As we climbed Frosty Mountain, each step brought us farther from Georgia’s warm spring landscape of budding azalea trees and blooming daffodils. We rose on the trail following the lime green blazes, vertical lines painted on trunks to mark our way. The deciduous trees grew bare. Though not as rocky as the Superior Hiking Trail, the twisting narrow dirt path had many step-ups and bumpy tree roots.
My stepmother Myrna and I paused to catch our breath at a panoramic overlook. I inhaled deeply, smelling the damp earth, as my eyes took in the mountain vista. We hiked on, crossing clear streams and marshy bogs on hewn logs. One creek had a railing to hold onto while we crossed on slippery rocks. A friendly middle-aged father and college-aged son stopped to chat before passing us on the trail, as did a few others headed toward our shared destination.
After three hours of walking the 4.8-mile ascent, we rounded the last hill and saw the Len Foote Hike Inn and its wide porch, lined with Adirondack chairs. We’d arrived at this eco-lodge with simple but comfortable rooms surrounded by the Chattahouchee National Forest, where we’d dine on home-cooked meals, make new friends and learn about environmental conservation in a beautiful setting.
We scraped the mud off our shoes using the brushes provided and made our way up the wide wooden stairs. Natural light filled the reception area, streaming in through two-story windows. An array of historic backpacks decorated the plywood walls. Tucked in the corner was a shelf of books for borrowing.
Our host, Diane Duffard, welcomed us and handed us our room key along with two cloth bags containing our linens: a bath towel and washcloth, bottom and top sheet and a pillowcase for our bunk beds. An outdoor walkway led to our room with a fan, a radiant heater and abundant wooden hooks and shelving for packs, jackets and clothes. Myrna spread out on the top bunk to relax while I ventured out to explore the inn.
The lodge is a series of small buildings on stilts that descend the hillside: the reception room and 20 guest rooms, the bathhouse, dining hall and the Sunrise Room. Their construction was designed to disturb the land as little as possible.
The bathhouse has six individual composting toilets and very clean men’s and women’s bathing rooms with showers, sinks and mirrors.
The dining hall is filled with four long wooden tables for family-style dining — one of the joys of the Hike Inn — and the kitchen, which feeds wayward Appalachian Trail hikers as well as lodgers.
The top tier holds the cozy Sunrise Room with windows on all four sides, a porch with rocking chairs, and, when we were there in March, a crackling fire in a potbellied stove. Families gathered around tables or lounged on the cushioned benches doing puzzles, playing games, reading, while looking out at the beautiful mountain view. One of the attractions of the Hike Inn is its no-electronics policy, which encourages social interaction.
An inn on stilts
At 5 p.m., a bell rang, and those of us interested in the official tour of this backcountry wonder gathered in the reception room. Duffard’s detailed narration included the history of the lodge.
The Hike Inn, at Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, Ga., is owned by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, but run by the nonprofit Len Foote Hike Inn, Inc., part of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club. The building was designed by architect Garland Reynolds and constructed in 1998. Sadly Len Foote, the lifelong conservationist who championed the project, did not get to see its completion.
The buildings stand on stilts to decrease erosion and allow for the natural filtering of rainwater. The design maximizes natural light and air circulation, the modest sleeping accommodations conserve space and solar panels produce 70 percent of the electricity. The inn is LEED-certified and strives to educate guests about ecological living, composting and curtailing food waste.
Duffard led the tour to the worm composters in the basement — an efficient and remarkably unsmelly means of turning waste into soil — and to the granite celestial calendar that aligns with the rising sun during the fall and spring equinoxes. The Star Base, an opening in the trees that holds the calendar, doubled as a fun playground for some of the children in our group.
When asked about the challenges of working in such an isolated location, Duffard responded with an enthusiastic “I get to live on top of a mountain!” As volunteers stay for free and the inn is open year-round except for Dec. 24-25, many of us were already contemplating a return visit to live on top of the mountain, too.
Friendly, family-style dinner
Dinner was served at 6 p.m., but most people gathered early at the long wooden tables. Everyone got a mug and labeled it for future use — between meals, the colorful cups lined the window sills of the dining hall. The 24/7 beverage table was enchanting for a tea drinker like me; hot and cold water, coffee, lemonade, iced sweet tea, and tea bags for hot tea were always available.
Myrna and I sat with the friendly father and son we’d met on the path, Ted and Thomas Baker from Wisconsin. Like me, they thought the 30- to 40-degree weather was balmy. Also at the table was a charming mother and college-aged daughter duo — the Hike Inn was clearly the spring break of choice for college kids who wanted to spend quality time with their parents rather than on a rowdy Florida beach with friends.
We had an animated conversation over our meal of thick turkey slices, mashed potatoes, salad, bread and Brussels sprouts. We were careful to eat the all food on our plates, as there is a no-waste policy for practical and ecological reasons: Food must be brought up the mountain, though in summer, the inn’s gardens provide additional fresh vegetables. Food is served family-style, but the inn is happy to accommodate special diets if notified in advance. Lunches, with enormous cookies, are provided for an extra fee by the lodge.
The others at our table were staying two nights and doing the 8.8-mile round-trip to Springer Mountain, southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the next day. We were advised to take the Appalachian Spur trail for our return trip, as it had an easier descent.
Ted Baker and folks from some other tables hung around the dining hall after dinner for Duffard’s PowerPoint presentation about her thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. It was an entertaining and honest slide show detailing all the challenges of packs, bears and diet.
A silvery sliver moon rose over the mountains. Families with younger children drifted to the Sunrise Room for group games and puzzles. Adults gathered in silent companionship in the reception room to read in comfy chairs under yellow glowing lamps. I perused the “yearbooks” for the Appalachian Trail, learning more about this amazing challenge.
After my last cup of steaming herbal tea, I took a delightfully hot shower and snuggled under the covers of my cozy bunk bed. Our room was toasty warm. With slightly sore legs and content stomachs, we drifted off to sleep.
Hearty breakfast starts day
A dreamy sunrise spread pink and orange light around the mountains and valley as lodgers sipped coffee on benches and porches, welcoming the morning. Breakfast was hearty hiker fare: scrambled eggs, bacon, grits and an amazing peach oatmeal cobbler. Duffard instructed us on the checkout procedure as stay-over guests picked up their bag lunches. The outdoor walkways bustled with people depositing linens in service bags. In the reception area and on the decks, people zipped up jackets and backpacks, preparing for their hikes. Everyone was jovial, and it was sad to say farewell to our new friends.
Myrna and I took our tablemates’ advice and descended on the Appalachian Spur trail: It was longer but smoother and easier, as it was maintained by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Hiking Club. Once again, we ran into the Bakers on the trail and parted ways at the intersection confluence, as they headed to Springer Mountain and we returned to the state park. Down (and sometimes up) we hiked. The trail had far fewer rocks, streams and marshes, but many more hikers.
March is the month that the thru-hikers start the Appalachian Trail in Georgia as they make their way northward toward Maine. We passed almost 30 hikers in all kinds of preparedness and physical fitness: Some were red-faced and slow from exertion; others had small packs and a light, fast clip. All but three hikers were men, though we were inspired by a number of elders taking on the trip.
We called out a joyous and hopeful “First day?” greeting as we inquired about their destinations. One guy had already run out of water, and we shared half of a large bottle.
We reached the parking lot in early afternoon, making the hike in the suggested three hours, as we had when we hiked in. We trotted the short distance to view Amicalola Falls, one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi. Its cooling spray showered our faces.
We loaded up the car, filled our water bottles for the way home, and stretched our tired legs, our minds filled with new knowledge about sustainable living and thoughts of the mountains.
Kathryn Kysar is a poet, writer and professor from St. Paul.