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For someone looking to get started hiking their thru-hike NOBO on the Appalachian Trail, you have to get to the southern terminus, unlike what many think the archway is over 8 miles from the actual AT starting point.
I wanted to check it out as my thru-hike is still nearly four years away, get the experience of the approach trail, and stay at the Amicalola Falls Lodge in the Amicalola Falls State Park.
It was an enjoyable week just exploring the many trails in the area, kissing the start point, and promising myself I’ll be back.
I know when I come back, I will start at the archway. At the same time, some may complain about bonus miles early. For me and many, the chance to start and let the experience wash over you is essential.
I know this will be worth the extra 8+ miles to the official start point when I’m ready. Let’s dig into what options exist and why the lodge should be your first day and night.
Staying the Night At Amicalola Falls Lodge
I have to say, if you travel here and skip a night in the lodge, you are missing out on one of the most amazing places and views you will ever get from a hotel room.
The best part, it sits right on the AT and is only 0.3 miles from the Approach Trailhead!
This means no getting up extra early, no stress about logistics, just wake up and get started on your hike! It’s an incredible way to start a thru-hike.
Waking up to this view is unbeatable!
The rooms inside the lodge are very cozy but a little more expensive than I typically spend for one night, but it provides such beauty it is worth it.
Amazing Views From Any Room & Surrounding Outside Areas
Each room is set up with a view, and they don’t have rooms facing the walls or other poor visuals, and each room has an outstanding view over the forest area surrounding the hotel.
Watching the morning clouds roll in over the tree tops is a memory I’ll have for years to come.
Then the patio downstairs has seating to relax and take in the sounds of the birds and leaves rustling in the wind.
The lodge also has a restaurant with a full menu, so you can sit back, relax, and not worry about preparing any meals.
I highly suggest getting there early enough to catch the sunset!
Embracing the Ambience
For many reasons, the Amicalola Falls Lodge is an incredible place to start a thru-hike. Still, the atmosphere and feeling you get when waking up here are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
I left feeling refreshed, excited, and hopeful for my future hike on the AT.
It was the perfect way to experience a small part of the Appalachian Trail without committing to 2,189 miles.
Two Ways To Start The Trail
There are two ways to begin your Appalachian Trail experience: starting from the archway or deciding to skip it and the approach trail in favor of getting a ride to the top of Springer.
Neither is right nor wrong, but both have pros and cons that you must decide for yourself what way you plan to hike your 2100+ mile journey from day 0 itself!
The Stone Archway And Approach Trail
The iconic archway and approach trail take you through the beautiful woods surrounding Amicalola Falls and Amicalola State Park on your way to the southern terminus at Springer Mountain.
The approach trail is 8.8 miles long and takes you from the falls to Springer Mountain, the official start of the Appalachian Trail, using blue blazes to show you the way.
This route is for those who want to add on some extra miles or to take their time getting used to hiking with their complete gear and a chance to experience the ups and downs that the AT is quite well known for.
This blue-blazed trail is difficult for many who start here, so I suggest only starting here if you have hiked with your full gear or are in pretty good shape.
ATC Registration and Hang Tag
Starting at the archway allows for easy registration and hanging tag with your hiker number; this lets you know how many began before you on their journey.
The tag will identify you throughout the long hike as a thru-hiker, and it’s typically placed outside your pack for all to see.
Iconic Photo Op Under the Stone Archway
Most thru-hikers will have a family with them or ask others to take their picture under the stone archway before they embark on their journey.
This is an incredible place for photos and to say goodbye to those who won’t be accompanying you on your hike.
Attend the ATC Thru-hiker Orientation
For most, this course helps get additional information about the trail and meet other hikers starting their journeys.
The ATC (Appalachian Trail Conservancy) recommends that all hikers, even day hikers, and section-hikers, attend this one-hour course.
They cover things like bear bag hanging and details to help you get started on the right foot.
Record Starting Pack Weight
One thing most backpackers love to do is get their starting weight for their entire kit before they start on the trail itself.
You may want to do this to see how much your pack weight changes as you progress and change along the way.
Take In The Amazing Amicalola Falls
Amicalola Falls is the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi and is an incredible sight.
The breathtaking falls also have a staircase that will take you from the bottom to the top of the falls and is a well-known lower body workout before you even begin the more challenging parts of the approach trail.
This is an excellent place for people watching as many will say goodbye to their family and friends before they start their long journey.
Excellent Way To Test Your Endurance & Preparation
The approach trail is often a rude awakening to all who believe themselves in good shape and reasonably prepared for their thru-hike.
This is typically due to the hiker’s legs not being used nor tested similarly on other trails and with a full pack of food and water.
This leads many to quit before they ever reach the southern terminus as they get the chance to see what this trek will be and let them know they aren’t prepared or that this isn’t for them.
Unlike much of the Appalachian Trail, the approach trail has very few water sources along the trip up. If you are hiking slower or drinking more, you must camel up and carry more.
Lastly, there is only one shelter along the way and sparingly few actual campsites, so many will target Black Gap Shelter as a stop on the way up after taking on the ups and downs of the trail.
Save Money Skipping Shuttle to Springer
Paying for a shuttle service to the top is an expense right off the top before ever setting foot on the trail. This seems silly and better used to buy some last-minute items for the hike.
Catch Ride to Springer And Hike Back to Official Start Plaque
The alternate route is to head up the dirt roads in poor road conditions to reach the parking lot near Springer Mountain and then backtrack to the actual southern terminus, as this parking lot is about a mile afterward.
Storms frequently mess up these forest roads and brutalize vehicles, so you would want to find hiker shuttle willing to take you; this would be a jump start on the others who start at the stone archway and approach trail.
Faster To Start on the Appalachian Trail
This is undoubtedly a faster way to jump on your thru-hike and get some extra miles on your first day, giving you a better chance to start fresh on your journey.
If you can get your driver to stay, you can move up trail fast without your pack and due to slackpacking this part, get back to the point and back to your gear in short order.
How To Get To Amicalola Falls
There are numerous ways to get to Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge:
- By Car: The park is located about an hour and a half from Atlanta, Georgia, and two and a half hours from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
- By Train: Amtrak stops in Gainesville, Georgia which is about 30 minutes away from the park.
- By Plane: The closest airport is Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport which is about 90 minutes away from the park.
Once you arrive at Amicalola Falls State Park & Lodge, follow the signs to the Visitor Center, where you will check-in and pay the daily parking fee or head up to the lodge to get your room and board.
Final Thoughts on Amicalola Falls and Springer Mountain
I feel anyone heading to a 2000+ mile-thru-hike needs to allow themselves the luxury of a night at the lodge, then start fresh in the morning after getting a restful night’s sleep.
The Amicalola Falls to Springer Mountain Approach Trail is a challenging 8.8 miles and should not be taken lightly.
I do believe, however, that this is an excellent way to test your endurance and preparation as it will show you what you are made of on day one.
The alternative route of catching a ride to the top of Springer Mountain and then backtracking to the terminus is also a great way to save time and get a jump start on your thru-hike.
I hope this helps you make a good decision; always remember to be adaptive and adjust as you need to, but don’t forget this is your journey, and you want to embrace it as many only get a chance for one in their life. Make it well worth it.