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 

Exploring Georgia | Unicoi State Park, Lake Loop Trail

As part of my birthday gift from my husband, we recently spent a weekend near Helen, GA exploring Unicoi State Park and day-hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail. Upon our arrival late Friday afternoon, we took a leisurely stroll around Unicoi Lake along the scenic Lake Loop Trail, thankfully just before the crowd of weekend campers began filling up the park. At an easy 2.5 miles, the trail wanders the perimeter of the lake along a relatively flat and compacted trail, passing the barrel cabins and a wide variety of native trees, ferns, and Spring wildflowers. Multiple docks along the way offer great views of park, but the real treat is the final leg of the trail which runs beside GA-356 where the full expanse of the lake and surrounding mountains can be seen.

For more info, you can visit the Unicoi State Park and Lodge website HERE or view a trail map HERE.

xo, Steve         

Exploring Georgia | Fort Yargo State Park

As an avid mountain biker, my husband is always on the hunt for new trails to ride. On the recommendation of a fellow mountain biking friend, we decided to take a short drive west to the city of Winder and spend a day exploring Fort Yargo State Park. On foot, of course. This girl does NOT mix well with bicycles and trees.

Situated on 1,816 acres, Fort Yargo State Park is located in Winder, Georgia, about an hour east of Atlanta. The park surrounds a 260 acre lake and provides a wide variety of outdoor activities including, hiking, biking, fishing, and camping (for tents, RVs, cabins, and lakeside yurts, as seen above). Having been to and through Winder several times, I was surprised [yet again!] that we had failed to visit this expansive park prior to this visit, especially when our old house was just on the other side of the county, a whole 30 minutes closer! 

One of Fort Yargo's best features, is its multiple hiking and biking trails, totaling 20.5 miles. Having arrived around noon, I convinced B that we should probably stick to the scenic 0.5 mile Bird Berry Trail and 7 mile Lake Loop Trail. Over 12 miles of moderate to difficult biking trails might not seem like much on a bike, but since we were hoofin' it that day, it seemed in our best interests to try and NOT get stuck walking through the woods in the dark. On a Sunday, no less.

We started out on the paved Bird Berry Trail, leisurely strolling and stopping frequently to check out the various nature guide signs placed throughout the path. After spending a few moments on the birding platform overlooking the lake, we made our way to the Lake Loop Trail which, you guessed it, winds around the large Fort Yargo Lake. The trail, which hugs the shoreline and passes through several of the camping areas, is relatively flat and easy to walk. Seven miles is still quite the distance, though, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring plenty of water and snacks.

While most of the flora and fauna we saw along the way was typical for the area and very similar to the woods around our house, we did spot a few interesting items. The fall color had just barely started to appear, and many of the leaves seemed to have been painted randomly with bright red paint. From a distance, I honestly thought they were some kind of man-made trail or warning markers at first. Whoops!   

About halfway into our walk, we came upon a wooden bridge which offered a beautiful view of the southwest end of the lake.

Finally, we arrived at old Fort Yargo. Now... I have to admit, when we first saw the, umm, "fort", as it's called, I was a bit confused. As a girl hailing from Saint Augustine, Florida, I have certain notions of what a fort should be [Castillo de San Marcos, the home fort I'm accustomed to], and, well... 

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...don't tell the lovely people of Winder, but I am pretty sure that little structure there is what is called a log cabin.  

A very well-preserved cabin, I'll admit! All jokes aside, once I educated myself on the history of the 1792 fort, I had a better understanding of its use and importance to the settlers who constructed it. [I won't regurgitate all the facts here, but if you'd like to know more, Wikipedia has a great article on Fort Yargo's history.]

I have tried to no avail to find out about the letters carved in the side of the fort- if anyone has any info, please let me know in the comments! 

Once we had roamed the fort and surrounding property and taken several photos, we were suddenly very aware of our mistake in leaving our snacks behind. Thankfully, we had parked close to the fort and made a mad dash back to the car and the awaiting brownie my husband had so sneakily picked up at Firehouse and stashed in our vehicle prior to our hike. All in all, it was a great day and we will definitely be visiting this fantastic park again very soon! ...with snacks. 😉

If you're in, near, or planning on visiting Georgia and would like to check out Fort Yargo State Park, here are some great resources. Enjoy!

Thanks for stopping by, I hope you have a wonderful week!
xo, Steve