A Lonely Morning Hike To Brasstown Bald on Etonah

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Approaching Brasstown Bald on the mountain Etonah. Photo by Timothy Malcolm

Early in the fading darkness of a November morning, I packed my car and drove off from Top of Georgia Hostel. I wasn’t very prepared at the hostel, not packing a blanket and pillow, so I closed myself into the fetal position and threw whatever sweatshirts I owned over my body. I was glad to be bundled and outside, even more glad to be hiking myself into a sweat, hoping to find something I’d love. After a 16-mile drive to Jack’s Gap in Chattahoochee National Forest, I’d begin a nice jaunt up to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4,783 feet.

I started at about 3,100 feet, and it was only about two miles up, primarily on switchbacks, so the sweat came early. There was little to see out here; for one, it was a foggier sunrise and the bare oak trees left nothing to the imagination, and more, there was no rhododendron, the plant that’s typically so easy to spot in the dewy warmth of spring. Plus, since it was cooler and darker, there wasn’t much of a worry about snakes or other critters. The only sound was my feet stepping on rocks and roots, maybe the occasional surviving leaf.

But once some of the fog lifted and I pushed above the first few tree lines, I found myself in a tipsy pine forest. This is my favorite hiking habitat, stretching back to encountering dwarf pines in the Sam’s Point area of the Hudson Valley in New York. I love breathing in the biting, woodsy scent, and in just the right light, a pine forest can resemble a Gothic tableau. I think most of my desire to visit the Pacific Northwest revolves around experiencing pine forests.

I strolled through the forest, at this point my favorite part about the mountain, soon coming to a clearing that brought me down. I reached, of all things, a parking lot. I was used to finding lots at some high peaks, and although this wasn’t exactly Clingman’s Dome, it was one of the worst offenders. This sprawling area of four parallel asphalt strips reminded me of an airport taxi area. One lone person was at the lot, surfacing from his car, then walking around a bit. The lot broke up my excitement, but I knew a peak was yet to come, and that was always good news.

After a short touristy walk with placards telling the story of the area, I saw the tower marking the peak growing larger and larger. Built by the U.S. Forest Service, the gray observation tower, which people can visit after paying a small fee, is attached to a stone monument erected in 1971. The circular monument is named after T.S. Candler, a Georgia Supreme Court judge who supported tourism to the mountain. Inside of it is the mountain’s visitors’ center, and it’s something of an eyesore, to be honest. It’s too large and offensive, and its contemporary design is stuck in the late 1960s.

More appropriate and important is the sign greeting hikers and travelers to Brasstown Bald, which is just the name of the summit. The mountain itself is Etonah, its given Cherokee name. Etonah was part of a Cherokee settlement, and according to legend, was flooded. Those who survived were the ones who sought refuge in a canoe atop Etonah, and as a gift, the trees on the mountain were struck down so the people could re-harvest crops.

Whether true or not, Etonah is a behemoth that stands above the rest of former Cherokee land in Georgia. Its pine forest and challenging climb are the draws, and while you can drive up and pay the fee for the observation tower (on a clear day Atlanta is visible), it’s best to take a few hours (about three) and experience it in a more traditional manner.

My first book, Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trailwill be released on May 7. Please pre-order the book today to get your copy upon release!

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