Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Chattahoochee National Forest: Appalachian Trail to Wolfstake Knob Vista (Blog Hike #371)

Trail: Appalachian Trail to Wolfstake Knob Vista
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Dicks Creek Gap Picnic Area
Geographic Location: southeast of HiawasseeGA (34.91226, -83.61877)
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2012
Overview: A persistently steep out-and-back to an excellent eastward view.
Trailhead Information:
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Dicks Creek Gap Picnic Area is located on US 76 at the Towns-Rabun County line.  The county line lies 8 miles east of Hiawassee or 16 miles west of Clayton.

The hike: Located in the north Georgia mountains less than 10 miles from the North Carolina border, Dicks Creek Gap serves as a crossroads for two major highways of very different kinds.  US 76, the present-day major east-west automobile thoroughfare through the north Georgia mountains, and its predecessor SR 2 pass up and over the gap between Hiawassee and Clayton.  The Appalachian Trail (AT), the main hiking thoroughfare in the east, passes down and through gap as it heads north into North Carolina.  Thus, this spot marks the perfect place for day-hikers to access the master trail of the east.
            The picnic area operated by the Chattahoochee National Forest at Dicks Creek Gap only has a couple of picnic tables, an information board, and a parking area for 10-12 cars, but that is all you need to get started on this hike.  Be aware that the climb to the vista is rather steep in spots, as you will gain 1150 feet in 2.5 miles.  I hiked to this vista early in the hiking season when I was well out of condition, and it took me nearly 4.5 hours to complete this hike.  In reality, I have undertaken far harder climbs than this one, and most people in decent physical condition can make it to this vista by pacing themselves.
Trail marker near parking area
            Begin by carefully crossing US 76 and picking up the famous white blazes of the AT, heading south through second-growth forest with gnarly undergrowth.  Almost immediately you reach the first steep section, which you reach the top of at 0.2 miles.  After a brief flat area, the trail curves right and continues climbing with a small stream cascading down rocks to your left.  Just after the trail enters a rhododendron tunnel, a bench just downhill to your left gives an up-close view of a small cascade in the stream.
Small waterfall in rhododendron
            At 0.5 miles, the trail temporarily tops out as it reaches the head of the ravine containing the small cascade.  For the next 0.5 mile the trail descends and ascends gradually to moderately as it traces the rim of a larger ravine.  1 mile into the hike, the trail passes a spring on the left that can be used as a water source by backpackers.  A wooden sign marked “water” identifies this location.
            Past the spring, the trail climbs a pair of broad switchbacks before beginning the hardest part of the hike.  Over the next mile the trail gains more than 800 feet in elevation as it angles its way up the east side of Powell Mountain.  The climb is steep, but the trail is graded and improved, as evidenced by the large number of waterbars installed throughout this section of the AT.  Partially obstructed views of US 76 and Lake Burton can be had to your left as you climb, especially during the leafless months. 
Nearing the top of Powell Mountain
The climb seems to never end, but when the trail curves sharply right and passes an established campsite (recently used on my visit), the final push to the summit of Powell Mountain is at hand.  A thick understory of mountain laurel now surrounds the path.  2 miles into the hike, the trail tops Powell Mountain before dipping and climbing steeply through a high saddle.
Blue-blazed spur to vista
Immediately after climbing out of the saddle, the blue-blazed spur trail to the vista exits left.  A rock cairn and destroyed sign also mark this intersection, but the blue blaze stands out better than either of them if you are looking for it.  Turn left, climb for another 100 feet to reach an established campsite atop the knob, and then continue a short distance downhill to the vista. 
Vista near Wolfstake Knob
The view from here is superb.  The finger-ridge sticking out directly in front of you is Parks Mountain.  The lake you see in the distance is Lake Burton, which is framed by other more distant mountains to the east.  Take some time to enjoy your hard-earned reward.
Truth be told, if you stop at the vista, you have not made it to Wolfstake Knob: it lies another 0.25 miles south on the AT.  On my trip to the vista, I heard thunder and saw storm clouds building to my north, east, and west, so I had to cut my visit short and get to lower elevation to reduce my exposure.  The thunder kept rumbling and the clouds kept rolling, but the storm never came my way.  I had a steep but safe and dry trek back north on the AT to return to Dicks Creek Gap and complete the hike.

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