Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Section Hiking the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama- Part 1

The Pinhoti Trail extends 335 miles through Alabama and Georgia along the southern tip of the Appalachian mountains.  It is part of the Great Eastern Trail, and connects to the Benton Mackaye Trail to the north.
The symbol marking the Pinhoti Trail is the turkey foot.
My five days and four night southbound section hike of the Pinhoti in Alabama took me from High Point (about 10 miles from the Georgia-Alabama border) to Cheaha State Park (highest point in Alabama).  I ended up hiking 69.6 miles of the Pinhoti (plus about 5 miles of roadwalking).  This included section 7 (at CR 24) to section 12. 
Winter views from the Pinhoti Trail.
I hiked solo for the first three days.  On the fourth day I met Fireflo and her dog Buddy at the Talladega Shoal Creek Ranger Station and we hiked the rest of the way together.  I’ll describe the first solo part of my hike and give an overview of the trail here (Part 1) and the last two days in the following post (Part 2).

Why the Pinhoti
I choose this trail for two reason.  First because it is a good place to hike in winter.  It is lower elevation and has more mild weather than other places in the southeast. 

I’ve also heard this trail offers quiet and solitude.  My experience confirmed this- I only saw other people a few times- one family out dayhiking and another family camping at a shelter.  Though there were the sound of gunshots from hunters in the distance and one time uncomfortably close (so wear blaze orange if you go).  Other than that, no one.   The solitude of the Pinhoti Trail seemed to facilitate a spirit of reflection and contemplation.  Something I tend to seek out this time of year. 
Crossing a meadow on a frosty morning.
Trail conditions and terrain
The trail itself was well marked and signed.  Shelters in this section were spaced about 10 miles apart.  I looked forward to reading the shelter registries telling stories from dayhikers, section hikers, and even a few long-distance hikers of the Great Eastern Trail.
Shelters and trail signs.
The forests the trail passed through were more variable than I anticipated.  There were restored longleaf pine forests that are home to a rare species of woodpecker and many birds and wildlife.  I startled ducks and great blue herons near mist-shrouded lakes.  River bottom land made for easy walking.  Pine trees, ferns, and evergreen bushes make the scenery greener than North Georgia this time of year.  The Dugger Wilderness portion climbed up to a ridge with lichen-covered rocks and winter views. 
Leaf-covered path through the boulders.
Compared to the Georgia Appalachian Trail or the Foothills Trail, climbs were more gradual and shorter, and the trail generally followed contour lines.  Sometimes, it was even flat.  However, the tread could be narrow and slippery so shouldn't be underestimated.  Bridges were infrequent, and wet-foot fords were required.  Most weren’t too difficult, but I was glad for my hiking poles.  On the last morning after major thunderstorms, streams surged to flood-stages and required road-walking to bypass the dangerous water levels.

My hike
I met Bob and Sue at Cheaha and they drove me to High Point.  They provided a wealth of information and I was delighted they could shuttle me- they are no longer doing this service except rarely to friends (or friends of friends).

Weather was variable.  Rain fell on and off the first day.  At night temperatures dipped below freezing and when I woke my tarp was coated in a thick frost, even though I'd done my best to camp high up near the top of a ridge away from water.   My feet got so cold and numb on the fords across the streams that I began to wonder what the heck I was doing out there.  I imagined there might be less painful ways to have fun.
One of many chilly wet-foot fords.
On Christmas day, the sun finally came out and the afternoon warmed up into the mid-50’s.  A patch of birdfoot violet was blooming on a sunny slope.  Flowers in December!  I could hardly believe my eyes.  Guess it really was more mild in Alabama.
Birdfoot violet.
This time of year so close to the winter solstice, nights are long.  By 4 PM, the light began to fade.  Depth perception become problematic by 4:30.  Darkness fell by 5 PM.  Following the narrow, leaf-covered trail in the dark was time consuming and ended up not being worth it to me.   So I didn’t do much nighthiking like I’d planned.  Instead, I set up camp early for the night.  13 hours of darkness. 
Sunset comes early.
So often, we hikers tend to focus on movement, on traveling, on being fast and efficient.  But in winter, resting and settling into the night can become something to be practiced and enjoyed.

As I relaxed into my hammock each night, I could feel my tight muscles slowly release.  Coyotes howled back and forth, then there was quiet.  Clouds blocked out the stars and sliver moon.  The darkness was thick.  I thought about how different life must have been before artificial light.  About how rare it is to have extended times to be still.  To go within.  To just be out there.  This appreciation for darkness is what I’ve come to love about winter trips.  The Pinhoti Trail is a great place to just be in winter.

The trip continues in Part 2...
For more information:

The forest service map of the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama has been updated in 2014.  The elevation profiles are a bit annoying because points of interest aren’t marked on them, only section mileages, which are not marked on the map.  (Guess I’ve been spoiled by these features on PCT maps.)  Reliability of water sources are also missing from the map, though these are given in the Alabama Trail Alliance’s Pocket Guide.

Alabama Trail Alliance- the Pocket Guides had information about water sources, road crossings, shelters, and directions to trailheads.  I printed them out and found them handy and reliable.

Pinhoti Trail subform on whiteblaze.

Christine (German Tourist) describes her thru hike of the Pinhoti here.


  1. Joan,
    You're living a life that most of us can only dream about. That looks like a great place for a winter hike and I loved the sunset behind the hammock pic.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Swampfox! Have you been to the Pinhoti? I think you'd like it- it has a different feel than the Foothills Trail for sure- the waterfalls are smaller and the trail is more gentle, but it has a quietness that is very charming.

      I was so excited by the way that sunset lit up the tarp. One of the few times the sun was out while I was up on a ridge with a clear view. Sunset seemed to go on and on that evening.

      Happy New Year to you and hope to see you out on the trail this year!

  2. Hey Joan,
    I've been to the Pinhoti, in fact, all I know is what you have posted here.
    (How embarrassing!)
    I plan to retire in a few months and spend a lot more time in places like this. To see you on the trail would be a trip highlight for sure.
    I hope you have a very Happy New Year and an awesome 2015.

    1. How exciting about retiring in a few months! Bet that will make it a really incredible 2015! :)

    2. I meant to say I've NEVER been to the Pinhoti. Yes, I'm excited about retirement.