Appalachian Trail: hiking Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain
Hike the Appalachian Trail from Unicoi Gap, climbing to summit views at Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain and through lush forest filled with wildflowers and mountain laurel.
As part of its northbound, 2000+ mile hike from Springer Mountain to Maine, the Appalachian Trail treks some of North Georgia’s most beautiful terrain. This ten mile roundtrip on the AT scales to some stunning views from two mountain summits, Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. It crosses trickling creeks, climbs through mossy, boulder-filled forest and tunnels through gnarled, low-canopy forests filled with mountain laurel and wildflowers. And along the way, the hike crosses through some abundantly beautiful, lush Georgia forest.
The hike departs from Unicoi Gap, one of a few paved trailheads on Georgia’s 75 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. It’s a great workout, climbing and descending a combined 6600 feet over its ten mile journey to Rocky Mountain, Indian Grave Gap, Tray Mountain and back. It’s by far one of our favorite stretches of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, and it’s an equally great, challenging day hike as it is a quick overnight backpacking trip.
Appalachian Trail Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain: the hike
The hike departs from the Unicoi Gap parking area on GA 75 (view maps and driving directions), trailing eastbound and ascending rustic wooden log stairs. Following the iconic, rectangular white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, the hike begins a nearly unwavering climb to the Rocky Mountain summit, crossing several trickling springs and climbing through a rocky, boulder-filled terrain.
The hike crosses a small creek, trailing through a grove of rhododendron and passing a campsite at .6 miles. The Appalachian Trail passes the blue-blazed Rocky Mountain Trail at .85 miles, arcing sharply southbound and making a final climb to the Rocky Mountain summit.
The hike crests Rocky Mountain at 1.3 miles, catching views of Yonah Mountain and the rolling landscape of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Several off-trail campsites (located on a blue-blazed side trail) offer excellent camping at the Rocky Mountain summit.
From the summit, the Appalachian Trail catches a few more high-elevation views at 1.5 miles before making a steady, southeast-bound descent. The hike drops elevation through a fern-filled forest, descending rustic stone stairs and dropping through groves of gnarly-branched mountain laurel on Rocky Mountain’s lower elevations.
The hike reaches Indian Grave Gap at 2.5 miles, crossing a gravel road. The AT climbs from Indian Grave Gap, ascending through a lush forest filled with moss, the pungent scent of leafy galax, and dense mountain laurel groves.
From here, it’s a nearly continuous ascent to Tray Mountain. The Appalachian Trail crosses a small spring at 3.2 miles just before crossing the gravel-paved Tray Mountain Road. The hike passes a small campsite at 3.3 miles and tunnels through a dense mountain laurel canopy before reaching a wide, grassy glen at 3.5 miles. Nicknamed the ‘Cheese Factory’, the glen is a prime Appalachian Trail campsite, loved for its ample, wide, grassy tent sites and a nearby spring. It’s the historic site of a dairy from the 1800s, though little evidence of the actual cheese factory remains.
The AT continues its climb, switching back through a lush, green forest filled with tall wildflowers. The hike passes a wide rock slab at 4 miles, catching the first views of nearby Tray Mountain from the rock overlook. There’s an on-trail campsite here as well, offering some spectacular morning views.
The hike reaches Tray Gap at 4.2 miles, crossing the gravel-paved road. The trail switches back sharply, climbing into the rugged Tray Mountain Wilderness and making a final ascent to the summit. A small rock outcrop offers near-summit views at 4.8 miles.
The Appalachian Trail summits Tray Mountain at 4.95 miles, reaching the angular, rocky mountaintop. Views from the lofty, 4429′ summit extend to the north and the south.
Departing the Tray Mountain summit, this hike turns to retrace its outbound steps on the Appalachian Trail, descending through Tray Gap and Indian Grave Gap. Reaching Indian Grave Gap, the hike makes a final climb to the Rocky Mountain summit, scaling 850 feet of elevation before making a continuous descent to Unicoi Gap. The Appalachian Trail reaches the Unicoi Gap trailhead at just under 10 miles, completing the hike.
More Appalachian Trail adventure from Unicoi Gap
After crossing the highway, the AT makes a steep climb from Unicoi Gap to climb Blue Mountain and trek across a wildflower-filled ridge. Hike the Appalachian Trail to the Blue Mountain AT shelter and Chattahoochee Gap to visit a small, trickling spring that eventually becomes the mighty, wide-flowing Chattahoochee River.
Or for a slightly milder five miler at Rocky Mountain, hike the Appalachian Trail and Rocky Mountain Trail Loop, scaling Rocky Mountain and looping through the wildflower-filled Indian Grave Gap to return to Unicoi Gap.