Saturday, August 6, 2011

AT Series- Unicoi to Tray Gap

Both long-time Trail Dames and women entirely new to the Appalachian Trail (AT) came up for our Georgia Trail Dames AT Series hike.  By the end, everyone seemed like old friends!  We met up at Unicoi Gap parking area (2949 feet) on GA 75 north of Helen.  Then, Kellye, Jules, and Linda shuttled cars to Indian Grave Gap, while we waited for everyone to arrive.  After passing out hiking poles, our hike leader Kellye gave the introductions, and then ten Dames set out for our hike.

Dames ready to take on the AT.
The first 2.7 miles up and over Rocky Mountain (4017 feet) to Indian Grave Gap were by far the most difficult.  The trail is rugged-- rocky and rooty-- and climbs so steeply, especially in the first mile, that some places had stairs created by rocks.   We stopped often, and sat down for snack break at a small spring 0.5 miles into the climb and it was fun to get to talk to everyone. 

After two hours of climbing, we reached the summit of Rocky Mountain, and stopped for lunch in a grassy spot.  It was the first time several Dames had scaled 1000 feet and they did such a great job!!!!

Woo hoo!!
On top of the mountain, we lingered at the viewpoint, watching a distant Mount Yonah fade in and out of view as clouds moved across the sky.   Bees buzzed around the mountain mint near the rocky overlook.

As is typical, it was pleasantly cool in the mountains compared to the heat we've had down in the city.  Other hikers don't seem to be aware of this, and the trail was virtually empty.

The descent to Indian Grave Gap (2.7 miles into the hike) was just as steep and slippery as the ascent, but the going was easier and the sound of laughter and conversations filled the trail.  As we rested at the Gap, Kellye passed around water bottles that she'd stashed in her jeep.  By the way, this was the first time Kellye was leading a hike for the Dames, and we were all so grateful for the super job she did! 

We also had another treat at the gap- we got to see incredibly beautiful yellow fringed orchids in an open spot along the roadside!  Yellow fringed orchids have really long nectar-holding spurs (i.e. long tube thingies), so only those butterflies with really long tongues (like some swallowtails) can reach the nectar in the bottom.  When butterflies lap up the sugary nectar, sticky pollen sacs get attached to their eyes.  Then, the butterflies visit other flowers, brushing the pollen onto the other plant allowing for pollination.  Cool!

Yellow fringed orchid
From Indian Grave Gap, the trail traveled through a mountain laurel and rhododendron tunnel full of mushrooms and galax.  We saw the "cheese factory" site (mile 3.6) which was just a large grassy campsite now, but in the 1840's had been a dairy where they made cheese.  But we kept calling it the "cheesecake factory"-- ha ha!   A big slice of cool creamy cheesecake sure would have hit the spot!  After climbing again (would it never end!), we reached another rocky outcrop with a view of Tray Mountain and waves of bright green trees.

We met up with Kellye and Jules, who had decided to take the car up to meet us at Tray Gap (mile 4.4).  Jules told us about a huge beautifully patterned rattlesnake she'd seen and photographed before it slid into the bushes.  What a neat find!

Kellye shuttled half the group back, while the rest of us traced our steps back to Indian Grave Gap.  Then we all squeezed into cars for the bumpy ride down the forest service road, over a ford, and back to Unicoi Gap.  It was such a fantastic hike with a great group of women!

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