“It is one of the blessings of wilderness life that it shows us how few things we need in order to be perfectly happy.” -Horace Kephart
Story and images by Charlotte Gallagher
If you’re looking for a quick getaway to unplug and unwind, I highly recommend putting the Hike Inn on your bucket list. It’s located at the beginning of the Appalachian Trail in northern Georgia, and the only way to access it is 5 miles by foot. Overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can easily get swept away in living off the grid. The inn is a cell phone free facility as they highly recommend no texting, emailing, or scrolling so you can truly connect with others and nature. Their mission is for everyone to leave feeling inspired with an education in nature and conservation. Here is what my 24-hour journey looked like….
I began my drive to the north Georgia mountains around 8:30am on a Saturday morning. Just three hours away a gorgeous waterfall and peace and quiet in the woods awaited me. I arrived at Amicalola Falls State Park around 11:30am. The parking lot was already packed so it took some patience to wait for a spot to open-up. Once parked I walked into the visitor’s center to buy a parking pass and to register before beginning the 5-mile hike to Len Foote Hike Inn. I instantly noticed a man and a woman carrying huge backpacks receiving a postal package from an employee. I thought to myself, “They must be hiking the AT.” I was instantly intrigued about their journey, so I walked over and asked how it was going so far. As they started talking really fast, I could see and feel in their speech and body language that familiar excitement I’ve felt many a time when beginning a new journey. Their names were Brittany and Angel and they had just arrived from Florida a few days ago but had to wait on their package of extra food and supplies to arrive before starting the trail. Their plan was to hike for the next 8-10 days to North Carolina. Brittany shared that she was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago and ever since then she started doing the things she’s always wanted to do.
They mentioned that while waiting for their package the last two days they had already hiked the strenuous climb to the beginning of the trailhead twice since they had nothing else to do and didn’t want to do it again with their packs on. Having received many rides from strangers in the past, I immediately offered to be their trail angel by giving them a ride up to the top. They let out sighs of relief and gratitude, and I felt so happy to pay it forward. I bought a few snacks from the visitor’s center, called the Hike Inn to let them know I was on my way, and then we loaded up Brittany and Angel’s backpacks into my SUV. Being from Florida they laughed about how the altitude change here has already been a struggle for them to adapt to. As we kept ascending higher and higher to the trail head Brittany exclaimed, “Ah, my ears keep popping!” They put their packs back on to begin the AT Approach Trail, right next to the Hike Inn trail. We got our pictures, said our goodbyes, and moved on with our separate lives. Those are my favorite kinds of interactions – the fleeting ones where you’ll probably never see each other again, but they leave a huge imprint on your life.
Feeling inspired by Brittany’s story, I decided I had enough strength and time to do the Amicalola Waterfall hike before heading up the Hike Inn. I’m already here – why not?? Fun facts: it’s 729 feet, 425 steps to the top, and the is one of Georgia’s 7 natural wonders being the tallest waterfall in Georgia. It took me about 30 minutes, but everyone is going to go at their own pace. I highly recommend taking your time, pause to breath, take pictures, and enjoy the scenery. I was able to take a different route back down that was less crowded and more of a trail than a staircase.
Hike Inn Hike
I bought some more snacks to fuel the rest of my afternoon, drove back up to the top of the trail head, and parked in somewhat of a parking spot. Know before you go: Arrive EARLY to get parking. I put on my backpack filled with one pair of shorts, sleep pants and shirt, toiletries, socks, flip-flops, a journal, a book, and some water. I had done this trail one other time, so I knew that I was in for a gradual incline most of the way with lots of rocks and roots, but most importantly, BEAUTY. The trail changes mile to mile with a different view, creeks and boards to walk over, and feels quite enchanting. At a brisk walk, it took me about 2 hours to make it to the top, but the park suggests allotting about 3 hours depending on your pace. There is an elevation gain of 1,200 feet putting you at 3,100 feet once you reach the Hike Inn so be prepared to conserve energy on your way up. Be bear aware: wave your arms, act tall, and make noise if you see a black bear, but never approach it or run from it.
Feeling relieved and accomplished when I arrived at the Inn around 4:15pm, I walked into the check-in area and smiled to the attendant blurting out with a smile, “Ah, I made it!” Seeing many people do this daily I knew it didn’t phase her much, but I was proud all the same. She marked me off the list, gave me a bag with bath towels and bed sheets, a key to room #3, and a run-down of the night’s itinerary. She reminded me that they are a “phone-free facility” in order for guests to truly unplug. There’s no WiFi available and very limited service, and even if you can get a signal to commit to no texting, emailing, or scrolling while at the inn. “Heck yes,” I thought. I thanked her and went to check out my room. Not luxurious by any means, but simple and comfortable. About the size of a large closet with one set of bunk beds, a built-in wall shelf and hooks, a small fan and heater, a small mirror, and a few other shelves with some spare blankets and pillows. What else do you need out here?? I made my bed on the top bunk then walked back to the lobby for a tour of the inn by Caitlynn McFee, naturalist at the Hike Inn.
History of the Hike Inn
Other couples and a family gathered in the lobby together waiting quietly to hear about the secrets of this place. As Caitlynn began her presentation, I could instantly feel her enthusiasm and passion for this job which made all the information she shared to be easily digestible. Built in 1998, the Hike Inn was named after Leonard Foote, a leading conservationist, biologist, and nature photographer in Georgia until his death in 1989. The inn’s vision is to carry out his dedication to preserving and studying the beauty of the outdoors. The Department of Natural Resources owns the Hike Inn and the inn is operated by the non-profit Len Foote Hike Inn, Inc. The inn received the Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) award in 2019 for being sustainable and eco-friendly. Their compost toilets use a natural biological evaporator that saves over 200,000 gallons of water each year, and the inn operates off 70% solar energy. They also have red wiggler worm beds to compost kitchen scraps and office paper which produces hundreds of pounds of organic fertilizer. The Hike Inn reminds us that “in nature there is no waste. Resources are made, used, and returned to where they came from to start another cycle. If we followed the ways of nature, there would be neither shortages nor scarcity. Rather, there would always be abundance.”
After a tour of the grounds, everyone headed to the dining area for dinner - which you can only imagine a room full of people anxiously awaiting food after hiking 5 miles up hill. Dinner is served family style only which kindly forces everyone to sit with strangers and talk to them in order to receive your food. Genius! I sat with two couples from Atlanta, GA who had also never been to the Hike Inn. We exchanged the usual information of our lives while devouring ham, broccoli, corn, salad, rolls, and a blueberry dessert of some kind. Caitlynn had explained before dinner that they strive for no food waste so, “clean your plate or you get a frowny face,” she said. That was not a problem! Every table was asking for more when we were done with our plates, and we all left with full bellies and smiley faces. Another fun, traditional moment was everyone clapping loudly to thank the chef and volunteers for their time. I discovered that if you offer to volunteer at the Hike Inn and do some grub work, you can stay for free. Check out the bottom of their website.
Next was Caitlynn’s local wildlife program where I felt like I was in school again. We sat outside overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains to learn about luna moths, bats, rabbits, timber snakes, and great horned owls. I had not witnessed someone being that enthusiastic about animals in a long time, and she loved putting everyone on the spot by asking them questions about each animal’s habitat, diet, and adaptations. She explained that many bat species are on the endangered list due to an exotic fungal disease called white-nose syndrome. The inn has a bat box to support bat population as they are an essential role in pest control, pollinating plants, and dispersing seeds. Without bats, many ecosystems would gradually die. Caitlynn mentioned that according to Georgia law, even if you have an HOA, you are allowed to have bat boxes in your yard. We learned other fun facts such as luna moths only live for about a day or two, the venom in snakes was an adaptation for defensive purposes, and owls can turn their heads 270 degrees, not 360 like most of us might think, as a way to watch for predators since their eyes can only look straight forward.
After the wildlife program, I walked into the sunrise room and observed others doing puzzles and playing games. I didn’t want to intrude on anyone’s family time, so I walked back to my room to read and write. I kept my door ajar and began to hear music and a woman speaking yoga cues. Since I’m a yoga teacher, my ears perked up, and I climbed down the bunk bed to join the class. One lady was teaching two other ladies who had never done yoga before, so I weaseled my way next to them and kept my mouth shut to be a student and receive the instructions. I didn’t have a mat, but I loved the feeling of the cool, uneven stone beneath my back. The ladies loved it and kept saying they felt like they were at a spa and needed to do this more often. We chatted for a bit afterwards then went our separate ways. I read for a little longer in my room then decided to call it a night around 10pm. With the door closed and lights out, it was like a cave in there. I slept very peacefully and awoke around 6:30am ready for coffee.
It was still dark out and quiet as I walked to the kitchen with my journal. I filled up a cup and sat on the porch in an adirondack chair staring out at the trees and still-dark sky. I can’t make this up – there was a man singing and playing a guitar in the sunrise room right behind me. Am I in a movie?? I sat back, smiled, wrote some thoughts in my journal, sipped on the coffee, and listened to the music along with crickets in the background.
As sunrise approached some of the guests gathered at the overlook to see what could be seen amidst the cloudy morning. A pink sliver poked out above a cloud, but was quickly recovered and almost looked like it was setting again. Beautiful all the same. We were also admiring the granite celestial calendar statue that was built as geometric art to capture the sun through a small hole to shine light directly back into a small cave. It only happens during the Spring and Fall Equinox. It took the artist two years to get it right since he could only adjust it twice a year.
All the guests gathered in the dining hall again for family-style breakfast, where we all sat in the same seats since we’re creatures of habit, and devoured piles of bacon, eggs, grits, and a blueberry casserole. We once again clapped loudly for the chef and the volunteers before saying goodbyes and packing up our belongings. I stripped my bed and returned my key to the front desk, strapped on my backpack once more and began descending the mountain. I decided to do some jogging since it would be mostly downhill. It was foggy and a little spooky, but in the way it “should” be in October. About halfway down the mountain a steady rain began to fall. I breathed it in and accepted the cleansing ritual. Of course, the rain stopped right when I reached the parking lot. I discovered with delight that my car was still there despite not being in an actual parking spot. “I wonder how Brittany and Angel are doing?” I thought.
And “what can I explore next?”
If You Go:
Visit http://hike-inn.com/ to learn more about this hidden gem, make reservations, volunteer, or donate. They are open year-round and fill up quickly, so reserve in advance!