“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, September 5, 2011

Len Foote Hike Inn

I’ve spent thousands of hours in the wilderness, from the tundra of Alaska’s Denali to the jungles of Costa Rica. In all that time I’ve seen dozens of different kinds of animals—gray wolves, grizzly bear, caribou, elk—but I’ve never seen a bobcat, that fairly common wild feline of the southeastern states. So when I see my son Val ahead of me on the trail silently motion for me to catch up with him, bobcats are the last thing on my mind. After all, we had just left the parking lot in Amicalola Falls State Park in northern Georgia less than an hour before. We are barely three miles into Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and, although the mountains are relatively untouched, this is far from a secluded wilderness. Yet he had met a bobcat in the trail.

We were hiking up into the mountains of Georgia to spend a night at the Len Foote Hike Inn, a cozy backcountry lodge that opened in 1998 and has quickly become one of the most popular attractions of the state’s park system. We had briefly looked at the topographic map of the area and the trail to the lodge didn’t look too strenuous; still, our experience with mountain hiking had taught us that hiking in the Blue Ridge is often an exhausting slog up steep and rocky trails. So we came prepared for a long hike over rugged terrain up the side of this mountain. What we encountered instead was a delightful trek through blossoming mountain laurel thickets and across splashing streams. Which is why we were so surprised to meet a bobcat—we felt like we were on a stroll through a park instead of way back in the mountains of Georgia.

That’s what I like about Len Foote Hike Inn—you’re only five miles from civilization but you feel like you’re dozens of miles into the backwoods. You can leave the crowds, traffic, and hustle of modern life in the parking lot and barely three hours later plant yourself in a comfortable Adirondack chair on the wide wraparound porches of the inn and sip a steaming cup of hot chocolate. The temperature differential between the inn and the state park can also be dramatic. The day we hiked to the lodge it was almost ninety degrees when we left the parking lot; at the lodge it was a cool and refreshing 65 degrees.

You also don’t need to worry about traffic and noise at the inn; the only way to reach it is by foot on the narrow trail we just hiked. But that has not deterred a steady stream of hikers from trekking up the mountain to experience the inn’s unique mixture of simplicity and comfort. The lodge is a modern rustic structure that looms suddenly out of the lush hardwood forest as you approach. It is a complex of twenty rooms surrounding an airy, two-story central lobby, an attached dining room, bathhouse (with hot showers), and a gathering room. The central lobby is designed with lots of glass, the result is a feeling of being outdoors while indoors. The sleeping rooms are small but adequate. Bunk beds and a shelf line one wall, on the other wall hangs a mirror and wooden clothes pegs; that’s about it—this is not a four start hotel stocked with all the amenities but it is comfy and inviting. The inn sits amidst a lush forest of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and majestic oak and hickory trees. These is no other sign of civilization for miles around so even when the lodge is full, there’s plenty of rambling room on the grounds and in the surrounding forests. If for some reason you get the urge to roust yourself out of your chair, you can follow the trail past the inn further up to Springer Mountain, the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, four miles away.

This will work up your appetite for the inn’s excellent meals. The cook rings the cast iron dinner bell which brings guests from all parts of the forests and grounds. Dinner is served family-style at long tables in the dining room. On our visit we shared our table with the night’s other nine guests, hungrily wolfing down a hearty meal of lemon pepper chicken, twice-baked potatoes, broccoli, peas, macaroni salad, potato salad, and the best homemade cornbread in northern Georgia, with cupcakes and ice cream for dessert.

We dawdled over after-dinner coffee and hot chocolate with our fellow guests, getting to know each and then waddled into the Sunrise Room, where a well-stocked library and games kept us occupied until late evening. As dusk settled over the surrounding countryside, we wandered back out to the porch and watched as the fading light turned the sky into inky blackness. Sitting 3100 feet up near the peak of a mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest, the inn offers a scenic panorama of the surrounding area. Off to the southeast we could see the twinkling lights of the city of Dahlonega. But to the east and north all was dark, the thick forests undeveloped and pitch black.

The mountain air quickly cooled as the sun set and we headed for our room. The rooms are unheated but the stacks of fleece and wool blankets in each room will fend off all but the coldest nights. It got down to 48 degrees when we were there but we were warm and toasty in our room and fell asleep to the hooting of an owl.

We awoke to something quite different; the pounding of a drum. Penny, our cook, was giving us fair warning that the sun would soon be rising over the eastern horizon. Trust me, this is a sight that is worth stumbling out of a warm bed for. We gathered on the eastern slope of the mountain and watched the orange sun tiptoe up over the hills. A great send off for our hike back down to the real world.

Details: The Len Foote Hike Inn is located at Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville, GA, about four hours from Huntsville. The Inn is open year round. Reservations are required and accepted up to 11 months in advance. Call 1-800-864-7275 for reservations. Call well in advance, the popularity of the inn means that some date fill up quickly. Rates are $65 per night per person (children under 12 are discounted) and include dinner and breakfast. Weekdays are often available but weekends may be booked up several weeks in advance.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

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