One of the most remote sections of Georgia's Appalachian Trail lies in Tray Mountain Wilderness. Are you ready for a rollercoaster ride? You better be if you're planning to do this hike. From the Moccasin Creek watershed, you will traverse eight, yes eight, mountains before finally reaching Tray Mountain and its excellent viewpoint. During most of this hike, you're going to feel like you're really out there in the wilderness - even the road leading to the trailhead looks like it. This hike occurred on Saturday, December 27th, 2014. My plan was to start this hike at the small trailhead at the end of Wildcat Creek Road. I would follow the old, gated section of Wildcat Creek Road to Addis Gap on the Appalachian Trail. From there, I would turn left onto the AT and follow it to Tray Mountain. I would return the same way.
R/T Length of Trail: 14 Miles
Duration of Hike: 6:55
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Very well-maintained trail; numerous campsites
Cons: Tough rollercoaster ride hike
Scenic Views: View near Tray Mountain Shelter - 4 stars; Tray Mountain Overlook - 5 stars
Water Features: None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Winter
Trail Blaze Color(s): Appalachian Trail Access - Blue; Appalachian Trail - White
Beginning Point: Small parking area at the gate at the end of the drivable section of Wildcat Creek Road
Directions: From Hiawassee, GA: Follow US Route 76 East for about 15 miles until GA State Route 197. Turn right onto Rt. 197, and follow it south for 5 miles. Then, turn right onto Wildcat Creek Road. Wildcat Creek Road is a sometimes rough forest road - high clearance vehicles are recommended, although if driving with care, a regular passenger vehicle can make it. Follow Wildcat Creek Road to the gate and parking area for 7.7 miles.
First off, if you're interested in car camping, this hike might be your cup of tea. Hammer out the 14 miles than go back to Wildcat Creek and its campgrounds and spend the night there, and on Day 2, pick another hike nearby. It's a pretty good idea for some... the campsites and campgrounds along Wildcat Creek and Moccasin Creek are some of the best car camping spots I have seen. If you want to be adventurous though, do the whole thing in just a day, like I did.
Most of this hike is on a very high level maintenance trail. The exception is the access to the trail - those who know little about the area may get confused. From the paring area, take the old road behind the gate. There is a sign that points towards Appalachian Trail and Addis Gap. The old road follows the upper reaches of South Fork Moccasin Creek for the first half mile. Then, at 0.5 miles, there is a fork in the roads. While there is no sign to point the way, take the road that goes left. It appears to climb away from the creek. The other road keeps straight, steeper up the Moccasin Creek watershed. This junction is the site of a nice campsite by the creek. You should lose sight of the creek shortly and also pass through a half torn-down gate, if you took the correct road at the fork. The ascent here is gradual, and in winter, great views abound towards Lake Burton and beyond. Soon, there will be one or two blue blazes, which will be additional proof you're on your way to the AT. At 1 mile, the old road reaches Addis Gap and a junction with the Appalachian Trail. Addis Gap is where the Addis family lived until 1942. A small grassy clearing is all that remains at the homestead. If you continue on the old road past Addis Gap, you'll eventually get down to Mill Creek and Rt. 75. It is another possible access point for this hike, but I don't know much about it, and Wildcat Creek Trailhead still seems like the better one.
At the junction with the AT, a left turn is the right direction for this hike. A right turn would take you to Kelly Knob and eventually Dicks Creek Gap (US Route 76). Meanwhile, turning left immediately brings you to the Tray Mountain Wilderness boundary. You're going to stay in the wilderness for the rest of the hike. What's more - you're going to be very happy to see this sign on your way back. When you reach this spot on your way back, you'll know all that is left to the end is downhill. The Appalachian Trail immediately starts climbing up log steps. The first climb is to an unnamed mountain. The trail skirts the top at 1.5 miles,and beings descending into Sassafras Gap. Reach Sassafras Gap at 1.9 miles. a Side trail left is marked as "Water" - it leads to a branch of Moccasin Creek. After this, the trail begins a relatively steeper ascent to the Dismal Mountain ridge. There are several mountains along the ridge, and from the gap, you can see them all stretching west, but the one that the trail skirt is Round Top. The trail doesn't directly reach the summit, but curves right below it. The highest point is reached at 2.3 miles. The descent that follows is one of the longest - thus, this ascent will be one of the most annoying on the way back. On this descent, the winter views are amazing to the east. You can see Lake Burton, the mountains in Rabun County, and perhaps into North Carolina - I am not the best at telling what you can see from an overlook. At 2.6 miles, the trail rounds another small knob without any major ascent, and then continues descending to Swag of the Blue Ridge.
At 2.7 miles, reach Swag of the Blue Ridge. This is a large gap, marked by a sign. From what I've heard, this used to be a farming area in the mid 1900's. The first thru-hiker who hiked the Appalachian Trail saw various livestock grazing here. After this, the trail meanders around several small knobs on the ridge without any major climbing, before reaching a gap at 3.2 miles. The next mountain (#3 so far) is a longer climb. The summit is reached at 3.7 miles. Here, several short but steep descents and ascents bring you over two more small mountains, and the last one, Young Lick, is reached at 4.4 miles.After this, a rather steep descent (and more winter views) brings you to Steeltrap Gap at 4.9 miles. This is the other main ascent to be remembered on the way back. In Steltrap Gap, a trail goes left marked for "Water" - it shortly leads to Goshen Creek. After Steeltrap Gap, the grades, in general, become steeper, and the lay of the land changes to more rocky. Wolfpen Ridge (mountain #6) is crossed at 5.2 miles after a steep climb. Reach Wolfpen Gap at 5.5 miles. From here, the rest of the climbing is basically up Tray Mountain's main mass... or so it seems. As you descend into Wolfpen Gap, what I thought was Tray Mountain looms directly in front of you, like a whole separate hike. The ascent isn't as long as it looks like, but the constant feeling of seeing another mountain after the one you just summited is steadily weighing in. The summit of the next unnamed mountain is reached after another steep climb at 6 miles. The last gap comes at 6.1 miles, and after this, all that's left is the final ascent to the eighth mountain,Tray Mountain. The climb lasts about 0.9 miles. At 6.3 miles, the trail crosses some stream drainages and ascends via log steps to a small ridge at 6.4 miles. Turning right leads to Tray Mountain Shelter shortly. Don't skip the spur trail - there is a rock ledge with a nice view, almost as nice as on Tray Mountain itself. Meanwhile, the Appalachian Trail turns left. The ascent is now fully equipped with log steps, and you reach a high point at 6.8 miles. There is a nice campsite here, and winter views, but no year-round views. However, this isn't the summit of Tray Mountain yet - the summit was the next "mountain" you can see ahead. I was afraid this would mean descending a while and ascending a while again, but luckily, the summit is much closer than it seems. The trail twists between rock formations and scrambles up some roots on this narrow ridge, and then pops out onto the summit of Tray Mountain at 7 miles.
The summit of Tray Mountain is a rock outcrop with some nice views. They are not exactly like some views in North Carolina, but still pretty good and worth the efforts. The views are to the south and to the north. To the north, there is a somewhat limited view (especially in the summer) towards North Carolina and Southern Nantahala Wilderness. Hiawassee and Lake Chatuge are in the valley up-front. To the south, the better view, you can see Mount Yonah, as it's a very prominent peak, and the various hills and small mountains fading away into the Piedmont. There was some fog in place, which made for a rather interesting photo opportunity. That is what I put as the header for this description. If you continue on the Appalachian Trail beyond the summit of Tray Mountain, you will reach Tray Gap and FS Roads 79/698. They provide a much shorter access to Tray Mountain for those who don't want to walk a while. Another option is to start at Indian Grave Gap FS Road 283 or Unicoi Gap on GA State Route 75. Both options provide a short hike than the one described here, but I might eventually still check out the one from Uncoi Gap. From Tray Mountain, retrace your steps to the car the same way, and make sure to check out the spur trail to Tray Mountain Shelter. Also, on the way back, if you see the sign "Swag of the Blue Ridge", you have only two mountains left to climb, and after that, when you see the next sign for water, you have only one mountain left to climb.
To summarize, this is a hard hike, not very suitable for beginner hikers. Just by looking at the elevation profile doesn't exactly tell the tale. You're going to have to ascend 16 mountains, smaller or bigger, and descend the same amount by the time you're done. Even though it's spread out over 14 miles, it's STILL a tough rollercoaster ride. I would suggest that for an easier hike but with still some decent mileage, start from Unicoi Gap or Andrews Cove. Both routes are about 10 miles roundtrip with less climbing. Below are my pictures and videos.
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 468.7 Miles