Backpack the Appalachian Trail near Helen, hiking from Hogpen Gap to Unicoi Gap, exploring more than fourteen miles of scenic North Georgia forest, visiting the Low Gap and Blue Mountain AT shelters, and exploring the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.
OFFICIAL MAP: Appalachian Trail, Trails Illustrated Map (find it at Trailful Outdoor Co.)
From its southernmost point at Springer Mountain, the iconic Appalachian Trail winds, climbs, and dips just over 78 miles on its journey through North Georgia before crossing the border into North Carolina at Bly Gap. Some segments on its epic Georgia journey are remarkable, like the tumbling cascades at Long Creek Falls, and the lofty summit views at Preachers Rock, Blood Mountain, and the nearby Cowrock Mountain. This 14.5-mile white-blaze segment from Hogpen Gap to Unicoi Gap lacks any stunning summit views or photo-worthy waterfalls. But while it lacks any unique attraction, this hike’s beauty is in the forest itself, rolling over knobs and dipping through gaps, and exploring a whole lot of beautiful North Georgia forest along the way.
This hike offers paved-road access from both trailheads, making it equally great as a long day hike (if you’ve arranged for a return shuttle), or a great two- to three-day backpacking adventure. It visits two Appalachian Trail shelters, visits the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River, ducks through tunnels of gnarly-branched mountain laurel, and explores mile after mile of mossy hardwood forest along the way.
Hogpen Gap to Unicoi Gap: the hike
The Hogpen Gap access for the Appalachian Trail is located immediately off the winding Richard B. Russell Scenic Highway (view maps and driving directions). Just over 14 miles separate Hogpen Gap from Unicoi Gap along the AT, and plenty of rolling and open single track winds through this heavily-forested section hike.
The hike follows white blazes from the trailhead, tracking north toward White Oak Stamp Gap, Sapling Gap, and Wide Gap, all visited in the first three miles of the trek. The terrain here is as forgiving as it is quiet, with the well-maintained path making nominal elevation changes as it winds along a ridgeline. Through-the-trees views to the southeast in this stretch of trail offer Appalachian views, including glimpses of Yonah Mountain, notable by the sheer, rocky cliffs on its southerly faces. Campsites dot the trail’s sides throughout the hike, many with stone fire rings and ample space to set shelter and kick back.
The first long and noticeable descent leads to Low Gap at just over 4.5 miles. A classic Appalachian Trail shelter lies at the gap, complete with nearby bear cable systems and a latrine. A plethora of other campsites lie in proximity, as well.
Departing Low Gap, the AT begins an ascent of low stairs as it climbs toward Poplar Stomp Gap. The trail maintains a relatively flat profile, innocuously bending and swaying along the ridgelines of the North Georgia mountains. Inviting campsites continue to dot the landscape frequently. The serpentine single-track and towering hardwoods will give way to more frequent groves of mountain laurel as the trail approaches the headwaters of the mighty Chattahoochee River at Chattahoochee Gap. Here at its source, this great watershed is merely a drip beneath some fern and hardwood trees, but downstream, becomes the broad-flowing waterway that meanders through Atlanta. (To find the Hooch’s headwaters, follow the blue-blazed trail south from the gap, descending through steep switchbacks to the small spring.)
From Chattahoochee Gap, the AT arcs eastbound through Red Clay Gap, catching through-the-trees views of nearby Brasstown Bald at 11.2 miles. The terrain grows noticeably more rocky and lush, with natural stone staircases, bordered by fern and dead-fall, that mark the final climb toward the Blue Mountain AT shelter. A blue-blazed side trail leads to the Blue Mountain shelter at 12.2 miles, offering ample camping, fire rings, and bear cables.
Departing Blue Mountain, the AT begins a steady and craggy descent to Unicoi Gap. The trail arcs through several switchbacks, scrambling over and around rocks and roots of all shapes and sizes. This is telling of the miles beyond, as the Appalachian Trail rises from Unicoi Gap and climbs the rocky and root-laden peaks at Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain to the east.
The hike reaches Unicoi Gap at 14.5 miles, meeting the pavement of Highway 75 that leads south to Georgia’s alpine town of Helen. Shuttling back to the trailhead? This gap marks the end of this adventure. Otherwise, after a rest at Unicoi Gap, this hike turns to follow its outbound hike in reverse, making an extended climb to Blue Mountain and following the Appalachian Trail southwest to Hogpen Gap. Reaching the Hogpen trailhead, the hike completes the adventure at just under 29 miles.
Always leave no trace, pack out everything you pack in, and if you see trash, pick it up and pack it out.
Stay on the marked trail, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, and don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way. Please always practice good trail etiquette. And before you go, always check the trailhead kiosk, official maps, and the park or ranger office for notices of changed routes, trail closures, safety information, and restrictions.
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This trail is maintained thanks to the hard work of countless volunteers and donations from supporters of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club. Please support them by making a donation or joining a volunteer day. Let's work together to keep these fantastic trails maintained and open for use!
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Free parking is available at Hogpen Gap and Unicoi Gap.
34.725983, -83.839867 // N34 43.559 W83 50.392