Last night Ted warned me he was an early riser. He did not misrepresent himself. The lights went on in the room at 5am, which meant I had a lot of time to kill before breakfast. I think I spent forty-five minutes lying quietly on my back in my bunk trying to psych myself up for the first day of hiking.
Breakfast was served buffet-style at 7am, and I broke my long-standing personal rule against mediocre food photography (the only type of food photography I know how to do!) to get a poorly-composed shot of my pancakes, eggs and oatmeal. I thought it would be nice to have something to gaze at each night after a deeply unsatisfying dinner of heat-and-eat trail food.
After breakfast, Derek asked for a show of hands as to who planned to do the approach trail and who just wanted to be dropped off near the official trailhead.
The approach trail, which starts at the base of Amicalola Falls, isn’t technically part of the Appalachian Trail, and whether or not one should do it as part of a thru-hike is another classic backpacking wank. It adds an additional 8.5 to 8.8 miles to the 2185.3 miles of official trail, depending on which source you want to believe, and starts off with a difficult climb up 600+ wooden stairs followed by approximately 7.25 miles of strenuous uphill hiking.
If you don’t want to tackle that on your first day, you can start from the Springer Mountain parking lot on USFS 42. It cuts out all that elevation gain you have to make if you start at the bottom of the falls, but instead requires some backtracking. The parking lot is 0.9 miles north of the start of the trail, so you’ve got to hike south for nearly a mile and then retrace your steps.
I opted to do the approach trail for three reasons:
- Amicalola Falls is the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast. It’s 729 feet tall! The chances I will ever find myself back in this area are vanishingly small, and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see it (mostly so I can endlessly brag about having seen it). I have a soft spot for superlatives and am easily manipulated by marketing campaigns. Best donut? Tallest building? Deepest freshwater lake? Longest blood sausage? YES PLEASE. TAKE ME THERE NOW.
- I don’t like to backtrack. I have very strong, very negative feelings about having to hike the same section of trail twice. I don’t care if it’s less than a mile, I’m not doing it twice and nobody can make me. I did some checking and found that a guy did get lowered down to the starting point by helicopter one year, but it only took two phone calls before I accepted that the helicopter option was going to be prohibitively expensive.
- The Amicalola Falls Visitor Center has a stamp. This year is the first year of the Appalachian Trail Passport program, wherein participating businesses along the trail can create a customized rubber stamp and hikers can spend six dollars to buy a small six-page booklet that will hold up to 48 stamps. This is directly based on the Pilgrim Passport used along the Camino de Santiago, and all the profits from passport sales is donated to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. According to Hiking the Camino,
The Pilgrim Passport, or “credencial,” is a document produced by an official pilgrim body, which is stamped at each of your overnight stays, as well as at churches, museums, restaurants and other attractions. The document serves both as a souvenir and as proof that you have done the route on foot. You must show your stamped credencial at the pilgrim office in Santiago in order to receive official recognition of your pilgrimage (a document called the Compostela available to those who have walked at least 100km or biked 200km to Santiago).
You really only need to fill one passport to qualify for a Compostela. I, on the other hand, was a little over-enthusiastic and filled three. Pass a cafe, ask for a stamp. Pass a church, ask for a stamp. Go to a restaurant, ask for a stamp. I couldn’t make myself stop stamping. I’m not proud of it. I drank a lot of café con leche and Fanta Limon I didn’t really want just to be able to get another stamp because no one will ever convince me that stamping things isn’t objectively the most fun thing ever. There is no way I am going to miss out on getting an Amicalola Falls stamp.
I don’t know if Pop-C, Ali, Kathy and Bobby were as enamored with the possibility of a stamp as I was, but whatever their motivations, they also chose to be dropped off at the base of the approach trail. Since it was Saturday, we got to experience Close Encounters of the Bird Kind, where handlers displayed a cockatiel, a grey-faced screech owl, a red-faced screech owl, a great horned owl, and a red-tailed hawk.
I did not realize screech owls were that small.
Eventually I tore myself away from the exhibit and got down to the serious business of weighing my pack, signing the NOBO (Northbound) Thru-Hikers Registration book, and using the bathroom one last time.
My pack weight came in at just over 32 lbs, but forgot to take off my hiking poles and neglected to add any water, so I’m guesstimating it was actually closer to 35 lbs.
In the register, I was Northbound Hiker #1218. I didn’t take the time to look at earlier pages, but of the seven entries on the top page, my pack weight fell right in the middle. There was a 24#, a 26#, a 30#, (me at 35#), two 40#s and a 55#. Could be better, but could definitely be worse.
After two more trips to the bathroom (just in case, just in case) I realized there wasn’t anything else I could do to procrastinate and finally started hiking.