Appalachian Trail: hiking Unicoi Gap to Chattahoochee Gap
Hike the Appalachian Trail from Unicoi Gap to Chattahoochee Gap, visiting the north Georgia headwaters of the Chattahoochee River and the Blue Mountain AT shelter.
At first glance, it’s nothing more than a tiny, easy-to-miss, trickling spring – an unremarkable one of many near the Appalachian Trail in north Georgia. But the spring at this hike’s final destination is actually the official headwaters of the great, wide Chattahoochee River. It’s fairly remarkable that this tiny, trickling spring, framed in mossy rock and fern, gains volume enough to fuel Atlanta’s major river downstream. And where else can you take a selfie with each foot on an opposite bank of the Chattahoochee River?
This classic Appalachian Trail hike departs from Unicoi Gap just north of Helen, climbing Blue Mountain to a rolling ridgeline. While views are limited on this heavily-forested stretch of the AT, the hike treks through a lush, green forest that blooms in plentiful wildflowers during warm-weather months. The terrain is rocky and rugged, moss-covered and shady, and filled with tall fern. Numerous campsites flank the sides of the trail, and the Blue Mountain AT shelter sits just off-trail roughly halfway into the hike. And at nine miles, it’s a great, moderately difficult Appalachian Trail day hike in Georgia.
Appalachian Trail Unicoi Gap to Chattahoochee Gap: the hike
The hike departs the Unicoi Gap trailhead (view maps and driving directions), crossing the paved highway and diving into the forest. (The Appalachian Trail’s iconic, white rectangular blaze marks the trailhead.) The hike begins an immediate climb of Blue Mountain’s lower elevations, hiking southbound before switching back sharply and reversing direction. It’s a nearly unrelenting climb to the top of Blue Mountain, scrambling over lichen-covered boulders and climbing through a green, fern-filled forest.
Just before summiting, the Appalachian Trail passes a small campsite just off-trail at 1.15 miles. The trail summits Blue Mountain, tall wildflowers stretching to catch sunlight in the dense forest. The hike passes through a scattered grove of large rhododendron and passes a second campsite at 1.75 miles, rolling elevation.
A side trail departs to the right at 2.15 miles, hiking a short trek to the Blue Mountain shelter. Large campsites and a large fire ring surround the shelter, a rustic overnight home to Appalachian Trail thru-hikers on their epic, 2,000+ mile journey from Georgia to Maine.
Beyond the Blue Mountain shelter, the Appalachian Trail begins an extended descent toward Chattahoochee Gap, passing a small spring just off the trail at 2.2 miles. The hike descends through a dense tunnel of twisted mountain laurel at Henson Gap, trails through abundant fern and wildflowers, and passes a large campsite at 2.7 miles.
The trail climbs rocky boulder beds, rolling elevation. A side trail departs steeply to the right at 2.8 miles, leading to a spring. The hike arcs northbound, passing a signed trail to a campsite at 3 miles before arcing to the west. The trail catches a through-the-trees view of Brasstown Bald, Georgia’s highest mountain summit, on a rocky stretch of trail at 3.2 miles. The Appalachian Trail continues its descent, trailing through mountain laurel to reach a campsite at Red Clay Gap at 3.7 miles.
The hike passes large, lichen-crusted rock outcrops, climbing to reach Chattahoochee Gap at 4.3 miles. From here, the Appalachian Trail continues southwest, and the Jacks Gap Trail departs to the north, climbing to Brasstown Bald. This hike follows a blue-blazed side trail, meandering through switchbacks in a short descent.
The hike reaches a small spring at just under 4.5 miles, a tiny trickle that tunnels between several fern-covered rocks. Downriver, this small spring flows 430 miles south, growing greatly in volume to become the Chattahoochee River, one of Georgia’s major waterways and a major water source for the city of Atlanta.
Departing the spring, the hike climbs back to Chattahoochee Gap and retraces its outbound trek on the Appalachian Trail. The trail reaches Unicoi Gap at 8.9 miles, completing the hike.
More Unicoi Gap Appalachian Trail adventures
Have energy (and daylight) left to burn? Hike eastbound on the Appalachian Trail from Unicoi Gap to summit Rocky Mountain and catch some beautiful mountaintop views.