This 10 mile out and back section of the Appalachian Trail is perhaps one of the most beautiful and medieval-looking sections of the AT in Georgia. It’s as if it were crafted by prior, more rugged civilizations with moss-lined paths, rock steps, and laurel arches.
This route starts at Unicoi Gap at Georgia Highway 75 (2949 ft) and follows the border of the Swallow Creek Wildlife Management Area (on the north side) and the Chattahoochee Wildlife Management Area (on the south side), proceeds past the source of the Hiwassee River, over Rocky Mountain (4016 ft) through Indian Grave Gap (3139 ft) and Tray Gap (3842 ft) to Tray Mountain (4419 ft). Once you pass Tray Gap, you enter the Tray Mountain Wilderness Area, and as such, are far from human habitation.
Tray Mountain is one of the most popular summits on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. At an elevation of 4419 ft, the southerly views at the summit can be quite impressive, overlooking Hickory Knob (3369 ft) in the near-distance, Unicoi State Park in the mid-distance, and Helen Georgia nearer the horizon.
As are all US Wilderness areas, the Tray Mountain Wilderness is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System meaning it is "an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain" and "an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions." As such, this area has a special natural beauty that is becoming increasingly rare.
Access to this route starts at Unicoi Gap on Georgia Highway 75, about 10 miles north of Helen, GA. There is ample parking at Unicoi Gap, but during peak periods in the Spring and Fall parking can be overwhelmed.
After parking, you’ll start out by heading east, and uphill. You’ll soon pass the source of the Hiawassee River, which flows north and eventually joins the Tennessee River on its journey to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River.
As you continue to climb, you’ll reach Rocky Mountain at 4016 ft elevation. Views here are spotty, but (especially in the summer) you won’t doubt that you’ve worked for any glimpse of a vista you find.
Passing Rocky Mountain you begin your descent to Indian Grave Gap at 3139 ft. The Appalachian Trail just east of Indian Grave Gap is arguably among the most beautiful sections of AT in Georgia. Lots of Mountain Laurel and stone outcroppings.
The climb to Tray Mountain at 4419 ft elevation is strenuous, but worth it when you summit and look south. Views can be especially spectacular in the fall at the peak of color near the end of October.
I won’t lie, there’s lots of climbing (at least for the southeast) on this section of the AT. Additionally, while an incredibly beautiful trail, there aren’t many “wow!” vistas or waterfalls that will keep kids entertained and eagerly heading toward the next waypoint. I’d give it a “5” on the 1-10 scale of kid-friendly.
Dog friendly? There are no leash laws on this section of the Appalachian Trail, as long as your dog is under voice control. There is a reliable natural spring for water (about 3 or 4 miles in, and then again on the return) and, while there are strenuous climbs at times, the trail itself is certainly walkable by medium to large dogs who are used to physical exertion.