Where the Roads Don’t Go: North Georgia’s Hike Inn Posted by: Aaron Stearns | 0 Comments
No road can take you there. You just need some good hiking shoes, an adventurous spirit, and… reservations. The destination is the Hike Inn, a secluded lodge in the misty north Georgia mountains of the Chattahoochee National Forest, a couple hours north of Atlanta. You have to leave your car behind near the top of scenic Amicalola Falls, where, on a clear autumn day, you can just make out the tall buildings of Atlanta in the far distance. As soon as you hit the trail, though, the scenery shifts to nature. It feels a bit like waving goodbye to the hectic trappings of civilization.
That’s not to say that the Hike Inn is uncivilized—it’s supremely civil, in fact—but the way to reach this refuge is a five-mile hike that converges with the very same path that leads to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail. As I embarked with my wife and kids on a recent trip out to the Hike Inn, we quickly shook off the chains of our daily lives, but also expressed thanks that our destination was a mere five miles away, not the 2,184 mile ultra-hike that separates north Georgia from the other end of the Appalachian Trail in northern Maine. Five miles? That’s nothing. Yet, once you reach the Hike Inn, you realize that five miles is exactly the distance it takes to reach a setting that may reset your thinking on the whole notion of spending a night away from it all.
The well-marked trail makes for a relatively easy traverse, undulating, passing over creeks and rocks, surrounded by oak, hickory and pine trees. We hit the trail a day after a round of late summer rains, and a multitude of mushrooms had popped up and littered the landscape with buttons of brown, yellow, red and white. Mushroom spotting became our equivalent of big game hunting—bringing delight at each new discovery, and a few crestfallen seconds of disappointment when a mushroom turned out to be of a type we had already spotted. Two and half hours or so of leisurely hiking brought us to a clearing, and to the front porch of the Hike Inn, complete with rocking chairs and boot cleaners to kick away the dirt. As we entered the Inn’s doors, we passed into a world defined by its remoteness.
What you get along with the remoteness at the Hike Inn is a mixture of shabby luxury, bare-bones necessity, progressive sustainability, and an admirable respect for nature. The grounds and common rooms provide the sense of shabby luxury, a sort of log cabin chic. A progression of backpacks and trail maps serve as art on the walls of the lobby, and the inevitable view off the back porch draws you through the grounds. Once you reach that back porch, or the small lawn below it (complete with an astrological “star base” sculpture that lines up with the sun during the vernal and autumnal equinox), the calming view of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the hills of north Georgia reminds you that you’ve come a long way, and that the trip was worth it.
The luxury here is that of time, meeting fellow travelers, and being immersed in the outdoors. That back porch wraps around a comfortable game room stocked with all manner of board games, puzzles, musical instruments, and books. Couples, families, single hikers gather in the rocking chairs and swap stories of bear sightings (there was one hanging out in a nearby tree the day I arrived) or hiking adventures near and far. My kids settled into fast friendship with other children who had proudly made the hike, and they were soon happily ignoring the view in favor of a wicked game of Jenga. Meanwhile, my wife and I settled in with a cup of good coffee to take in the view and hear tales from other guests of their times in the African plains, the Tetons, even a nice little creek-side hike in the suburbs of Atlanta.
As for the bare-bones side of the Hike Inn, it’s the twenty guest rooms that best match that descriptor. Each room features two slender bunk beds and a few shelves, a pack of clean sheets and blankets to make the beds with, and a footprint approximately the size of a narrow closet. There’s not an electrical outlet in sight (except in the communal, and very clean, bathrooms). Yes, the guest rooms are meant for sleeping, and not much else. But with that view out the back and the camaraderie in the game room or dining room, there are better places to spend your time than in your room, anyway.
The most impressive aspect of the inn is how they’ve crafted an environmentally-friendly approach to keeping people comfortable out in the middle of nowhere. The Hike Inn was ahead of its time with sustainable design when it was built in 1998, and became the first existing building in the state of Georgia to be LEED-certified (the most prominent award for green building). As you take the (optional) tour of the grounds after you arrive, you will realize that everything around you has some aspect of sustainability built into it. After all, being a five mile hike away from the nearest parking lot, the Hike Inn has to take conservation of resources seriously. There are solar panels on the roof to provide part of the electricity needed on the property. The window design is geared to take advantage of natural airflows so that air conditioning is not necessary. The toilets are of the “waterless composting” variety, saving more than 250,000 gallons of valuable water every year, and are designed specifically to use air drafts to prevent odors from entering the bathrooms (it works! and also creates a, um, nice cool air flow around you when you sit down!).
In the kitchen and dining room, sustainability and conservation also play a prominent role. Given that all the ingredients for the hearty, home-cookin’ family-style dinners and breakfasts are hiked in by foot, discouraging food waste is important—everyone is encouraged to take as much as they want, but also to eat whatever gets put on their plate. Zero waste is the goal, and how well guests do during each and every dinner is tracked on a chart prominently displayed in the dining room. I’ll admit to taking on what my kids couldn’t finish—I couldn’t force feed them, after all, and the guilt of seeing a few ounces of wasted food with my name on it was just too much to bear. Whatever is left over gets sent down to a red wiggler worm ranch in the basement that helps convert food waste to compost. That’s nature in action.
Which brings us back to the Hike Inn’s mission—“to make experiencing nature easy, and help protect it through education and recreation.” The inn is actually a non-profit organization, in partnership with the state of Georgia since it’s situated in a state park. The staff lives on-site, supported by volunteers who hike in to help out, and you’ll find them all eager to discuss the Hike Inn and its setting amongst the north Georgia mountains. Evening programs include lectures on things like Georgia wildlife or the Appalachian trail; and, depending on the season, there are also wildflower or photography walks.
Bringing a camera with you is a great idea—my family and I took about a hundred different photos of all those different types of mushrooms we passed along the way up to the Hike Inn, then about a hundred more of the views and scenery once we got there. But, really, a camera is about as tech-y as you want to get out here. You can use your phone to snap photos, but trying (against the odds of reception) to make a call or pick up the latest sports scores? Leave that for another day. Another place. Anywhere but here in the north Georgia mountains at the Hike Inn.
As we headed off on our five mile return hike, it was with a mixture of readiness to return to full-on civilization (oh, how many emails must have piled up!) and sadness to leave such a special spot behind. But mostly, we were happy to have found our way to the Hike Inn, and refueled in the belief that there are places still on this earth, places still in the South, where the very nature of remoteness is embraced and celebrated.
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