Honeymooning in the Chattahoochee-Oconee

Honeymooning in the Chattahoochee-Oconee

Our wedding day was amazing, and we’d like to thank all our friends and family for the tremendous outpouring of love and support that was given to us. We are lucky to be surrounded with wonderful supportive people who have chosen to grace us with their love and friendship. We were immensely saddened that we could not invite everyone to attend in person, and we are looking forward to a day when everyone can gather and celebrate the lives that we are all building together.

After the wedding, we celebrated the day with champagne, shrimp, and kind words from family and friends. We showed appreciation to the DECS Scouts who helped us prepare by awarding merit badges—a practice we borrowed from other scouting organizations but made our own. For us, a merit badge is a token of appreciation or accomplishment and can be awarded to any Scout by any Scout for any reason. Merit badges can be any small, displayable token—I prefer enamel pins, but patches, stickers, and other such items are acceptable. 

As day turned to night the party dwindled to a small group sharing a campfire and soon everyone had departed or gone to sleep. In the morning we sorted what was ours from what was borrowed, tidied up a bit, and packed for the honeymoon—finally departing around 5 PM. As we sped toward our mountain get-away it dawned on us that in all the pre-wedding hubbub we hadn’t taken the time to do any research about the space we would be visiting. Except for a few basic facts, we were flying blind.

We knew that we had a mountain cabin outside of Elijay, GA reserved for the week. After our last stay with Airbnb, we were careful to seek out a property with a large bed and comfortable amenities—including some wilderness of its own to explore. As we passed through Elijay and into the countryside we were anxious to see the result of our diligence.

The highway had given way to a series of winding country roads, before turning onto a long gravel trail that led to the cabin we’d call home for the next week. The recently built cabin rested on a slope between Wolfpen Mountain and Oliver Creek. It had a large bed, ample bathroom and kitchen space, vaulted ceilings, a screened in porch, and a hot tub. We were quite pleased with it and settled in for our first night against the babbling of the creek.

In the morning before we set out to gather provisions, we looked at the surrounding area and found a forest of hemlock, hickory, pine, and oak trees interspersed with mountain laurels, trillium, and purple violets. With the babbling of Oliver Creek, it was the perfect kind of secluded for a soothing get away. We could not have asked for a more inviting location to be the base camp of our first adventures as man and wife.  

Over the course of Monday, we took care of the necessaries: getting groceries for the week, shoring up forgotten equipment, performing regular maintenance on our vehicle, and doing some research about the part of Georgia we found ourselves in. We discovered that North Georgia houses a wide variety of attractions and it would take some deliberation to decide what to do with the week ahead of us.

We eventually settled on a selection of interesting waterfall sites and a notable WMA. When Tuesday arrived, after sleeping in a bit, we moved quickly to get underway. We rode north toward the Toccoa River with the intention of visiting Fall Branch Falls near Cherry Log, GA, but were quickly sidetracked when we spotted a sign for Blue Ridge WMA that signaled the road to Springer Mountain and the start of the Appalachian Trail.

I doubt I need to tell anyone about the Appalachian Trail, but for the sake of it: The Appalachian Trail or AT is one of several notable transcontinental trails in the United States. It starts in North Georgia at the summit of Springer Mountain and travels 2,192 miles across 14 states, eventually ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine. It should be noted that adding an international leg that travels through Newfoundland, Greenland, and into Europe and Africa known as the IAT. In addition, there is a southern leg beginning in Key West, Florida that when added to the AT, comprises the Eastern Continental Trail. While it may be an effect of geographical locality, the AT was the only one I learned about as a child.

From Doublehead Gap Road, the route to Springer Mountain is 6 miles of winding gravel road that skirts the southern boundary of Blue Ridge WMA. The southern view, while obstructed by trees, still garners wonderful views of a southern range of Blue Ridge Mountains, giving clear precedent for the name. The misty blue skies meet the green forest covered peaks of the mountain range in a placid blend of color that stretches out farther than the eye can see on a clear day.

As we followed the winding gravel road toward Springer Mountain, I reminded Rebecca that I had been aware of, and had wanted to hike the AT since I learned about it as a child—that it was the first item on my proverbial Bucket List. I lamented the fact that in all that time, I had never once set foot on it or seen it in person. Despite the desire, it had been left by the wayside… until today, and I could not be luckier than to have found someone who encourages me to follow my dreams, pushes me toward opportunities to do so, and embraces those experiences with me.

We reached the parking area and examined the marker that showed us as just under a mile north of Springer Mountain and just over 2,191 miles south of Mount Katahdin. It was decided then that we would hike out to the summit and log our first miles on the AT, a goal that I have carried for much of my life and put off for far too long. 

Many hikers prefer not to backtrack the first mile and opt to start on the Appalachian Approach Trail located in Amicalola Falls State Park that approaches Springer Mountain from the south—for them, the first mile of the AT is a nice polite downhill stroll. For hikers that choose to backtrack the first mile it is considerably more difficult—the rocky trail traces the western slope before turning south as it approaches the summit.

After a trek that felt longer than it was, we reached the summit—the view there was amazing and we took a while to rest and enjoy it while watching the birds and speaking to other groups who were, similarly, enjoying a respite from their trek. When we returned to the car for lunch, we were proud of what we’d accomplished. Though only a small part of the larger journey, we had done it, and we know that when the time is right—we’ll finish it together.

From there, we spent the afternoon following the Noontootla Creek through Blue Ridge WMA. The Creek, like so many in the area, forms from streams of mountain runoff, cutting its way from valley to valley as it contributes to ever larger rivers and eventually enters the Gulf of Mexico by way of the Mississippi River. Noontootla Creek Road follows its course as it cuts across the WMA toward civilization.

Blue Ridge WMA has the distinct honor of being the first wildlife management area in the country—the property, and much of the surrounding national forests, were the first tracts of land purchased through the combined effort of federal and state funds. The preserve existed for many years before being named Blue Ridge WMA around the same time that the AT was formed. One of the most appealing things about Blue Ridge is that, because of its remote location and difficult terrain, the logging companies who had previously owned the land had not harvested the timber. A watchful eye can spot old growth hemlock trees that easily predate the American colonies and were likely to have been established during the middle ages.

Our favorite stop along the route was a sleepy little campsite in an evergreen grove of hemlock and pine trees with its grounds covered in a soft carpet of terracotta leaves and the sounds of the Noontootla babbling through a nearby laurel slick. We knew it’d make an ideal home for a weekend getaway and  began planning a return trip immediately.

We followed Noontootla Creek Road back toward civilization and used the paved roads to reach one more point of interest on the edge of Blue Ridge WMA. The Benton Mackaye Trail (BMT) begins with the AT and travels north through three states before rejoining the AT at Davenport Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains. As it leaves Blue Ridge WMA it crosses the Tacoosa River at Swinging Bridge. We had just enough time before night fall to cross the river and stroll through the forest once more before turning in for the night.

Wednesday came, and we were excited to get back into the wild. This time we cut right to the chase and set out for Cohutta WMA by midmorning. Unlike Blue Ridge, which was less than a 20-minute drive from our door—Cohutta took us more than an hour to reach despite it being only 23 miles away (as the crow flies). As you can guess, the Blue Ridge Mountains make quick travel between two points impossible.   

It was around noon when we turned on to Old CCC Camp Road and passed our GPS waypoint. There was a moment of panic when the address provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) marked the location of someone’s home, instead of the entrance to a WMA. We scrambled to check maps and had to wait through the sporadic cellular service. After verifying that we were on the right path, we continued and quickly found an entrance to the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest at the crossing of Holly Creek.

If you ever find yourself near Chatsworth, GA we highly recommend riding out Old CCC Camp road to Holly Creek. The US Forest Service has established a group of picnic areas and other points of interest along its banks and the creek looks to be a good fishing haunt. We made notes for a later trip. As we turned away from the creek, we found ourselves on another winding gravel road into the mountains and while we didn’t see an entry sign for Cohutta WMA, we did see the telltale boundary signs that inform travelers that they’re entering public lands. Sometime later we came across a ranger check station and took a break to familiarize ourselves with their map of the property.

Cohutta WMA is massive— encompassing some 96,503 acres along the North Georgian border. It is home to two lakes, numerous mountains and streams, and over 158 miles of hiking trails, including a leg of the BMT. The property is maintained through the combined efforts of the US Forest Service and the Georgia DNR. During our trip to the Check Station we had passed several signs pointing the way to Lake Conasauga, and as we stared at the printed maps considering the best route through the WMA, we found ourselves drawn to the lake. We decided we would seek it out, even at the risk of encountering closed seasonal roads in the effort to find it.

The route to Lake Conasauga from Old CCC Camp Road includes several scenic views, including a picnic site near a waterfall on Barnes Creek and an overlook presenting the south eastern range of the Blue Ridge Mountains including Fort Mountain—both were beautiful. After a journey that seemed to take forever, we reached the parking area just short of the boat ramp and set out on foot to see the lake.

The waterfall adjacent to the Barnes Creek Picnic Area
The waterfall adjacent to the Barnes Creek Picnic Area

For us it was a journey well worth the time. We walked the casual lake loop trail and enjoyed the lush forests, lowlands, and various infrastructures that have been built around the lake—including picnic pavilions, campgrounds, and a swimming area. We found it to be relaxing, beautiful, and a nice reprieve from the car ride.  

Lake Conasauga, North-Eastern view
An image from the shores of Lake Conasauga of Cohutta WMA.

On our route to the exit, we found one more overlook—with an eastern view of North Georgia. From there we followed Mill Creek towards Chatsworth and back into civilization. We spent the next day in our cabin learning about the plants and places we had visited and piecing together the composite images I had captured in the days before. The mountain fauna is beautiful and distinct from what we’re used to in South Georgia, and it took some time for us to understand. The rainy weather had kept us indoors all day and we were beginning to feel the cabin fever, so after diner we sat down with our butterfly identification guide and penciled the new names that we had given some of the butterflies.

A composite of the Mill Creek Overlook of Cohutta WMA
A composite of the Mill Creek Overlook of Cohutta WMA

When Friday came, we were excited to get back on the road. We had made plans to visit with friends in Huntsville, AL and decided to swing through Cloudland Canyon on the way. The views were stunning and the literature detailing their hiking trails was marvelous, but we were quick to move on. We were eager to see our friends and wish them well and, as it was midday on a Friday, tourism was booming. After a quick trip between overlooks we returned to our vehicle and began the drive to Alabama.

It was rather late in the evening when we reached our cabin. We slept soundly that night and in the morning, we took one more look around the property and began the trip home. We spent the ride talking about all our favorite moments from the week before—and there had been quite a few!

-JCM

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