gap and a highway crossing. It was Saturday – as I realized prior from the from the droves of the day hikers I saw about. I was disheartened not to find a trail magic tent set up by someone. While I shouldn’t be expecting of this generosity, its occurance is so common on weekends at road crossings during this thru hiker season that you can almost count on it. I did enjoy seeing another 1934 bronze Georgia AT plaque, another twin of that on Springer Mountain, on a rock in the gap. I saw another at Neels Gap but believe I may have missed the third, perhaps at Woody Gap, I don’t remember if there were three of four total.

Rocky Mountain, another Georgia 4K peak was the next climb – a 1,000ft Category 1 ascent. I passed Max Factor, a most friendly and pleasant 60 year old man with a huge smile, big heart, and filled to the brim with enthusiasm. He’s a slow hiker but everyone is rooting for him. He’s snoring in a sleeping bag right next to me – which means he made it here – all 15 miles of the Tour de Georgia – one of only four in our group to do so. We’re real proud of him. Got a good view from just past the top of Rocky Mountain.

I descended to Indian Grave Gap where a gravel road crossed. The location was far less haunting than I expected or its name would indicate. This began the long 1,500ft Beyond Category (HC) climb up Tray Mountain. The sun got hot and my legs were tiring, but I still made good pace. About halfway I passed through a small gap that was the former location of a cheese factory established by immigrants in the 1830s. I know little of its other history. All that remains today is a campsite, one where I suspect the remainder of our group stopped for the night.

The remainder of the climb challenged me physically and mentally. I had not needed to catch my breath all day until halfway up Tray. I’d need to do this frequently until the top. My spirit was so broken that I called off a side trip from Tray Gap to Brier Creek Bald, a Georgia 4K peak. It would have been an additional 2.2 miles on top of 18 miles already and I mentally wasn’t feeling it. Of course now, I have mild regrets but it is reachable within a half mile by car on a Forest Service road, so I can come back for it easier than had I skipped others.

I finally reached the summit of Tray Mountain, a peak I had long desired. It is the county highpoint of both White and Habersham counties. At 4,430ft, it is the 5th highest peak in Georgia. It is also a 1,000ft prominence peak.

I reached the shelter about a half mile beyond the summit and was delighted to discover ample space remained for me, especially considering rain is in the forecast for tonight. After setting up, I hiked back to the summit of Tray for photos and to enjoy the views – though these weren’t as expansive as I had long anticipated. Tray Mountain was once known as “Trail Mountain” because several Indian trails once converged on its summit. I found none, but did feel fortunate once again to have a crystal clear day to enjoy views from this great peak.

Looks like rain tomorrow, hope to make it about 10 miles to Dicks Creek Gap to hitch to the hostel in Hiawassee. Time for sleep – it was a long day!

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