Sunday, May 19, 2013

Surprises on the Duncan Ridge Trail

The Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT), considered the toughest trail in Georgia, held some surprises for me this weekend. 

I hadn't even been considering doing part of the DRT.  The plan was for a relaxing trip with friends along the Chattooga.  However, rain and thunderstorms were predicted so (surprise!) my friends opted to stay home.  It was a good opportunity to give this trail another chance.

I hadn't heard anything about the scenery on the DRT, only about its difficulty, so I was blown away by the stunning wildflowers.   Hillsides bursting with blossoms and rare jewels like the yellow ladyslipper orchid.  I can't imagine I could have timed it better to see more floral diversity or abundance.  Light rain only served to intensify the vibrant colors, though the thunderstorms... well, I'll get to that later.
Yellow ladyslipper orchid along the DRT.
Trillium were especially abundant and diverse.
It even stopped raining for a while (surprise!) so I could take lots of photos of the ladyslipper orchids. 
Huge patch of pink lady slippers- and I'm not exaggerating-- more than I've ever seen my entire life combined.
Lovely, lovely ladyslippers.
The DRT has a reputation for its toughess, so I expected the steep slopes.  But at least east of Fish Gap (the section I did), the trail was narrow and mostly soft (rather than compacted and rocky like the AT)-- as if it doesn't see much traffic at all.  At least that made it easier on the feet and gave the trail that nice remote feel.
Narrow tread of the DRT.
There was even a view from Akin Mountain, which made the climb very worthwhile.
I did an out and back, and turned around at Fish Gap.  I probably had time to make it all the way to Rhodes Mountain, which would have completed this trail for me since I've hiked other sections previously (last October and November), but I opted to be cautious instead and camp at lower elevation so I'd be protected from wind and storms.  I turned around and hiked back to Mulky Gap.  There, I went down a gated gravel road to a great camping area.
 There was a spring lined with bright orange flame azalea and ferns, a grassy field, and (surprise!) even a sheltered hunting blind/ shack.  Well, it wasn't really a surprise since I'd read about it, but I was thrilled I found it.  I carefully positioned my hammock so that I'd be protected from wind, and enjoyed the evening sitting in a chair watching the dark clouds rolling over the field.
A chair, shelter, and field- what a luxurious campsite!
 Heavy rain and thunderstorms started during the night.  I could hear the winds up above, but they never even rustled my tarp, and I stayed totally dry.  Towards dusk, lightening flashes intensified, sheets of torrential rain came down, and thunder boomed.   It was one crazy, strong storm.

In the early morning, I considered my options, consulted maps, and texted with my friend.  Surprise- I had cell service! yay!  And surprise, more storms were in the forecast.  Boo!  But, there is a FS road that stays at lower elevation than the Duncan Ridge Trail, and mostly parallels it, so I decided to hike as fast as I could over West Wildcat Knob and Buck Knob, and then pick up the Duncan Ridge Road back to Wolfpen Gap.

I never liked roadwalking before, but it proved surprisingly scenic.  I saw flowers I hadn't seen up on the ridge including wild comfry, showy orchis, and wood betony.   Even more incredible were the lovely hillside of wild geranium, another hillside with dense solomon's plume, and yet another of blue-cohosh.
Roadwalking was surprisingly nice- especially since I like wildflowers... and mud and puddle-jumping.
At Wolf Pen Gap, thunder was still rumbling in the distance, so I turned down paved GA 180, rather than taking the trail up ridges where I would potentially be exposed to wind and lightening (even though it turns out, I didn't get any more storms.  Only rain.)  Walking along the road-- surprise-- I saw a bear.  Cool! I watched it run up the hillside.  Next, the road took me to the trailhead of another wildflower hotspot, Sosebee Cove, which I'd never been to, but which was magnificent!

Sosebee Cove, one of the top wildflower areas in Georgia, is a rich, moist north-slope cove forest harboring enormous yellow buckeye trees and tuliptrees (the area hasn't been logged since 1903).   I saw lots more wildflowers, many of which were different than I'd seen either up at high elevation on the DRT or along the FS road.  I'll definitely be making a return trip.
Sweet white trillium at Sosebee Cove
At Burnett Gap, I finally got to hop back on the Coosa Trail again, back down to my car at Vogel State Park.   Another wonderful trip, full of delightful surprises and exceptional wildflowers.  It wasn't what I planned at all-- but I'm glad it all turned out so well.  I felt really good for making the choices I did-- especially to camp down at Mulky Gap where I stayed safe during the intense storm, and also to do the roadwalking rather than risk being up on exposed ridges.  I learned that roadwalking could actually be a good alternative-- it gave me the opportunity to see more flowers and a different perspective.


  1. Wow, wow, wow! Those lady slippers! Dang! What an amazing area----shhh don't tell anyone else! ;) I wish I was around there, I would love to check those out.

  2. Really was a special area-- you're right, need to kept this trail secret. Think they are safe cause the trail is so tough, and is mainly used by ultrarunners. One runner passed me while I was at the huge patch and he didn't even glance over- such focus.

  3. So glad you had such a good trip, especially since your friends bailed on you. We are such sissies sometimes. ;)

  4. I'd say you were the smart ones to bail-- that was one scary thunderstorm. Plus, it worked out well that you were home providing weather reports for me. :)