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In The Footsteps Of Len Foote

By Carol Antman for the Island Eye News

Here’s a plan for future fun:  put a trip in your pocket.  Even if you think you have no time to travel, once it’s on your calendar months away, your life will mysteriously clear a path.  Some of the Southeast’s most popular adventures require advance planning anyway.  I booked our trip to Len Foote’s Hike Inn Dawsonville, GA six months ahead to coincide with the fall colors.  The moderately easy five mile trail to reach one of our country’s few hike-to inns passes through a forest of hickory, pine and oak trees and across some pretty little streams.  It’s Georgia’s most popular hike and one of the 36 best hikes in the country according to Backpacker Magazine.  After about three hours of walking, my husband and I caught sight of our destination peeking through the fall leaves like the candy house from Hansel and Gretel.  

The Hike Inn provides food, bedding, towels, heat and hot showers so you don’t have to carry in much.  Its beautiful architecture includes roomy porches with rockers, a sunny “Sunrise Room” with games and a large dining room with long tables.  We’d struck up a conversation with a hiker coming down as we went up who aptly described the bedrooms as “closets.”  They’re just large enough for a bunk bed, stool and shelf, hence the opinion of one hiker who described her stay as “one of the most unusual anniversary trips ever.”  Romance is not the idea here.  “Just look around,” said Robert Smith the general manager “We’re here for a reason.  We want to educate and recreate.”  Robert shares the passion of Len Foote himself, a conservationist in the 1950’s who inspired the cartoon Mark Trail. Foote built his own solar heater in the 1970’s which makes his namesake lodge a fitting legacy since they pride themselves on conservation and stewardship.  The showers are solar powered, the toilets are compostable (and odorless) and the leftover food is fed to red worms in a vermiculture program that creates compost.

The tight-knit staff accommodates 9,000 overnight visitors a year.  Like the others, Terrance the cook, was attracted to Len Foote’s vision of stewardship.  “I quit the computer world, hiked here one day … asked if they had an opening and took the job.”  He’s up early and working late to cook big batches of stews, baked goods, soups, roasts and other hearty food.  To discourage waste all the uneaten food from plates is combined after each meal, weighed and posted on a big sign.  Rachel, the staff naturalist has a degree in biology and ecology.  She delighted in showing us a rattle from a dead rattlesnake she’d found.  When asked about snakes in the vicinity she said, “We caught a fair amount, copperheads mostly,” which they removed to another location.  

Sunrise is the big event.  The Adirondack chairs with the best view filled first as everyone got up early to watch the spectacle of the sun rising over the Blue Ridge Mountains and especially to view it through the “Star Base.”  This huge granite construction was built by Atlanta’s Fernbank Science Center to commemorate the two yearly equinoxes.  During those events, the rays of the sun are channeled to a cave wall through a cylinder in the sculpture.  But every morning you can peer through the sculpture’s rock window as it artfully frames the rising sun.

Most folks stay overnight at the picturesque Lodge at Amicalola Falls right at the trailhead before or after their hike but we wanted to explore nearby Dahlonega. In the 1830’s this little town was swarmed by 15,000 newcomers who’d heard that the streets were paved with gold.  They weren’t entirely wrong.  The streets glistened from the trailing’s of the area’s numerous gold mines which were mixed into the pavement.  For almost 100 years the area mined gold commercially.  Today the town’s draw is recreation.  A huge bicycling race was going on, dozens of waterfalls beckoned, wineries dot the area and optimistic folks still pan for gold.  

We rewarded ourselves with a stay at the historic Smith House.  The roomy villa guestroom was a welcome contrast to the bunkroom we’d shared the previous night.  One of the Historic Hotels of America, Smith House began life as a private home but was converted into a quaint guest house in the 1920’s.  Each comfortable room has a unique character.  The original owner, Corporal Frank Hall, struck a rich gold bearing vein several feet wide while excavating the site in 1899. Local restrictions prevented mining the shaft but it remains as a glass-enclosed curiosity under what is now the hotel’s popular restaurant.  Just off the town’s pretty little square, Smith House provided a great location for strolling around the small town.  

People often exhaustively plan all kinds of things but balk at planning fun.  The Southeast is full of adventures.  Put a trip in your pocket.  

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