What: Bartram Trail, 110 mile designated National Recreation Trail through North Georgia and Western North Carolina (USA). Yellow blazes mark the path (sometimes).
Where: Southern terminus along Chattooga River (GA/SC border…river that movie “Deliverance” filmed on) in northeast GA. Following the path of 18th century naturalist William Bartram. Northern terminus on Cheoah Bald in NC (shared by Appalachian Trail).
When: Monthly overnight (and sometimes longer) hikes from October 2015 through May 2016
How: Light. Free. Often at night. Only sometimes squealing like a piggy.
Why: Because it was there. Wild. Wonder.
As I mentioned in in my 85 mile Bartram/Appalachian Trail Loop post and my other ramble ultralight backpacking post, I hiked the 40 mile Chattooga River Trail in January 2015 with my brother-in-law, “The Butterfly Effect” (AT southbounder 2011).
There we saw it! The beginning of the Bartram Trail!
Two paths diverged in the woods. And I chose the one back to my car.
And that made all the difference.
But I knew I had to go back.
I went home and researched what that trail was and where it lead. And wanted to know when I could start hiking it.
Who knew?! William Bartram explored much of the Southeastern United States in the late 1700s. His writing detailed early European living in the South among the Cherokee Indians he encountered. The 110 mile National Recreation Trail preserves some of his journey as a continuous footpath, though folks living in the South know that they can see “William Bartram Trail” signs and monuments all over. Bartram explored more than any scientist of the time, but much of his path is now buried under road, city, and asphalt. There are numerous “Bartram Trail” signs in my town of Athens, GA, for instance, but none are part of the 110 mile designated trail I hiked.
So, during Fall 2015, I set out to explore the 110-mile Bartram Trail by a serious of monthly section hikes (“section hike” being a term used to describe hiking an entire trail, but in pieces).
The section hikes:
January 2015-(red) First 10 miles of Bartram Trail coincide with the Chattooga River Trail, which my brother-in-law and I hiked. (40 miles, 2 nights).
October 2015– (pink) Warmoman Dell to Rabun Bald out and back overnight (26 mile overnight).
November 2015– (yellow) Warwoman Dell to Chattooga River (southern terminus) out and back overnight (20 mile overnight).
December 2015– (light blue)Hwy 106/Osage Mountain Overlook to Rabun Bald out and back overnight. With a summit of Scaly Mountain just to the north (18 mile overnight).
January 2016– “Off month.” Family cabin trip to the Smokies.
February 2016– Cold cold kept me away from the mountains. Overnight “yo-yo” out and back of 8 mile Panther Creek Trail in the Chattahoochee National Forest, GA. Stayed at low elevations this month and tested some winter camping gear.
March 2016– (light purple) Hwy 106/Osage Mountain Overlook to Franklin, NC, which included 10 miles of road walking. Parked my car in Franklin and was shuttled by a trail angel down to the start. (25 mile overnight).
April 2016– (dark purple) Back to Scaly Mountain with a friend and first time backpacker! Out and back. (16 mile overnight).
May 2016– (orange) Big loop hike completing the Bartram Trail and coming back to car on the AT. Blog post about it here. (85 miles, 3 nights).
A little info:
The above maps and elevation profiles are stitched and edited images from Brawny’s amazing Bartram Trail data book/guide that’s available for free online. While I would absolutely recommend getting the official maps (beautiful!….saw a dayhiker with one) and Bartram Trail guide books (author is amazing guy that runs a trail maintenance crew in GA), I ended up exclusively using Brawny’s data combined with National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps I had at home, for planning purposes. Cheap and easy sometimes wins the day.
For a REALLY amazing “quick and dirty” guide to the Bartram Trail, please check out Cam “Swami” Honan’s post on the subject. It’s worth noting that Swami did the Bartram Trail in 2012 as part of an 18 month, 15,000 mile ultralight adventure which included thru-hiking the Triple Crown (AT, PCT, CDT). That dude can HIKE! Woah….
If ya’ll are not following Swami’s “The Hiking Life” blog on social media, you are missing out!
OK! Let’s GET ON THE TRAIL:
I never wanted my hiking project to take away from family time, so my plan from the beginning was to leave work a little early on Friday; hike (even into the night for MANY hours); and come back the next day, hopefully home before the afternoon. This convenient plan started out super easy as Warwoman Dell (my starting point for my first 2 hikes) is less than 1.5 hours away from Athens, GA.
I kind of knew what I was getting into from having been on the Chattooga River Trail, but I was quickly reminded that the Bartram Trail is NOT the well-traveled Appalachian Trail.
It’s a path for those that seek solitude, adventure, and communion with the wild.
I summitted Rabun Bald TWICE (on 2 different hikes), but never got a view from its summit (weather and night hiking). Rabun Bald (4,696 feet) is GA’s second tallest mountain, but tallest “undeveloped peak” since there is a road up to the top of Brasstown Bald (4,784 feet).
With the opportunity to take an overnight hike EVERY month came the opportunity to test gear and different hiking tips/strategies.
Winter was coming but I was inspired to find a way to travel light and free in the mountains, continuing to plan and be flexible. Move in an ultralight manner but be safe and responsible.
I’m happy to report that, out of 8 months hiking and many many liters of water consumed by a thirsty hiker, I only very very rarely treated water on the Bartram (using mini droppers of Aqua Mira, my choice for over 15 years) and was NEVER sick!
Sickening behavior ensued nonetheless…
I had transformed myself from a father/husband/respected attorney-by-day…..to a dirt bag hiker. That didn’t even have the human decency to bring a darn stove with him! All winter! Eating primarily cold, spiced pinto beans (Fantastic Foods brand instant refried beans) soaked and rehydrated. Served with Fritos! Almost every trip!
I thought I was better than cold beans, but I was wrong.
Somehow…fueled by untreated water, cold beans, and a spark for the adventure, I continued my journey NORTH into North Carolina.
The section from Rabun Bald (GA) to Scaly Mountain (NC) to Wolf Rock (NC), which includes the NC/GA state line, was my favorite.
Scaly Mountain, in particular (pictured at the very top of this blog with me looking back at Rabun Bald), is the hidden gem of the Bartram Trail. 4,804 feet elevation and only a 1.5 mile hike from the parking lot, Scaly is wild and beautiful and accessible and the PERFECT day hike for anyone in the Sky Valley, GA area.
I think I found excuses to walk to Scaly’s summit 4 times over the course of my 8 month hike. For anyone that has ever made the hike from Neel’s Gap (Mountain Crossings, Walasi-Yi) up to Blood Mountain on the Appalachian Trail, I always comment that Scaly is the Bartram Trail-equivalent. Not as many people, but great view and butt-kicking climb up to it.
While I had hiked through the GA/NC winter, I was fortunate to have my first snow on the March 2016 section hike, which was the first hike that I didn’t do an “out and back”. It felt great to walk 25 miles and “get credit” for 25 actual NEW trail miles.
On out and back hikes, I was only seeing “new trail” in one direction. I’m not complaining, though! I saw something new every time I set back down the same trail I had just walked!
In fact, I think walking the same section of trail twice (usually once at evening/night and once during the day) deepened my relationship and CONNECTION with this trail.
When my friend Jonathon and I set out to hike Scaly again in April 2016, we had rain and cool weather. The forecast called for rain for a week in advance, yet Jonathon didn’t flinch at the idea of spending his first overnight hiking trip in “less than ideal” conditions.
I’m proud to have a good friend like that.
While you may be noticing that my photo DATES are out of order, it’s worth noting that all photos are in order as if we (together) were now hiking the trail from South to North.
So, from Scaly Mountain to Wolf Rock, you are up on mountain ridges walking in beautiful country.
From Wolf Rock there is a steep descent down to the valley, which begins the road walk into Franklin, NC.
The Bartram Trail has approximately 14 miles of (rural county road) roadwalking through the middle of Franklin, NC. Since the beginning of the project, I KNEW that I could not skip this official trail section but didn’t know what to expect.
The truth is that the roadwalk is beautiful, even if Swami identifies it as one of the “lowlights of the Bartram Trail.” From the valley, you can see the beautiful mountain vistas and cruise at 3 miles/hour. There’s no legal camping and the water sources are low lying rivers, so get r’ done in one day.
Just don’t ask ANYONE if you are on the Bartram Trail. The roadwalk has very FEW markings, but no one knows about the Bartram Trail or has any idea what you are doing. Literally, the folks LIVING along the roadwalk sections were very surprised to know their houses were along any kind of trail.
Not only was the weather changing throughout my project, but I was changing.
In a lot of ways, I was getting sick of lugging around a 2-man tent and other gear from 2005. I wanted to walk freer and lighter.
After having spent MONTHS on the Bartram Trail, I looked forward to my last section hike in May 2016. I had everything dialed in and I was ready to fly.
Heading north out of Franklin, the Bartram Trail has 4 more miles of roadwalk (14 total), but then quickly climbs Wayah Bald and joins with the Appalachian Trail for 3 miles. Having walked from Maine to Georgia on the AT myself, seeing those white blazes is always like returning home.
After summitting Wayah Bald, the Bartram Trail leaves the AT and plunges down to the Nantahala River.
When I had been on the trail in April 2016, Jonathon and I experienced cool temps and lows in the 40s. I planned my hike in May 2016 thinking I may find those same conditions in the mountains.
I was wrong!
Spring had fully sprung, especially at low elevations. Which meant that the Bartram Trail (the same trail on which I had never seen an overnight hiker my ENTIRE time out there) turned into a mess of dense, overgrown foliage and poison ivy.
I simply hadn’t planned for the spring/summer weather I was experiencing in May 2016. I had brought a balaclava and down jacket when I SHOULD have brought more soap and Tecnu to clean myself after 20 miles of bushwacking through poison ivy and chigger-infested overgrowth.
If you can’t avoid it, you gotta make sure you clean it off! I didn’t wash 3x or as thoroughly as I should have!
Once you claw your way through the low-lying river sections, the last 5 mile climb to the summit of Cheoah Bald, the northern terminus of the Bartram Trail, awaits you!
And dang! Switchbacks must not have been invented yet when they cut the trail up that mountain!
I was lucky that the end of the Bartram Trail didn’t signify the end of my hike.
Yes, my car was still 40 trail miles south of me (more details on that last hike on my blog post here)
But that’s not what I’m talking about.
The Bartram Trail was the first project in a new life I am building. And have only just started dreaming about.
The Bartram Trail will always have a special place in my mind and heart (and maybe skin, if my poison ivy rash leaves a scar) as being the first glimpse of everything else yet to come.
To paraphrase Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: the trail I’m working on is the trail called myself. And I’m still walkin’ that one.
Happy adventuring, ya’ll! Thanks for reading and looking!