Hiking the AT | Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain

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In addition to spending the weekend at Unicoi State Park, my husband also planned a day hike for us on a portion of the Appalachian Trail for my birthday. He started section hiking the AT last Fall with a few of his friends, and I've wanted to check it out for myself ever since to see if it's something I'd like to do as well. Since we live in a relatively low area of Georgia, most of the hiking we do is usually pretty easy with few inclines, so I knew hiking in the mountains was going to be a bit more challenging. After living at sea-level for most of my life, my body gets very confused very quickly at higher elevations such as moderately tall bridges and taking an elevator beyond the 16th floor of a high rise.         

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For my first summit hike attempt, we decided to pick up where B left off a few weeks ago at Unicoi Gap, just outside Helen, GA. Our initial plan was to hike from Unicoi Gap to the summit of Tray Mountain (the 7th highest peak in Georgia) and back for a total of about 11 miles, round trip. And we almost made it! 

**Pardon the photos in this post, especially the ones I took while apparently still walking, huffing, and puffing ;)

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Start of the trail from Unicoi Gap climbing up Rocky Mountain

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View from Rocky Mountain summit, Yonah Mountain on the horizon

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(For the record, I did not put those there. I just took their picture 😉 )

At 2:00 pm, we stopped for lunch just a short distance from Tray Gap, where the 1.2 mile ascent to the summit of Tray Mountain begins. Since it had taken us longer than expected to reach this point, we decided to rest, enjoy the view of Tray Mountain from the overlook (below, behind the tree), then make our way back down to Unicoi Gap. We were a little disappointed, but since we didn't have supplies for to camp overnight, we wanted to make sure we returned to the truck before dark.    

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Turning back at this point ended up being the right decision. As we made our way back down to Indian Grave Gap, I was feeling pretty great, surprisingly. We stopped to rest and chat with a few members of Trail Magic who were set up with food and drinks before starting the climb back up Rocky Mountain. After the first few yards up what I now refer to as "the Stairmaster from Hell", I started feeling an all too familiar pain in my right hip (thankfully, just the one and not both!) telling me I was very close to overdoing it for the day. Then, after just a few more yards, my entire body suddenly felt completely exhausted. My legs were wobbly, my heart was pounding, and I was having a hard time catching my breath. I had to stop every 10 steps or so to rest. I think my trekking poles were the only things keeping me from crawling the rest of the way on my hands and knees, so thank goodness for those! It was shocking how quickly I went from "this isn't too bad!" to "OMG I am dying".    

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Start of the ascent up Rocky Mountain from Indian Grave Gap. AKA: The most difficult 2.7 miles of my life ;)

Of course, when you're a mile or more from the nearest road, there's only one thing to do— keep walking. Seeing my sudden exhaustion, B thought he'd send a bit of encouragement to me from ahead by yelling, "We're almost there!" After about the 3rd or 4th time of hearing this, only to turn and see yet another towering set of shin-high rocky steps before me, I not-so-very-nicely told him to "SHUT IT" unless he was literally standing ON the summit, looking directly at Mt. Yonah. Or even better, until he could clearly see the truck waiting for us at the Unicoi Gap parking lot.     

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Clusters of trillium (Toadshade variety, I think?) blooming along the trail

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I've never been so happy to see a trail marker in my life 😂

Once we finally began our descent back down Rocky Mountain towards Unicoi Gap, we decided to take our time and carefully enjoy the slightly less strenuous hike downhill. Mostly out of necessity, as I wasn't really in the mood at this point for tripping over tree roots and loose rocks and somersaulting down the mountainside. We stopped at a small stream along the trail where B insisted on using his fancy backpacking water filter so I could taste "fresh, mountain spring water" (BREAKING NEWS: It tastes like water. Just like the stuff I buy in a jug at Publix 😂 ). Shortly thereafter, just before 6:00 pm, we finally reached the trail marker announcing our arrival back at Unicoi Gap. And yes, I let my husband yell, "We're almost there!" one final time as we spotted his truck through the trees.

Although we didn't conquer Tray Mountain, we did hike over 9 miles and summit Rocky Mountain twice. Most of all, we really enjoyed our day and I'm very pleased with my first mountain hike. It was exhausting, but wonderful, and I'm motivated for and looking forward to the next one.

xo, Steve