This is an account of my recent three-day trek on Section 2 of Georgia’s Duncan Ridge Trail. This trail forms a loop with the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) and the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). I’ll be completing the rest of the AT-BMT-DRT loop this year. When I do, you can read about it right here.
If you’ve ever found yourself longing for an escape from the unending noise, pressure, and fast pace of modern American life, and if you’re anywhere near North Georgia, boy do I have some exciting news for you. Last week I set out on what I was promised is Georgia’s toughest trail. The Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) did not fall short of my expectations. There are no sweeping vistas, not a single tumbling waterfalls, or any notable landmarks along the way, but what the DRT lacks in glamour, it more than makes up for in a mystical solitude, lush, abundant flora, and a challenging landscape that will test the most experienced hiker’s personal limits — and patience.
The DRT is a strenuous course and I don’t recommend anyone who hasn’t been on several overnight backpacking trips or who isn’t in moderately good health attempt even a day hike out there. Even if you’re in peak physical condition, this trail will push your endurance to its limits. Whoever designed the DRT wasn’t about dawdling or leisurely strolls in the woods — this is a straight-to-the-point kind of trail. It’s a direct route that, for the most part, follows Duncan Ridge from the western crest to the eastern crest of the Blue Ridge mountains. There are few switchbacks (what few there are take the hiker straight uphill, doing nothing to ease the burden aside from making travel on two feet possible) and even fewer resting places as the trail wanders directly over the summit of almost every mountain in or near its path.
Sign for the Swinging Bridge to the South
My wife dropped me off Tuesday morning where the trail crosses GA60 at Tooni Gap, 20 minutes north of Suches and a stones throw from the Toccoa River Swinging Bridge (the first part of the trail crosses the bridge). At its start, the trail looks deceptively tranquil and uncomplicated. A small wooden bridge crosses Little Skeenah Creek, the only major stream you’ll pass over during the entire length of Section 2. From there it’s a gentle climb up the first ridge . Looking around, I thought to myself maybe this wouldn’t be so tough after all, maybe I was in for a relaxing three days, the trail guides are sometimes overly generous in handing out ‘Difficult’ ratings after all. The DRT parallels the Benton MacKaye Trail (named after one of the architects of the AT) for the first 4 miles and my previous hikes on the BMT taught me that, while it’s a challenging trail, it’s only really strenuous in choice sections. This segment reminded me of those previous trips and I grinned to myself and pictured smooth sailing ahead.
Obviously, I was wrong. As I plodded up Wallalah Mountain, the first of many lengthy climbs ahead, a soft smattering of rain pellets echoed through the forest canopy. The forecast had called for rain the first afternoon but, for the most part, it held off. Just enough rain fell to cool things down for the rest of the afternoon, a welcome relief as I was already feeling the strain of my 40+ lb. backpack and the increasing slope of the trail.
At the top of Wallalah Mountain I came upon a rock outcrop that quickly opened up into a pleasant view of the knobs and valleys below, all nestled inside a tight frame of lush green leaves on either side. This is the only time the trail opens enough to offer what might pass for a scenic view until it meets up with the AT on Blood Mountain.
View from Wallalah Mountain
I allowed myself a brief respite to enjoy the view before moving on. From there the trail flattened out for a bit, but quickly resumed its uphill trajectory directly up the main ridge of Licklog Mountain. This was the first strenuous section and it rivaled any climb elsewhere on the BMT. The trail was still blazed with the white diamond of the BMT, with no sign that this was actually the Duncan Ridge Trail in sight. I began to wonder if maybe I’d already missed the turnoff. I glanced at my map to be sure and discovered I’d traveled less than 3 miles and already I felt like I’d put in a full day of work. It was still well over a mile before the two trails parted ways. My insides knotted up and I found myself dreading the rest of the hike. Little did I know, it would only grow more difficult, the climbs more ridiculous, the trail barely passable, once the BMT split off and left me to grapple with the Duncan Ridge alone.
From Licklog Mountain, the trail dipped down again, quickly moving back uphill toward the summit of Rhodes Mountain. Somewhere near the summit I reached a clearing with a small camping spot and a narrow trail wandering into the trees on the right. I peered through the heavy cover and wondered if this the exit for the DRT proper. I didn’t see any blazes, but I’d read that the DRT wasn’t well-blazed and that, just like this thing that barely passed for a trail, it was narrow and overgrown. Could this be it? Surely no trail, least of all a National Recreation Trail (how it earned that designation, I haven’t a clue), could be so rough, unkempt, and impassable. Finally I decided to continue on the main path to the left. If for some reason that godforsaken path was my trail, I could always turn back.
The BMT continued downhill and shortly after passing a (much more well-maintained) side trail marked with a blue “W” for water, I finally stumbled across a sign for the Duncan Ridge Trail. I looked to my left and seriously pondered changing my plans to a long-distance hike on the BMT. Its gentle slope and wide drift around the steep hill the DRT appeared to be heading straight up looked so tempting. Instead I trudged up that hill with a grimace on my face like a crotchety old man. Halfway up, at what appeared to be the summit of Rhodes Mountain, I found myself already struggling to breathe and dreading the next twenty-two miles. I considered whether stopping for the day, just 4 miles in and only now at the actual DRT, wouldn’t be an entirely unreasonable proposition. Knowing that if I stopped here I’d have to make up that lost time over the next two days, a horrifying prospect, was the only thing that kept me moving.
Hand-carved Duncan Ridge Trail Sign
In contrast to the trail I’d just left, the new path was rough, rocky, rugged, and steep, with downed trees and all sorts of vegetation threatening to swallow it up from either side. It was like taking an exit off a major highway straight onto a washed out dirt road. My pace slowed to a crawl and I was all but certain I’d never reach the end in time. At least it can’t get any worse, I thought.
The trail now moved steadily to the east. It was obvious from the downward slope on either side that it followed Duncan Ridge, almost exactly. Around Rhodes Mountain Gap, the trail began winding side-to-side with some fairly easy ups-and-downs. It was a welcome relief, but I was dragging and my pace slowed considerably. Eventually, I stumbled across 4 huge jugs of water and a deck of playing cards tucked inside a ziploc bag. They were enveloped by bright orange markers labeled “GTRA.” See, there’s a 50K/30K trail race in November where people somehow manage to run almost the whole length of the Duncan Ridge Trail. How, or why, anyone might do something like that exceeds my ability to comprehend. Of course, I’m sure there are folks who feel the same way about me hiking the entire thing and spending two nights alone out there. Different strokes. Anyway, I presume the water is for folks practicing for the trail run and probably marks the turn-around point of the course. I scratched my head and moved on.
From here, the trail heads up and over Gregory Knob and Payne Knob, both fairly moderate climbs and descents, into Sarvis Gap at about mile 7. At Sarvis Gap there is a clearly marked side trail to a water source. If I haven’t successfully warned you away from it and you decide to accept the DRT challenge, I strongly encourage you to fill up on water here. My trail guide promised water sources at “regular intervals,” but I didn’t see another one for about 10 miles. Presuming there would be abundant opportunities for water ahead, I did not fill up and found myself regretting such poor planning the next day.
Sarvis Gap seemed like a promising spot to stop and set up camp for the evening, but I opted to keep at it a while longer. Parke Knob is the first (and maybe only) summit the trail actually doesn’t go out of its way to scale. The path continues along its northern slope and finally crosses its first dirt road at Fish Gap. There was a wide clearing with a fire circle that, at 8 miles into the trail, looked like a cozy spot to set up camp.
As soon as I got my camping hammock set up and allowed myself to relax, thinking I might even start a campfire, the skies darkened and rain started trickling down. I rushed to set up my tarp. Now, I got a great deal on the thing, and it’s likely excellent for whatever its intended purpose is, but it’s entirely inadequate as a rain cover for my hammock. I had a miserable experience getting soaked in my sleep one night on the BMT one night, this tarp utterly failing to put up any resistance to a heavy downpour, but I stuck with it. As long as it doesn’t rain too hard or too long, it does a decent job keeping me and my gear dry (and doubles as an emergency blanket). Fortunately, the rain held off and only a few drops made it through the tree cover. After a delicious freeze-dried Curry Cashew Chicken dinner, I slung my pack from a tree for safe-keeping and curled up with my Ron Rash book, happy to finally take the load off my weary feet.
That first night was peaceful, but it was anything but quiet. A chorus of crickets chirped back-and-forth, back-and-forth, thundering through the woods like an aural tennis match inside my head. There must have been millions of the creatures nestled throughout the forest and, while incredibly noisy, their song was deeply hypnotizing and I soon found myself in a deep slumber, barely stirring in the night.
In the morning I found myself well rested and surprisingly eager to get back on the trail. After a quick breakfast of 7 grain cereal and homemade granola mix, I packed my things and was on my way.
This is where the trail truly starts to building character. Just out of Fish Gap the path is flat, but the footing is rugged and uneven with a steady flow of flowers, weeds, and briars nipping away at ankles. This section is anything but the leisurely stroll it would otherwise appear. What could have been a chance to make up lost time was missed by an utter inability to move at a reasonable pace for fear of tearing the flesh clear off my legs.
Deceptively serene flower poking into the trail
After about a mile of that, each legs now bloody and scratched from ankle to knee, the path swerves sharply to the right. This is the start of an ascent up Clements Mountain. It climbs steadily uphill to a point I where thought the path may offer me a small reprieve, passing below the summit. Instead, the path turns sharply back to the left and aims straight for the top. This would be awful enough in the early spring or late fall/winter, but at this time of year the brush threatened to swallow me whole (this is barely an exaggeration). Late summer is perhaps the worst time to attempt this hike, and here I was. For every foot I marched toward the top, it seemed the weeds grew an inch. Finally, I reached a small rock outcrop near what I thought to be the top that offered a break from the brush. It wasn’t the top, but there was a nice, if restricted, view of the skyline to the south. Continuing on, I found the weeds now above my shoulders. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, guess what — a downed tree blocked my path. This was no ordinary downed tree, either. Most times it’s a breeze to climb over or pass around one of these things when they block your path. Not so this time. Going around simply wasn’t an option. There was nowhere to go. With no other choice, I had to climb over. Between trying to balance my backpack and manage my hiking poles, this proved quite a challenge, even for a climbing enthusiast, and I very nearly took a nasty tumble.
Tree blocking the way up Clements Mtn
When I finally reached the summit, I found a log to plop down on and took a well-earned rest. I would have stayed there all day if not for a pesky (and very aggressive) fly, one of those that looks like a miserably angry imitation of a yellow jacket, hadn’t run me off. I was pretty sure they didn’t sting, but not sure enough to risk being certain. I was reluctantly off again, inching toward the top of Akin Mountain. The path felt seemed similar to the previous ascent, and was just as badly in need of a trimming, but this time it seemed more easily. Looking back, Clements Mountain was probably the most challenging section of the entire trail. Not because the climb up was particularly steep, but the constant, steady rise and the impossible jungle along the way made it almost impossibly strenuous.
Akin mountain descends steeply into Mulky Gap Road by a series of winding switchbacks. On the way down it’s easy to miss some of the turns. Fortunately my trail guide mentioned this, but I still briefly lost my way. Reaching a point with no discernible trail, I looked around to realize the tree holding a crucial blaze had fallen beside the trail. I quickly regained my footing and hoped the next hiker didn’t have the same problem.
A fitting tribute to the DRT
Mulky Gap is the halfway point of the trail. Just before getting there, I passed a sign aimed at travelers heading west (most likely the elusive Duncan Ridge trail runners) that read “You Are Not Almost There.” I couldn’t imagine a more fitting tribute to the DRT. I descended into Mulky Gap and crossed the vacant dirt road for a painfully steep climb up West Wildcat Knob. Here the trail gains over 700 feet in a short distance. It’s probably one of the steepest segments of a trail with a plethora of steep segments. It’s a strenuous, but not difficult climb. The notable lack of vegetation and trees covering the path no doubt makes it seem more reasonable. At the top of the knob, the trail turns into a roller coaster of quick, easy ups and downs, passing over Buck Knob, and skirting Duncan Ridge Road for the first time near Bryant Gap.
From here the trail changes dramatically, but remains just as challenging. Duncan Ridge Road generally follows the ridge line, leaving the trail to follow a narrow path cut into a steep slope to the north. Several trees leaned precariously over and alongside the trail here. I dreaded stumbling across one that had fallen in such a way that it took the whole trail with it. There were several good candidates, but they behaved that afternoon and I was able to stay on the trail. That didn’t make this section any easier, though — one misstep and the valley below threatened to pull me in.
It was here that my water started running low. While the guide book promised several water sources just across Duncan Ridge Road, I couldn’t find one. I passed through several gaps and near or over a few hills, occasionally crossing the road where it seemed a tattered path might lead somewhere promising. None of them did. I started to grow nervous and prayed I’d find water soon. Coosa Bald was approaching frighteningly fast and I knew there would be no water once I started the long climb to the top.
Finally, there was a gap at about mile 17, Whiteoak Stomp, marked with a blue “W.” It let down a steep hill to a tiny trickle of a spring at the bottom. I struggled for maybe ten minutes, fighting my way through a laurel thicket, to find a spot that made filling my water bottle up possible, never mind quick. After an hour I had collected and purified three liters of water. A sense of relief washed over me as those first gulps of cool, fresh mountain spring water washed over my insides, and I was back on my way.
As I made my way back up toward the gap, I realized the added water had substantially increased the weight of my pack. Not only was it a tough climb back up, the steep trek up Coosa Bald still beckoned. In just under a mile the trail gains over 1000 feet. It’s steep and unpleasant, with no break in the sharp upward grade. I was able to make it with a few but with a few brief, wobbly breaks, deeply thankful for no weeds or brush along the way.
Bark peels from a yellow birch tree on Coosa Bald
On top of Coosa Bald, a grove of yellow birch trees greeted me, pale bark peeling deliberately from their trunks. My legs and feet felt much the same, the skin, muscles, and tendons swollen and ready to peel away from the bone at any moment. I passed a makeshift campsite, but decided to keep moving a while longer. Where the trail intersects the 12.9-mile Coosa Backcountry Trail I veered off the DRT a short way in hope of a good camping spot. The Coosa Trail did not disappoint.
A few narrow rock outcrops opened to the east, offering tantalizingly brief glimpses of Sosebee Cove below. A wide open site with a fire circle and plenty of perfectly-spaced trees waited for me here. It was barely 6pm and I was amazed that I was somehow running ahead of my self-imposed schedule. I slung up my hammock and tried to start a fire with the damp kindling someone had generously laid out, but no luck. Lacking the energy to give it much of an effort I gave up without much of a try.
The wind was howling and a steady breeze blew up there at 4271 feet and I worried it may be much colder overnight. Again, I didn’t have the energy to do much about that, so I fixed up a freeze-dried meal of red beans & rice and tossed back some homemade granola and instant mate (yes, it’s a thing) . As the sun crept below the western ridge, the breeze died down and I was able to get warm despite a lingering dampness that clung to everything. I cracked open my Ron Rash book but was asleep before I could make it past the first few pages.
I learned that night why they call it a “Super Moon.” Around 2 in the morning, the moon was high in the night sky, brightly beaming through the trees, directly into my hammock. I can’t recall ever sleeping under a moon so bright it roused me from my sleep. As I peeked over the edge of my hammock I was struck by the deafening silence. No insects chirping, no frogs croaking, no wind howling, not a sound, save the occasional rustle of a bird and the even less frequent “who cooks for you, who cooks for you” of a barred owl in the distance.
The next morning I hurried to fix a breakfast, same as I had the day before, and headed out. With a couple 4000+ foot mountains yet ahead of me, I wasn’t sure how long the remaining 6 or 7 miles might take. I set off and met back up with the Duncan Ridge. Almost immediately it sloped steeply downhill on what seemed to be a precarious old roadbed, straight into a lush bloom of late-summer wildflowers.
Wildflowers near the base of Coosa Bald
The path leveled out and slowly narrows, beginning a long, winding journey into Sosebee Cove. This are is renowned for its rare beauty and it completely lived up to the hype. The forest, the earth, the trees, the flowers, everything sang to my soul. I quickly fell into a magical space where I lost all track of time or sense of worry. This, I thought to myself, is what the Irish mean when they use the word tenalach — a mystical relationship one has with the land, air, or water, a deep connection that allows one to literally hear the earth sing. The earth played a symphony through that cove and I wished I could linger the rest of the day.
After was felt like hours, maybe days, but was really less than a mile, I reached Highway 180 at Wolfpen Gap, the AT still a glimmer in the distance. I faced one more challenging climb up Slaugther Mountain. The trail shot straight up, sandwiched between piles of boulders of all sizes, some as large as small cabins. Another 1000 foot climb and the only thing that kept me moving up was knowing this was likely the last one. Several large boulders sat quietly perched at the top. One had a tree growing straight through the top. A symbol of perseverance and sheer determination, it struck me as a fitting finale to my trip across Duncan Ridge.
That’s one persistent tree
Working my way down Slaughter Mountain and into Slaughter Gap, the Coosa Trail split back off and I was met with a trail that split four ways, but a sign that only directed me in three. I took my best guess and quickly found a blue rectangular blaze, one of a dwindling few, confirming I was still on the DRT. Our journey together was coming to a close and I felt a tangible sense of loss and longing before I even set foot off the trail. It had been just 3 short days, but somehow the trail was already a part of me. I’m sure what I felt pales in comparison to what thru-hikers on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails experience, but this is a lonely, poorly-loved trail that rivals any footpath in the American South. It is unique and it shines quietly in the center of Georgia’s Blue Ridge.
The end of the DRT was unassuming and modest, betraying the wild, hulking trail that lay beyond. I hurried up the winding path to the top of Blood Mountain, eager to be someplace familiar. Nearing the shelter at the summit I heard my first human voices in 3 days. I was confounded that I could walk 20+ miles anywhere in Georgia and not stumble into one other person the whole time. The DRT gave solitude and isolation a whole new meaning for me and I don’t imagine there are many places in the south that offer such an experience. This is, without a doubt, something worth preserving and protecting no matter how little use it sees — or precisely because of that.
The best views of the whole trip were, of course, from the top of Blood Mountain. It’s one of the most popular day-hike spots on the southern portion of the AT and its reputation is well-deserved. The sweeping, wide-open vistas abound, and they’re all are breathtaking. It’s well worth a trip to the top, regardless which side you climb.
One of many fabulous views on Blood Mountain
My feet, my legs, my everything were exhausted, but surprisingly I was not that sore. The rocky trip down Blood Mountain changed all that. With a heavy pack strapped to my back and a wife I hadn’t seen in several days at the bottom, it was difficult not to hop from one wobbling rock to the next, nearly running down the eastern slope. Near the base lies a humongous rock (most folks who take the Byron Herbert Reece Trail to the parking area miss is) that’s impossible to miss. It’s easily the size of a house and, while I haven’t scaled it yet, it’s on my short list.
Before the highway at Neel Gap, I happened upon a sprawling colony of young chanterelle mushrooms. If you don’t know what chanterelles are, firstly shame on you, but second, you must taste some now. Finding them wild is probably your best be, as they easily go for an arm and a couple of legs at most select produce stores ($22/oz at Whole Foods last I checked). Needless to say, I’ll be back to this spot several times before winter sets in. Another excuse to visit the DRT when the leaves turn, perhaps. (The number and variety of mushrooms along the trail left me breathless — I’ve provided a generous supply of pictures at the end of this post)
Finally, I made my way down the last hill and past the roaring traffic on US19. I collapsed into the waiting arms of a happy and almost certainly relieved wife and devoured an ice-cold box of Coco Cafe (coconut water + espresso, yes it’s as awesome as it sounds) and we headed for our favorite burger spot in Dahlonega. Despite the pain, the hassles, the isolation, and downright frustration I faced on the DRT, I can’t help but plan for a return trip already. It may not look like much, and most folks will think folks who love this trail are masochists or simply not-all-there, but the Duncan Ridge Trail is a magical place and few places provide such a challenge and sense of accomplishment. As long as trails like this exist, I hope I’m able to keep my feet moving and devour every inch they have to offer.
Wildflowers in bloom on Blood Mountain
Things I took along for the trail (the bare necessities):
65L Boreas Backpack — hiking with this thing is a breeze!
Flashlight and headlamp
Several packs of Raw Coconut Butter (great energy boost), granola bars, homemade granola mix and trail bars, three freeze-dried meals for dinner (one for each night +1 extra)
Three liters of water (in retrospect I should have carried at least 4)
Camelbak UV Water Purifier (I got water from a spring, but it’s always best to purify)
Camping Hammock with Bug Net
Regular Coleman Sleeping Bag (temps got down to 55 at night, I was plenty warm)
Wildflower near Slaughter Gap
Tarp in case of rain, double as emergency blanket
Cell phone with two backup batteries
Ron Rash book
Map of the area (Natl Geo map #777 – Spring & Cohutta Mountains)
First Aid Kit
This is an account of my three-day journey on Section 2 of Georgia’s Duncan Ridge Trail. The trail forms a sort of triangle with the 300-mile Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) and the 2100-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). I plan to complete the rest of the AT-BMT-DRT triangle later this year and, of course, you’ll be able to read about that right here.
As promised, pictures of mushrooms…