Since I was in college, I have been driving up to Mountain Crossings on or near New Years Day. Sometimes, I would drive to Fort Mountain and walk out on that platform to enjoy a late day view. This year it was Neel Gap, without the “s,” that got my attention.

In recent years, the Mountain Crossings store that’s on top of the Gap has become a novelty since the Appalachian Trail (AT) goes straight through the lower portion of the building. We have photographed the store repeated times and while I took a couple of photos again this year, I had a greater goal in mind.

More about my “greater” goal in the next photo. For now, this is Neel Gap in late afternoon winter sun. I love the way the hardwoods become brilliant with light.

My goal for the day was to check out the approach trail (the Byron Reece Trail) to the AT and then to see if the trail on to the top of Blood Mountain was as difficult to hike as people write about.

The trail starts off rolling through a very well traveled rhododendron forest, but you quickly find yourself climbing higher—an altitude gain of close to 500 feet.

We crossed several small streams on our way up. I was glad that I was there on this day because the weather was mild and even warm. We were ready to take jackets off before we got to the top. I can only imagine how slippy these rocks will be by this weekend when temperatures drop. In fact, we saw ground ice near the top.

For years, I have avoided this trail because I listened to “tales” of how this mountain was so difficult. It was late in the day and we stopped along the AT but I knew that I could have easily kept going. So, I’ll be back soon. This hike is only a couple of miles (one way) but not as difficult as Waterrock Knob. One guy told me to just take breaks along the way due to the quick altitude gain.

Pat and Anne are standing on the AT but we all know by March this will be a major route for AT Thru Hikers heading to Maine.

Pat asked me if a friend I know would have hiked this part of the trail and I said yes. She was probably really zooming at this point. Hikers are up on a ridge line with plenty of great views and the AT here is a fun walk. I think later, it becomes more duty or an obsession than fun.

Blood Mountain is located near the county line of Union/Lumpkin county in Northeast Georgia. It’s the highest point on the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail (4,458 feet), and has some incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The name comes from an interesting native American legend.

It has been said long ago there was a great battle between the Cherokee and Creek Nations on this mountain. According to the legend so many warriors died in the battle that their blood ran down the sides of the mountain and into the rivers turning everything red. It is easy to see from that legend alone how the mountain got its unique name. The Cherokee also thought that Blood Mountain was home to the Nunnehi. The Nunnehi were a spirit people that watched over hunters and people hiking through the region.

Because it’s the highest peak on the Georgia section of the AT, and has a very high, open, rocky peak it is also the single most popular hiking destination in the entire state. There is plenty of parking below Neel Gap but because it is such a popular area, many people have to park along the roadway. One thing for sure, you won’t be the only person on the trail heading north.

You never know what you will see on the Appalachian Trail! I have witnessed so many crazy moments but weddings always take me by surprise because you have to hike up usually through some mud to get to a rocky overlook. This bride in a very low cut dress hiked the mile up, crossing streams along the way, to get to her photo destination. She had her mud boots on just like her husband, who is standing to the right in this photo. She happily posed for me and then we left so she could have her photos taken in the light of a winter sunset.

And yes, in the background is a hiker and his dog on their way to spend the night somewhere along the trail!

So for now, the woods are asleep. The trees are bare and the rhododendron are folded down—its a way of protecting against the colder weather. But notice what is standing high above the leaves—a bloom and our promise of hope and the return of spring.