Appalachian Trail: Three Forks to Springer Mountain and Loop via Benton Mackaye Trail, Dahlonega, Georgia
Springer Mountain is not any regular mountain. It's a special place. Springer Mountain is the southern terminus of the famous Appalachian Trail. Every year, thousands of hikers start a journey here that will last many months. Other hikers finish their long thru-hikes at this point, and when they reach the summit of the mountain, after hiking in from Three Forks, they've achieved an accomplishment. On this day hike, you'll feel almost like those southbound thru-hikers as you make the southernmost climb on the Appalachian to reach the first (or last) white blaze on the Appalachian Trail. You'll return using a lesser-traveled route using the alternative Benton Mackaye Trail. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 1st, 2015. My plan was to follow the Appalachian Trail from Three Forks to the summit of Springer Mountain. I would return back to Three Forks via the Benton Mackaye Trail.
R/T Length of Trail: 11 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6:30
Type of Hike: Triple Loop
Difficulty Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Well-marked trails all the time
Points of Interest: Springer Mountain Vista - 3 out of 10; Ball Mountain Vista - 6 out of 10
Trail Blaze Color(s): Appalachian Trail - White Rectangles; Benton Mackaye Trail - White Diamonds
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round
Beginning Point: Three Forks Trailhead
Directions: From Dahlonega, GA: Follow GA State Route 52 West for 9 miles. Then, turn right onto Nimblewill Church Road. Follow Nimblewill Church Road for 2.3 miles, and then, turn right onto Forest Service Road 28-1. Follow Forest Service Road 28-1 for 2 miles, and then, keep left onto Forest Service Road 77. Follow Forest Service Road 77 for 5 miles, and then, take a soft left onto Frorest Service Road 58. Do not take a sharper left onto Forest Service Road 42 - this will take you to a completely different area. Follow Forest Service Road 58 for 2.7 miles to a bridge over Long Creek. There is a small parking area on the left, and you can also park along the road. Also, even though the drive to the trailhead involves a lot of driving on unpaved roads, all of them are in good condition.
Note: My GPS failed to record for the first couple of miles of this hike so some of the track is missing. If you would like to see a full map of the hike, comment or contact me and I'll point you to some sources.
Most of the time, the Appalachian Trail and the Benton Mackaye Trail are far apart from each other. The Benton Mackaye Trail is considered an alternative route for the Appalachian Trail, and it is much lesser-traveled. It also hits generally more remote areas than the AT. However, near the southern terminus of both trails, the Benton Mackaye Trail stays close to the AT and creates several small loops. Thus, a possibility for a sort of hike consisting of three loops arises, going south along the Appalachian Trail and returning back north via the Benton Mackaye Trail. That was exactly what I planned to do on this hike. Both routes are not hard, but the Benton Mackaye Trail will undoubtedly present more solitude.
This hike starts at Three Forks, a popular destination for many local day hikers. However, most hikers take the Appalachian Trail north to Long Creek Falls. Very few people hike to Springer Mountain from Three Forks. Most folks hike from the upper parking area.
The trail starts on the left (south) side of the road. Immediately, you cross a footbridge over Chester Creek just above its confluence with Stover Creek and Long Creek. Then, the trail curves left and passes some camping areas. At 0.1 miles, the Benton Mackaye Trail, which until now has followed the route of the Appalachian Trail, turns left. You'll return from the Benton Mackaye Trail to this spot later, but for now, continue uphill on the Appalachian Trail. The trail climbs a bit and then parallels Stover Creek, which can be seen below. The trail then levels out and crosses Stover Creek on a footbridge. After the footbridge, turn left onto an old roadbed. Keep following the old roadbed - you will pass through a couple muddy areas soon. Around 1.5 miles into the hike, you will make a sharp left turn off the roadbed. This turn is easy to miss - pay attention. The roadbed ahead is blocked by some tree branches but you can still miss the turn. After the turn, cross Stover Creek again on a footbridge, and shortly afterwards, reach the short spur trail to the Stover Creek Shelter. Unless you want to check out the shelter, turn right to continue on the Appalachian Trail.
The Appalachian Trail now starts ascending moderately out of the Stover Creek valley. Around 1.9 miles from the start, in the middle of the ascent, is when my GPS finally started recording. At 2.3 miles, reach a junction in a gap on Rich Mountain with the Benton Mackaye Trail. You'll be visiting this spot later on. Continue straight through the gap and head downhill for some time. At 2.7 miles, cross a branch of Davis Creek - it is an easy rockhop. Then, ascend gradually to another junction with the Benton Mackaye Trail at 3 miles. Once again, you'll be in this spot later, and once again, continue straight on the Appalachian Trail. At 3.2 miles, reach the Springer Mountain Trailhead. Cross the large parking area, descend to and cross Forest Service Road 42, and begin the final ascent up Springer Mountain. The grades on this one are a bit steeper than throughout the rest of the hike, but it is still not very hard. The terrain is also notably rockier. From the road crossing, it is 0.9 miles to the summit of Springer Mountain. At 3.9 miles, reach another junction with the Benton Mackaye Trail. This is the final junction with it, because this is the southern terminus of the BMT. The Appalachian Trail continues straight. At 4 miles, a spur trail turns left to Springer Mountain Shelter. The Appalachian Trail continues a rocky ascent before reaching the summit of Springer Mountain at 4.1 miles. This is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, well-marked. Enjoy the westward view. This is your turnaround point, as it's time to head onto the Benton Mackaye Trail now. However, past the vista and the summit, the Appalachian Approach Trail continues around 8 miles to Amicalola Falls State Park. The Appalachian Approach Trail is at the top of my list of hikes to do this winter.
From the summit, retrace your steps back to the most recent junction at 4.3 miles with the Benton Mackaye Trail (the one where the trail ends). Turn right onto the BMT. The BMT starts descending down a ridge, parallel to the AT's route. At 4.4 miles, a memorial on the right is about the Benton Mackaye Trail and Benton Mackaye, the person who the trail is named after. Benton Mackaye, a forester from Massachusetts, was the first person who came up with the idea of an "Appalachian Trail".
After the memorial, the trail soon makes a right turn. You will cross a side ridge from Springer Mountain and then descend to a gap between Springer Mountain and Ball Mountain. The trail ascends moderately up Ball Mountain, but it bypasses the summit. At 5.4 miles, the trail begins descending again from Ball Mountain. The descent is moderate to sometimes steep. There are occasional winter views to your right. At 6 miles, a side trail, marked by the sign "View", heads out to the right. Don't miss this view - the spur trail is quite short, and the view is better than on Springer Mountain, in my opinion. The view is not very high up, but it still feels like you're higher than everything else, particularly with the deep valley just below. Following the view, continue descending and reach Forest Service Road 42 in Big Stamp Gap at 6.5 miles. There is a small parking area here. Cross the road, and continue briefly downhill, before turning west and beginning to ascend along a small stream. This stretch of trail is characterized by more uphill than downhill as you gradually make your way to Rich Mountain. Over the next mile or so, you'll also cross a bunch of small streams that are tributaries of Davis Creek, but all of them are easily rock-hopped. At 7.7 miles, after some easy uphill, reach a junction with the Appalachian Trail. Continue straight on the BMT. You will now descend gradually to a gap near Rich Mountain, reaching it at 8.1 miles. Turn sharply right here - an unmarked side trail continues straight and shortly ends at FS 42. After, the right turn, the trail passes through a grassy area and begins a steep ascent up Rich Mountain. At 8.5 miles, the ascent ends at the highest point in the area, although Rich Mountain is not just one summit - it's a ridge. From the high point, you'll descend steeply again to another junction with the Appalachian Trail at 8.8 miles.
After this junction, you'll make one last ascent onto another knob on Rich Mountain, ending it at 9 miles. The stretch of the trail that follows is probably the most remote section of this hike with plentiful winter views. You'll be descending along a narrow ridge that is Rich Mountain. Around 9 and a half miles, the trail suddenly leaves the steepening ridge. The trail takes a right turn and begins descending more obviously to Chester Creek. In winter, there is a great panorama here of the Chester Creek gorge, and as you get closer to the bottom, the creek comes into view and so does FS Road 58. Then, the trail makes a sharp left turn and stays parallel to Chester Creek, although rather high above it. Around here, I stumbled upon (literally, because luckily, I noticed it in advance) a rattlesnake stretched across the trail, apparently sleeping. It took around 10 minutes to safely get it off the trail.
The trail continues descending to Three Forks. At 10.9 miles, reach the Appalachian Trail. Turn right onto the AT (you've been here earlier), and shortly reach the final footbridge over Chester Creek and FS 55 at 11 miles.
Do just the lower part of the hike in a figure-8 loop - 6.3 Miles
Do just the upper part of the hike from the Springer Mountain Trailhead - 4.7 Miles
Long Creek Falls, a mile north of Three Forks on the Appalachian Trail.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 107.2 Miles