Hike to Chattahoochee Gap on the Appalachian Trail from Unicoi Gap, visiting the North Georgia headwaters of the Chattahoochee River and the Blue Mountain AT shelter.
OFFICIAL MAP: Appalachian Trail, Trails Illustrated Map
At first glance, it’s nothing more than a tiny, easy-to-miss, trickling spring – one of many near the Appalachian Trail in North Georgia. But the spring at this hike’s final destination is the official headwaters of the wide Chattahoochee River. It’s remarkable that this tiny, trickling spring, framed by mossy rock and fern, gains volume enough to fuel Atlanta’s major river downstream. And where else can you take a photo with each foot on an opposite bank of river?
This classic AT 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 abundant 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. At nine miles, it’s a great, moderately-difficult AT day hike in North Georgia.
Appalachian Trail to Chattahoochee Gap: the hike
The adventure begins at Unicoi Gap (view maps and driving directions), crossing the paved highway and diving into the forest. (The AT’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 from the trailhead, scrambling over lichen-covered boulders and climbing through a green, fern-filled forest.
Just before summiting, the AT passes a small campsite just off-trail at 1.15 miles. The trail summits Blue Mountain, where tall wildflowers stretch 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.
A side trail departs to the right at 2.15 miles leading the Blue Mountain shelter. Large campsites and a large fire ring surround the shelter, a rustic overnight home to AT thru-hikers on their epic, 2,000+ mile journey from Georgia to Maine.
Beyond the shelter, the AT begins an extended descent, 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, dives 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 hike 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 AT 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 AT continues southwest to Hogpen Gap, Tesnatee Gap and Cowrock Mountain. The Jacks Gap Trail departs to the north, climbing to Brasstown Bald. This hike follows a blue-blazed side trail to the south, 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 considerably in volume to become the Chattahoochee River, one of Georgia’s major waterways and a water source for the city of Atlanta.
Departing the spring, the hike climbs back to the gap and retraces its outbound trek on the AT. The hike reaches Unicoi Gap at 8.9 miles, completing the adventure.
More Unicoi Gap adventures on the AT
Have energy (and daylight) left to burn? Hike eastbound on the Appalachian Trail from Unicoi Gap to Rocky Mountain and catch some beautiful summit views of nearby Yonah Mountain before descending to the wildflower and mountain laurel-filled Indian Grave Gap. Or hike a ten-mile roundtrip to Tray Mountain, a calf-burning workout that scores views from two mountain summits and ducks through long tunnels of rhododendron and mountain laurel.
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Free parking is available at the USFS Unicoi Gap trailhead.
34.802333, -83.743100 // N34 48.140 W83 44.586