Every weekend, the Atlanta Outdoor Club, a lively group of outdoor enthusiasts, offers several “D5” hikes (rated the highest on their scale of difficulty) that promise challenging elevation, double-digit distances, and a steady fitness pace. A recently highlighted hike to Horsetrough Mountain is especially intriguing, partly because of the mountain’s location off the Appalachian Trail, and partly because the actual mountain itself has no true trail.
The winding drive through the foothills of the Blue Ridge and Chattahoochee National Forest is picturesque, with views of rolling hills and valleys of horse pastures. Make a final bathroom break in Blairsville at Sunrise Grocery , an adorable roadside country stand that has been around since the 1920s. This all-in-one hidden gem is packed with locally made goodies like jams and jellies, boiled peanuts, local honey, sorghum syrups, and even moonshine apple butter.
Jack’s Gap sits on Highway 180 at the base of Brasstown Bald, where you’ll find a modest parking lot. The head of Jack’s Knob Trail is across the street, and you’ll immediately begin climbing the blue-blazed trail until it connects to the Appalachian Trail at Chattahoochee Gap, in 2.4 miles. The single-track trail teeters on Hiawassee Ridge, acting like a narrow ledge that drops steeply into the valley on one side. Within the first 30 minutes, you’ll ascend nearly 500 feet.
Along the way, the naked trees seem to tremble in the cold air, showcasing the grandeur of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You'll catch glimpses of Brasstown Bald and Blood Mountain, which are typically hidden during warmer weather. The views are marvelous, with shadows of clouds creating spectacular contours on the mountains.
At Chattahoochee Gap, you'll arrive at the fork of the AT. Follow the white blazes on roller coaster drops and climbs to Cold Springs Gap. You'll come to appreciate the well-maintained and groomed AT by the end of the next hour, after a venture of off-trail hiking. You'll pass by several sourwoods, distinctive by their deeply furrowed surface. Rhododendron and pine add pops of green to the otherwise barren winter landscape.
At 3.3 miles, you'll reach the off-trail portion to hike to the summit of Horsetrough Mountain. Be sure to wear gloves and long-sleeved clothing because briars are plentiful once you begin the trek southbound into the entangling woods, and leave distance between your hiking buddies to prevent getting whacked in the face by slingshot branches. You'll have the sensation of wading through water as you shuffle through a floor of leaves, using your arms to navigate through thickets of bramble.
The summit of Horsetrough Mountain is 4,040 feet above sea level, and once you reach it, you'll be surrounded by untouched land, with the rumbling line of grey mountains seen through the thinness of the trees. The leaf coverage is slippery, giving the feeling of walking on silk. The unkempt summit makes the perfect spot for a well-deserved lunch break.
On your return trip, head down the mountain due east to the AT for a shorter descent. Take your time to steadily make your way down the mountain off-trail, using the tree branches as holds to prevent slipping. You'll run straight into the AT, well maintained, and welcoming. Hike it back the way you came to Chattahoochee Gap.
Up next: Discovering the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River (or, at least, where they should be). The origin is shortly after the gap, where the river crosses over the AT and then flows south to ridges that form the Tennessee Valley Divide. When you reach the spot, visible by rock outcrops above a minor trough of fallen sticks below, don't be surprised if it's dry; recent reports from hikers say they have rarely seen more than a drop of water at this location.
At this point, you can retrace your steps on Jack's Knob Trail, knowing that you've discovered what is lost and what is untouched.