Let’s say you’re looking for an outdoor destination with long hikes, sweeping mountain views, and great local food. And you only want to travel an hour or so from Atlanta.
Consider Dahlonega. The city is a gold mine, and not just literally (it was the site of U.S.’s first gold rush), luring intrepid hikers from around the world to the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The time to go is now, as March and April are the height of the season for the Appalachian Trail Northbound kick-off.
Whether you’re coming to Dahlonega to send off your thru-hiker, or you want to spend a few days on the trail in the spirit of the season, here is your guide to Atlanta’s closest official Appalachian Trail community.
Drive up early Saturday morning before the trails fill up. On your way in, stop at The Picnic Café & Dessertery for coffee and, yes, dessert. You’ll need the caffeine and carbs for the rest of the day. The quaint shop has a mom-and-pop feel that makes you want to get comfortable, but “grab-and-go” a cup of their Columbian coffee and a homemade cookie for a snack on the trail. You can’t go wrong with the peanut butter cookie drizzled with chocolate.
Since the Appalachian Trail will be teeming with thru-hikers, Woody Gap gives you options to hike North or Southbound on more than 30 miles of the trail. Arrive before 9 a.m. and there should still be spots in the parking lot. If you hike south, you’ll be going “against the flow” along the ridgelines from Woody Gap to Cooper Gap.
Springer Mountain is 20 miles from Woody Gap, so many thru-hikers will be in their first few days on the trail. They’ll be chipper and happy as you pass them, so be sure to smile and offer a “good luck!” If you hike northbound , 10.6 miles will take you over Blood Mountain to Neel Gap. Sunlight filters through the trees, many still bare in winter. Look south for breathtaking views of the mountains that seem to ripple across the landscape.
Finish by early afternoon so you can visit the Dahlonega Square for a post-hike feast. An ordinance prohibits chain restaurants in the square, but you have plenty of great local options. For Creole cuisine, Bourbon Street Grille packs Cajun spices into New Orleans favorites, including a spicy Jambalaya and excellent crab cakes. The newly opened Spirits Tavern has unique twists on burgers made with local beef, turkey, or chicken. The “Rude Awakening” will fill even the hungriest hiker—it’s a choice of burger topped with a fried egg, apple smoked bacon, and tater tots.
If you finish your meal before 5 p.m., make a point to check out the local shops. Outlaw Jerky and Trail Grub can supply you with goods for the next day's hike. Their offerings span far beyond the Slim Jim—think kangaroo, ostrich, and even python jerky. Then head around the corner to Woodlands Edge Outfitters. The store may be small, but it’s packed with gear for outdoor adventures. If you’ve forgotten something for the trail, this is the spot to get it.
Before you leave town, make two stops to stock up on vices: chocolate and beer. Paul Thomas Chocolates will hit you with a wave of heavenly chocolate scent as soon as you walk in the door. Say goodbye to willpower and submit yourself to purchasing fresh chocolate from the case—perhaps sea-salt caramels or their chocolate covered bacon? Just get there before they close at 6 p.m. The Gold City Growlers has an extensive craft beer selection and 20 rotating taps to fill a growler. Bring your own or purchase one of theirs—you’ll want the 64-ounce for you and your friends to enjoy in the hot tub (yes, read on).
If you want to stay the night to log another morning hike, stay at one of the local lodges since the shelters and camps will be crowded with thru-hikers. Groups or families will enjoy the luxury and privacy of Forrest Hills Resort. More of a mountain retreat than resort, the one-bedroom cabins have a full service kitchen, fireplace, and an in-cabin hot tub. After a day of hiking, your muscles will welcome the tub’s high-powered jets.
For full Appalachian Trail immersion without actually camping, the Hiker Hostel is your second best bet. In addition to traditional hostel bunkrooms, they have two private rooms and two “container cabins” that have heat and private bathroom facilities. Spend time socializing in the basement with the other hikers—many will be eager to share their inspiration for hiking the trail. Owners Josh and Leigh Saint were AT thru-hikers themselves in 2000, and they’ll even shuttle you to the trail the next morning. Plus, they cook a filling breakfast that often includes eggs, oatmeal, and French toast each morning.
Special thru-hiker rates are available during trail season.
Let day two be a repeat of day one. Check off another section of your AT hike and then head to town to try another local restaurant. When you leave Dahlonega, you’ll realize how much this golden city has to offer. Don’t get too nostalgic though, you’ll be back.
_ *Tip: If you’re having trouble deciding which weekend to go, why not head up to the Dahlonega Trail Fest on March 27 to 29. The festival takes place in the Dahlonega Square and includes a beer garden, shuttles to the AT, gear vendors, and authors that share their AT stories._