On our way to the mountains for the weekend, the fiancee and I decided to get a day hike in on the Appalachian Trail. We chose to make the trip up Tray Mountain and take in the views from the summit. A relatively short hike, the total distance is 2.4 miles (1.2 miles each way). I would rate this trail as moderate, as you walk slightly uphill for the first half, and a great trail to take the kids or dogs for a walk in the woods.
Directions to the trailhead: From the bridge in Helen, GA drive north on GA 17/75 for approximately 2 miles. Turn right on Forest Road 79/Tray Mountain Road. It’s easy to miss this road because the turn off becomes visible while 17/75 is curving to the left. Drive approximately 7.5 miles to the trailhead. At one point on the way to the trail, the road splits, so keep right. You’ll know you’ve arrived at the trailhead when the road splits again at a flat area (with paring) and the white blazed Appalachian Trail (AT) is visible between the fork in the road. You’re going to want to take a car/truck with some ground clearance on this road due to the rocky terrain and ruts due to erosion. Also, there are many off-roading detours along the road; however, remember that the road is flanked by steep edges. Don’t get too overzealous and learn the hard way like this guy:
Leave the parking area (elevation ~3,850 feet) and begin climbing the AT north. You’ll know you’re on the right trail if you see the sign welcoming you to the Tray Mountain Wilderness.
From here the trail climbs the gradual slope of the mountain with occasional switchbacks. Enjoy the flora and fauna on the way up (as well as the occasional rock-stacking sculptures provided by the more artistic hikers).
At 0.6 miles, when the trail switches to the right, you’ll come to a rocky overlook on the left. This one is worth stopping to check out. The view from here is the Hiawassee River Basin and the Nantahala National Forest of North Carolina. It was really overcast the day we went, so the view was hazy, but still stunning.
Continue up the trail after the overlook and shortly you will reach the rocky summit of Tray Mountain. Again it was hazy the day I completed this hike, and the vegetation was a little grown over at the summit, but the views were still pretty great. At this point the elevation is ~4,430 feet. The summit of Tray Mountain is ~30 feet below Blood Mountain (the highest point on the AT in Georgia) and ~500 feet below the peak of Brasstown Bald (the highest natural point in Georgia).
Continue on your hike, passing some trail-side campsites, as the AT begins to descend Tray Mountain. At 1.1 miles you will reach a split in the trail. The white blazed AT will continue to the right, but take the blue blazed spur trail to the left that takes you to another overlook and a trail shelter. On the spur trail, look below the campsite to your right for another rocky outlook.
This is a great place to stop, relax, and enjoy the view. Even on a summer day the air up there was cool and a nice breeze made an ideal situation to pull out the Jetboil (if you haven’t heard of this wonderful piece of technology, do yourself a favor and look it up) and brew a cup of joe.
Continue to the shelter if you want, but this is a good point to turn around and retrace your steps to the parking area at the trailhead. The shelter is worth checking out if you’ve never seen an AT shelter. Also, the shelter offers a privy and a spring (located behind the shelter) if necessary.
Hope you fond this information helpful if you’re planning on making this trip. Leave no trace, enjoy the hike, and be safe.