For a couple thousand ambitious hikers each year, Springer Mountain is the first challenge in one of the longest tests of their lives. Standing at 3,780 feet, this peak in northern Georgia, part of Chattahoochee National Forest, begins the arduous and, for many, life-changing trek of the Appalachian Trail.
Springer is an inviting beginning, a suitable symbol of the mountains travelers are bound to encounter along the trail. There’s deep forest filled with boulders and colored by rhododendron, the unofficial, official wildflower of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There are quick creeks and serenity, calling to mind the long mornings backpacking through places as far from one another as North Carolina and the 100-Mile Wilderness. And atop, there’s a picturesque view of rolling peaks, a sign that the best is truly yet to come.
For day hikers, Springer can be achieved in a few ways, and with plenty of time left on the docket. In Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail, I recommend a popular combination up-and-back and loop hike that ascends just 680 feet from the parking lot (your car will do most of the climbing on the narrow, bumpy Nimblewill Church Road, 45 minutes each way from Georgia Route 52).
The nearly five-mile hike is somewhat of a breeze, first staying on the Appalachian Trail south until it reaches the summit of Springer, which provides breathtaking views, especially in the fall. Then you’ll turn back the way you came, stopping to turn right onto the Benton MacKaye Trail, which honors the founder of the 2,200-mile walk. For about four miles, the MacKaye will loop around to the summit of Ball Mountain. Be sure to stop at a blue spur trail near the summit, which leads to a view of Amicalola Falls State Park. Continue on the MacKaye loop until you once again meet the AT, and turn right to head back to the parking lot.
Counting the drive from Route 52 to the parking lot, the return trip to the main road, and the hike itself, you’ll spend about four hours at Springer. The bonus for you, day hiker, is that you’re not continuing on by foot. You still have probably half the day to explore the area around Springer, which means driving 12 miles east on 52 and Georgia Route 9 to Dahlonega.
Dahlonega (pronounced Dah-lahn-ah-gah) is the first possible side trip or zero day spot for thru-hikers, with access (via Georgia Route 60) coming in nearly 20 miles north of the trailhead. The city was the site of the first gold discovery in American history, but more concerning, it’s home to Dahlonega Trailfest, held in September and featuring vendors (hiking suppliers, breweries, wineries, craftspeople).
For the day tripper, consider Dahlonega as your base when exploring Springer Mountain. While in the city, check out the Dahlonega Gold Museum Historic Site (1 Public Square N, 706/864-2257, 9am-4:45pm Mon.-Sat., 10am-4:45pm Sun., $7, $6.50 seniors, $4.50 ages 6-17, $2 younger than 6). Tour the location of a former U.S. Mint branch and view actual gold nuggets from the 19th century. Grab dinner at Smith House Inn & Restaurant (84 S. Chestatee St., 706/725-8148, http://www.smithhouse.com, 11am-3pm Tues.-Thurs., 11am-7:30pm Fri.-Sun., under $25), the site of an old mine shaft, plus a good place for fried chicken. And chat with the locals at Spirits Tavern (19 E. Main St., D, 706/482-0580, http://www.spirits-tavern.com, 11am-11pm Sun.-Thurs., 11-1am Fri., 11am-midnight Sat., under $20), a lively cocktail bar with sandwiches and burgers, if you’re still hankering.
Want to make it a full weekend? The Dahlonega area is a micro wine country, the perfect second-day exploration. I recommend the mountain lodge scene of Wolf Mountain Vineyards (180 Wolf Mountain Trail, 706/867-9862, http://www.wolfmountainvineyards.com, 11am-5pm Sat., 12:30-5pm Sun., under $30) and cozy, small-profile Three Sisters Vineyards & Winery (439 Vineyard Way, 706/865-9463, http://www.threesistersvineyards.com, 11am-5pm Thurs.-Sat., 1-5pm Sun., under $25).
Dahlonega offers a few lodging opportunities. If you’re on the vino tour, try Dahlonega Square Hotel & Villas (135 N. Chestatee St., 706/867-1313, http://www.dahlonegasquarevilla.com, $100-$150), which offers a $60 shuttle through wine country. Keeping it simple? Barefoot Hills (7693 US-19, 470/788-8043, http://www.barefoothills.com/hikerhostel, $42) is simple and solid, though slightly more expensive than the typical hostel.
Dahlonega is a picturesque small city offering Southern charm and hospitality, plus some interesting history. It’s the perfect balance to the rocky but ultimately gorgeous scenes of Springer Mountain, where it all begins on the Appalachian Trail.
My first book, Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail, will be released on May 7. Please pre-order the book today to get your copy upon release!