Sunday, October 16, 2016

Chattahoochee National Forest, Brasstown Bald: Summit and Wagon Train Trails (Blog Hike #610)

Trails: Summit and Wagon Train Trails
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Brasstown Bald
Geographic Location: south of Hiawassee, GA
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: October 2016
Overview: A steep climb to Brasstown Bald followed by a fairly flat course to a secluded overlook.

Directions to the trailhead: From the intersection of SR 17 and SR 180, which is located 10 miles north of Helen or 9 miles south of Hiawassee, take SR 180 west 5.3 miles to SR 180 Spur.  Turn sharply right on SR 180 Spur.  Drive winding SR 180 Spur uphill for 3 steep miles to the huge parking lot for the Brasstown Bald Visitor Information Center.  Pay the $5 per person entrance fee and park as close to the restroom building on the right as you can.  The hike starts at the restroom building.

The hike: If you come to Brasstown Bald on most days, you may wonder why the parking lot was built five times larger than necessary.  If you come on a weekend in late October, you may feel lucky to get a parking space.  At 4784 feet, Brasstown Bald is not only the highest point in Georgia, but it is also one of the top leaf-peeping destinations in the entire southeast.  I had been trying to get to Brasstown Bald every fall since I moved to Georgia in 2005, and my first visit here in October 2016 did not disappoint.
            Brasstown Bald gets its name not from the fall leaf color but from a translation error for the name of an ancient Cherokee town located in this area.  English settlers confused the Cherokee word Itseyi (“new green place”) for the Cherokee word Untsaiyi (“brass”).  The mountain’s elevation gives it a climate more akin to Massachusetts than Georgia, causing the new green colors of spring to come later and yellow/orange/red fall colors to come earlier here than at surrounding areas.  Thus, Brasstown Bald occupies a special place in the north Georgia mountains.
            In addition to Brasstown Bald’s touristy summit that all visitors flock to, several hiking trails start at the huge parking lot and offer more solitude by exploring the mountain’s natural areas.  The Jack’s Knob Trail heads south for 4.5 miles to intersect the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap, the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.  The Arkaquah Trail heads west for 5.5 miles past a rocky overlook, while the Wagon Train Trail heads north and down for 6 miles to the campus of Young Harris College.  Only the asphalt Summit Trail goes to the summit of Brasstown Bald.  The hike described here combines the Summit Trail and part of the Wagon Train Trail to explore both the mountain’s touristy and wilderness sides.
Brasstown Bald summit tower, as seen from parking lot
            The Forest Service van shuttle to Brasstown Bald’s summit departs on the left side of the restroom building, while the asphalt Summit Trail starts on the right side at a signed trailhead.  The free van shuttle offers access to the summit for people in poor health, but people in good physical condition should choose the trail instead.  Not only will walking to the summit let you experience the mountain’s natural environment, but you also get the satisfaction of earning your views at the top.  Make no mistake: you will earn your views on the Summit Trail, as the 0.5 mile trail gains 424 feet of elevation. 
Summit Trail trailhead
The series of broad switchbacks begins immediately as the parking lot soon disappears from view.  At 0.1 miles, the signed Wagon Train Trail exits right.  This hike will go up the Wagon Train Trail later, but for now stay on the asphalt and continue pushing toward the summit.  The grade is persistently steep, but some benches and some interpretive signs offer reasons to stop and catch your breath when needed.  Walls of rhododendron and mountain laurel on either side of the trail forbid any views.
At 0.4 miles, you cross the asphalt shuttle road.  Signs warn that the shuttle road is closed to pedestrians, but I would not be tempted to hike up the road: it is just as steep but less scenic than the trail.  In another 0.1 miles, you reach the summit area, which contains a small picnic area, the van shuttle pick-up area, and a large summit building.
Built in 1966, the present Visitor Information Center at the summit replaced several earlier summit watchtowers and buildings, including one built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935.  The center features some exhibits and a theater that shows a short movie about the mountain’s four seasons, but the main attraction is the extensive outdoor observation deck, which offers 360-degree top-of-the-world views.  On my visit on a sunny mid-October afternoon, the leaves in the highest elevations had turned red, orange, and yellow, while the lower elevations were still completely green.  The most colorful leaves were on the mountain’s north face.  I was able to see mountains in four states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  I have read that you can see downtown Atlanta from here on a clear day, but it was not visible on my visit.  I spent much time and took many photos here, so enjoy the literal high point on this hike.
Parking area, as seen from summit

View west from summit

View north from summit

View east from summit
After you tear yourself away from the observation deck, head back down the Summit Trail.  When you reach the Wagon Train Trail at 0.9 miles, turn left to leave the asphalt and begin the Wagon Train Trail.  Unlike the summit and parking areas, the Wagon Train Trail is seldom-used, so any crowds that might have accompanied you so far will quickly be left behind.
After a brief moderate climb at the outset, you curve left and begin a steady gradual descent that will comprise the rest of our outward journey on the Wagon Train Trail.  The Wagon Train Trail is unblazed and lightly maintained because it travels through the federally designated Brasstown Wilderness, but it is wide and easy to identify because it follows an old wagon road for its entire distance.  This route was once planned to be upgraded to become Georgia SR 66, but those plans were cancelled in 1982 when this area gained wilderness status.
Hiking the Wagon Train Trail
The trail descends gradually along the east and north faces of Brasstown Bald.  1.3 miles into the hike, you walk around a metal vehicle gate and pass an information board shortly before you officially enter the Brasstown Wilderness.  Some rocky areas present themselves on this part of the trail.  Be careful if you are walking this trail during or just after leaf fall because leaf litter will cover up the rocks.
Now heading north atop one of Brasstown Bald’s finger ridges, the trail passes to the left of a small unnamed knob.  Some low cliffs rise to the right of the old roadbed here.  Look for drill marks in the rock to confirm that these cliffs were made by road-builders and not by God via natural forces.  Icicles cover these cliffs in the winter.
Cliffs beside roadbed
2.2 miles into the hike (or 1.3 miles from the start of the Wagon Train Trail), you arrive atop a cliff that creates a natural west-facing vista.  Young Harris and Brasstown Valley lie in the foreground, while ridge after ridge unfold in the background.  The view here is not as expansive as at the summit, but this overlook’s wilderness location means that you may have this view to yourself, which will almost surely not be the case at the touristy summit observation deck.
Wilderness vista
The Wagon Train Trail continues past the vista, but the entire 6 mile one-way trail is too long for a comfortable day-hike unless you can arrange a car shuttle down at Young Harris.  Thus, the vista makes a nice spot to turn around and begin the gradual climb back up to the Summit Trail.  Turn left on the Summit Trail and descend to the parking lot to complete your visit to the roof of Georgia.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I posted a couple of comments on your Black Rock Mountain posts a long while back under the name RyanT282. I forgot all about your blog until just recently and I'm glad I rediscovered it as you seemed to have posted loads of good hikes. I'm glad you finally got to go to Brasstown Bald! What a spectacular view! I've gone in '08 and in '13, both times in the middle of October, and the leaves were all aglow with color and the skies were clear and the temperatures were nice and cool. Mom went with me in '13 and actually hiked the super steep trail. We went to the Smokies last month for the first time and went to Clingman's Dome, but she struggled greatly hiking there. We both think that Brasstown Bald is even nicer than Clingman's, and not nearly as crowded. I went to Brasstown during the week in the morning, and it wasn't busy, thankfully. I absolutely recommend to anyone a trip to Brasstown Bald over Clingman's Dome.