Fort Mountain is named for the ancient stone wall on its summit, which early European visitors believed was a fort. However, this “fort” long predates the mass arrival of Europeans to the New World and the concept of stone forts by around 1100 years. Cherokee legend attributes the wall to the “moon-eyed people”, a near mythic race of people separate from the Cherokee themselves. This idea has been woven into a thousand variations on the same entertaining idea – that somehow light eyed Europeans, (i.e. “moon-eyed” to the dark eyed natives), before the arrival of colonists in the 1600s, penetrated far enough inland and in sufficient numbers to climb one of the taller peaks at the edge of the Appalachians. Once they had bothered with this difficult task they then, on a barren, water-less summit, built a giant stone fort to defend themselves from the natives they no doubt pissed off during their passage.
A less…excessive…idea is that the “moon-eyed people” worshiped a god or goddess with oddly shaped eyes, from which the Cherokee derived their name. They built the “fort” not for protection, but as a large ceremonial complex sometime around 500 AD. They visited the complex but did not live at it permanently, negating the exposure and lack of water on the summit for prolonged habitation. The sighting of such a complex on a summit might instead have had astronomical reasons rather than practical ones.
Either way, its a cool wall, and the Gahuti trail which passes it is a great way to get out for a day .
Is it goat approved? Yes. I actually called the park office and got a live person to agree to the insanity of bringing a goat. HOWEVER – these trails are tight! A yearling or a smaller trainee goat will fit a lot better than the 200 pound behemoth if you are traveling on the west side of the Gahuti Trail or are planning to visit the fire tower/stone wall.
How you get there: I came up highway 52 from Ellijay, but whether you come from the south or the north you’ll have to take highway 52 to get there. Highway 52 is a classic mountain road. Be prepared to patiently wind your way up while resisting the urge to plunge to your doom by looking too long at the scenery and vistas. If you come up from Ellijay look for Cohutta Overlook before you get the park. It’ll be on your right. The view from the top of the hill there is a nearly 360 degree panorama of the mountains and well worth a visit.
Time for hike: The Gahuti Trail is an 8 mile loop. The eastern side is the more challenging and elevation changing than the western. At no point would I call the trail more than a moderate skill level, but overall the trail is pretty fun to hike and has a lot of variety.
Best season to do this hike: Winter only. The views are better in winter and almost non-stop on the western side of the loop with the foliage gone, (or, well, this is Georgia so more like diminished than gone). The colder weather also decreases the number of hikers and campers on the Gahuti and in the park in general to something approaching tolerable.
Trails to Take
WHERE TO START: You can park one of two places to start this hike. If you have money but not much time before the rest of the park visitors show up, you can park at the Old Fort Picnic area, visit the firetower and stone wall first thing, and then get out of the oncoming horde’s way by escaping to the Gahuti. If you don’t have much money, (a la college student or impoverished hiking nut), there is a small pullover inside the park entrance near where the Gahuti crosses but before the all important kiosk where the park ranger that wants your money sits. However, it will take you about 2 hours walking the eastern side of the Gahuti to reach the firetower and nifty historical wall…by which time many, many people may have arrived to visit said attractions. This in a nut shell is the final statement on the nature of life in modern society – those who have money get it easy, and those who do not, don’t.
GENERAL ADVICE: if you get there first thing in the morning I would walk the eastern side of the trail first. It has the most elevation gain and the views from the western side of the Gahuti Trail are best appreciated after the sun is up high enough to fully illuminate everything. The western side is also significantly flatter and easier…and who doesn’t want it easy on the last leg back to the car? Do not park at the small parking area at the Cool Springs Overlook – it is easy to have other people block your truck in!
TRAIL GUIDE: Having $5 on a hand, I started at the Old Fort Picnic area. The access point for the trails up to the firetower and old wall is right at the entrance to the parking loop, on your right as you drive in. Look for the trail kiosk and green pay station. The trail goes out that way and is yellow blazed.
The yellow trail will go on by itself for a while, making no sense if you are trying to use the map with the idea that the park map is to any kind of scale, (it really isn’t – that mile scale is a joke). You’re better off just wandering up the trail and keep an eye out. The trail will eventually fork in a confusing manner. You want the fork to the right, and keep on going up hill following signs for the ominous “Tower”. The fire tower will eventually come into view, and you just follow whatever footpath seems avaliable up to it.
After you inspect the wizard’s tower of the forest service, walk past the tower and look for a red blaze trail going downhill. You want that one. It will have a bunch of fancy stone steps. Follow it down and you’ll end up in a clearing where you can see part of the ancient stone wall that once encircled the top of Fort Mountain before the locals used it as a source of building material and souvenirs to sell to tourists. There are some side trails to let you walk the old wall’s perimeter and an entertaining kiosk about the conspiracy theories surrounding who built the wall.
After all this you want to go back to the parking lot. Yes, I know the trail says there’s a leg of trail from this maze of little trails around the firetower/wall down to the Gahuti. But you’ll spend more time looking for that than its worth. Just go back to the parking lot, walk down the road to where the Gahuti Trail crosses it, (less than a minute walk from the parking lot), and get on the Gahuti there.
I personally would, again, go get the east side done first. This will also let you visit the Cool Springs Overlook before the other park visitors arrive – which is important because you must physically walk through the wooden overlook to continue on the Gahuti. If you are coming later in the day when the overlook is likely to be full, don’t get on the Gahuti where it crosses the road. Instead, go down the road a little further to the Cool Spring’s parking lot and get on the trail where it leaves the parking lot. Lot less headache than weaving a goat through an outing of the Red Hat Society.
Anyway, once you get out of the tourist magnet area the trail goes along for a ways, then drops steeply down hill. This culminates in a walk along a series of streams. At back country campsite #1 there is a big, confusing sign that says “Gahuti” on it. What this sign means is, go left instead of continuing straight ahead. Watch for the orange blazes. Not much further along you will reach the intersection with mountain biking trail #301. Go right, and watch for the Gahuti to leave this wider trail near a bridge.
From here the Gahuti winds up hill. It comes up along Highway 52 and eventually crosses the park road right at the park entrance, and near the earlier mentioned other option for parking. Now you’re on the western side of the park. The trail will join a forest access road. The road goes out along the top of a ridge, eventually passing a glorious sitting spot with a bench that is the perfect place to stop for lunch if some mooney-eyed lovebirds aren’t already occupying it. It is also the warmest spot on the trail in the winter.
The trail passes campsite #2 and then joins up with the white blazed goldmine creek trail for a while. After the white blaze leaves the access road the Gahuti is running on will dead end into the road up to the cabins. The Gahuti veers off to the left just before the dead end. In winter you’ll be able to see the shelter marked on the map down hill from the Gahuti, and shortly after this the trail goes out onto the western edge of the mountain and the views start. Campsite #3 is out on a point looking off into the flat land beyond the mountains.
The Gahuti will meet up with Big Rock trail after you cross a small bridge. Go left to continue on Gahuti. When Gahuti meets up with Big Rock trail there’s a nice climb along what in wetter times would be a good looking stream as you clamber over and up rocks. After you leave Big Rock the trail will continue along the edge of the mountain until it meets up with the boring white trail, which has benches about every hundred yards and doesn’t appear to be visited much. Go right to follow the Gahuti when you run into your first bench and avoid this little loop trail as much as possible.
Beyond the white trail, just keep walking, and eventually the trail will bring you back up to the park road and Old Fort Parking Area.
- If you want to camp at the park ask them about their horse stables, which has stalls for rent that might also accommodate goat kind.
- The west side of Gahuti is tight and not recommended for massive beasts of burden with horns. I took a yearling instead.
- This is a high traffic park during every season but the cold one! Plan on coming early, (park opens at 7am), and choose a cold, cold day.
- You have to pay if you park inside the park. Usually $5, and bring cash.
- There are lots of acorns..so if your goat likes acorns, you may have a fight or two as they try to snack rather than hike.
- In drought all the creeks are pretty much dry and there are are no easy water sources on the Gahuti for goats.
- Park in such a way that no one can block you in at this park. Or they will.
- The park requires goats be on a 6 foot leash. However, if you get there early the Gahuti is relatively empty and with some care you can let the goat follow along at its own pace most of the time.
In sum: Screw looking for forest fires. I want to live in that awesome fire tower!