At the mid-point of my 2 weeks down here in Athens, GA, I've been planning for months to spend it on unknown trails with no concern for time, commitments, or places I have to be. I just wanted to run and see a different part of the country yet to be explored (by me) and soak in all that nature could deal me. A few months back, I reached out to a common contributor on the ultra-list that I get on e-mail every day that lives nearby down here and we planned to spend a day on "his" trails. Even though we connected on Thursday with the plan to still run on Thursday, I got hung out to dry when he totally dropped the ball and come Friday night, zero contact. (I feel safe in saying that this would not happen in the NE Ohio ultra-running community) I sensed this might happen mid-week so I started browsing websites and maps online to find out where I might find some trails. I found this huge "blob" of green on the map called Chattahoochee National Forest...about an hour north of Athens. I hit the road before sunrise on Saturday morning and headed north....on a search for rugged, rooty, rocky trails.
The weather forecast couldn't have been better: 55F and sun. I headed out and about 65 miles later just after sunrise, I huge grin came across my face. As I crested a hill heading north, the sun illuminated a string of mountains....ahhhh, now THAT'S what I'm looking for. I continued on and just before entering the Forest, I found Unicoi State Park which borders the National Forest. Turns out, they have a lodge there so I headed to the front desk for some type of map and a very helpful gentleman was extremely helpful. He had a really well-done map of the trails within the park. I noticed that there were waterfalls nearby called Anna Ruby Falls which I inquired about. His response was "Well, that's on federal land and the trail up to it is very strenuous and is 10 miles round trip and will take you all day." Bingo! I told him that's exactly what I'm looking for. What a non-runner calls steep, strenuous, and long, a trail runner calls paradise. I happily paid my $3 parking fee, geared up, and headed upward on yet another WaterFalls Trail Run. (you all know how much I love these waterfalls!) The man who helped me mentioned something about 3000' of elevation at the falls which I took to mean a 3000' elevation gain on the run. Well, not exactly. Point to point, Smith Creek Trail has about an 1100' foot elevation gain over 5 miles. It was mostly uphill on the way up to the falls. Terrain varied greatly from red clay, to lots of roots (like Pine Lane), to rocks (like the Appalachian Trail), to trail less than a foot wide with steep drop offs. As you can see in some of my pics, the angle was very steep crossing over the trail so to compensate, I had to run a lot of it leaning uphill. There was also a lot of time running beneath rhododendrons which would have clipped me had I not ducked down for a lot of it. I also found it peculiar that the blue blazes marking this trail were scraped off with blue flakes of paint at the base of each tree previously marked. I have to wonder if they are trying to shut down this trail. Luckily, the scrapes are fresh on the tree so I could easily stay on trail. The trail also appeared to not get much traffic which is sad because I absolutely loved this trail. It was everything I was looking for: technical, very hilly, rocky, rooty, stream crossings, gorgeous views, and the cherry on top...the waterfalls at the top. Video below is of a brief section of this trail while running followed by the Anna Ruby Falls. Don't ya just love the sound of crashing water? (I didn't ruin it by talking!)
After my return back to my aid station (aka: Kia rental car trunk), I ran the rest of the trails inside of Unicoi State Park. Frog Pond Nature Trail: a short little trail past....guess what, a frog pond! (no frogs spotted, though) Bottoms Loop Trail (an offshoot arc off of the main Helen Trail...nice-n-rooty. Helen Trail: this trail bordered Smith Creek (the water from the waterfall) and was non-technical but very hills and gorgeous. I also noticed all of the soil had a glitter to it...clearly a rock/mineral in the soil. The Helen Trail ended at the Alpine Village of Helen...all German. By first glance, I decided right there that my post-run grub/refreshments would be had right there. I headed back 3 miles to the lodge and having run every trail within the park, had lunch (banana, orange, Kashi bar), and jumped in the Kia and headed north and up into the Forest.
I really had no idea what I'd find but I was optimistic. The roads twisted and turned through the mountains, cell phone signal was lost, the skies were the brightest of blues...does it get any better than this? Well, it did. I crested a hill with a downhill on the other side and I spotted a trail head. Another quick glance and I spotted a white blaze. White blaze = Appalachian Trail!!!! NOW we're talkin'!!! I did a u-turn and found my spot in the gravel parking lot. Across the road was a sign marking the current elevation of 2900 feet which is just over where I ended up at Anna Ruby Falls. I wandered over to a big boulder at the trail head and found this plaque installed marking the AT. For you non-runners, non-trail-runners, I'd equate this to my wife finding a "can't be missed" Kohl's sale or a sale at Bath & Body Works (ever notice they ALWAYS have a sale?!?!?). I was thrilled to end my day on this famous trail. The Appalachian Trail runs from Maine to Georgia and is about 2,170 miles long. This section is maintained by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club which was founded all the way back in 1930. One thing about the AT is that it essentially is always going straight up or down. It's access points are "gaps" where the roads run through and trails crest mountain tops in between. Up to this point in the day, I was in the 16 mile range but it was a good beating-of-a day with lots of technical muscle-burning running so I was already feeling a bit weary. I had grand aspirations of 30-40 miles today but 10 minutes on the AT, I quickly realized two things: #1: ice is on the trail (it's not 55F up here!) and my nose and fingers are freezing. I was on the side of the mountain where the sun was not shining. #2: I am wussin' out today...I'm beat and tired and I've been on this technical stuff for over 4 hours already. Yea, yea, yea...I know...only 4 hours...I'm mortal, OK? Plus, it's been 2 weeks from a hard-run BT50K and it takes me 3 solid weeks to be all the way back so cut me some slack, will ya?!? I resolved to get to the summit if for no other reason but to see the view which I knew would be magnificent. It's one thing to see the mountains from the car and it's quite another to look straight across the mountain tops from the top of another mountain. I continued on up...straight up to the summit of Rocky Mountain for 1.5 miles.
A few minutes before the top, I took seat on a log just to catch my breath. By this point, my heart was beating a mile-a-minute, I was warmed up, and I just needed a break. As I sat there, I just sat and listened: absolute silence. Not a sound. Not anything. I love to soak in and remember these moments. I think about the thousands who have and who continue to tread through here over the years. I think about the timeless nature of this place. It is the same regardless of technology, war, politics, and everything else you can think of with the exception of one thing...the seasons. Time seemed to just sit still...motionless. At this moment, I missed nothing of my material things...wireless internet, car, cell phone, laptop. My cell is strapped to my arm but is useless in this place. It is a place that exists on its own terms and its terms alone...un-impacted by the world surrounding it. Back to the trail...
I continued on to the summit and amazingly, the temperature quickly rose in the sunlight. Remnants of a recent campfire were there along with an awesome view of mountains in the distance. A quick look at my Garmin indicated 4,032 feet. That means that in a mile and a half, around 1100 feet of elevation gain. Yikes!
A lot of hikers hike the AT for multiple days and camp on the trail so that's why the campfire wasn't surprising to see. After the summit, the trail took a steep dive downward...to the next Gap. I decided I didn't want to summit this mountain twice so I turned back and headed on back to where I started. Once back, I crossed the road and continued up the other side on the AT just to round out my miles for the day. Once again...up and up. I snapped this one photo just to give you an idea of the "gnarly" nature of the AT. Do you see any dirt at all or can you even see the trail??? Rock, rock, rock. You can't take your eyes off the trail for fear of tripping and face planting yourself on one of these rocks. Just before I finished, the trail gave me one final goodbye when I stepped on a somewhat pointed rock and it nailed my forming blister on my left foot. Oh...some things said on the trail are meant to stay on the trail! OUCH!
All in all, I only logged 20 miles for the day. I didn't leave Athens in the morning with a goal of finding prime 100-mile training ground but I found it. Places like the AT that demand long-slow-continuous uphill walking are prime training ground for 100-milers. Back home, many people walk on inclined treadmills for extended periods of time to try and replicate this. I got some today without even looking for it. The day was filled with ruggedness and I definitely took a beating but I wouldn't change a thing. I loved every second of it and looking back, I'm glad I ended up by myself. The concentration in 100 mile training should be more on the type of training and time on the feet, not what the actual mileage is so I'm happy with the day.
Afterwards, I headed back down Route 17 about 10 miles to the Alpine Village of Helen. Definitely a bit of a tourist trap but also some pure German shops and residents so surely, a good restaurant could be found to refuel after a long day. By around 2:30pm, I found a local place called the Troll Tavern and picked it based on it being packed with people...meaning good eats! I refueled and headed on back south to Athens.
Today in Athens will bring a high temp of 62F and full sun so a recovery run is certainly in order. I'm thinking another 10 mile run through the University of Georgia is in order for today. I haven't run down there in daylight yet so today should look all-new to me. Afterwards, I'm going to try and get back to Borders and try to finish Randy Pausch's "The Last Lecture."