Hike 12.4 miles on the strenuous Coosa Backcountry Trail in Union County, Georgia, to see diverse flora, Coosa Bald, wilderness and scenic areas.
By Tim Homan
Coosa Backcountry is a challenging day hike for experienced walkers. But beginning hikers, especially hikers unaccustomed to the roller-coaster elevation changes of the mountains, should follow the advice of the rangers at Vogel State Park, who strongly recommend this trail as a backpacking trip, not as a day hike. A further recommendation: beginning backpackers who have not developed the strength to lug packs up long, steep grades should not attempt this trail. Both backpackers and day hikers need a permit, available at park headquarters, to walk the Coosa Backcountry.
Like the shorter Bear Hair Gap Trail, Coosa Backcountry is a loop blazed so it can be walked in either direction. And because it is a loop, the trail gains and loses exactly the same amount of elevation – 3,480 feet up and 3,480 feet down – hiked in either direction. Thus the location and steepness of the ascents and descents become the most important consideration when choosing your direction. Following the loop counterclockwise gives you a chance to warm up and make a few easy miles before the long climb to Coosa Bald begins. A clockwise direction, however, forces you to climb 1,820 feet to near the top of Slaughter Mountain, drop 860 feet to Wolfpen Gap, then climb another 880 feet to near the top of Coosa Bald – all within the first 5.4 miles.
The loop section of Coosa Backcountry Trail begins at 0.3 mile. If you want to walk in the easier direction, turn right onto the road. If you want to go against the flow and do it the hard way, continue straight across the road. This description follows the easier, counterclockwise route.
Less than 0.1 mile after turning onto the road, the trail bears right at a sign, quickly crosses Burnett Branch, then follows an easy-to-moderate upgrade through a largely deciduous forest to GA 180 and Burnett Gap at 0.9 mile. Coosa Backcountry, which began at an elevation of 2,320 feet, crosses the highway at 2,800 feet and continues, after a turn to the right, on an old logging road. The loop descends gradually along slopes dominated by tuliptree to 2,020 feet, where it crosses the West Fork of Wolf Creek on a log bridge at mile 3.2.
After crossing the creek, the trail turns right onto FS 107, Wolf Creek Road, then turns immediately back left into the woods. Here the path climbs steeply for the first time. Once atop the hill at mile 3.5, the trail winds along the steep slopes of Ben Knob, gradually gaining elevation to Locust Stake Gap (2,540 feet) at mile 4.5. From Locust Stake Gap the trail continues level or upward to another gap, Calf Stomp (3,100 feet) at mile 5.8. The steady and often strenuous 1,060-foot climb to near the top of Coosa Bald (4,160 feet) begins here across Calf Stomp Road. Along the way, a rivulet to the right and below the trail (mile 6.1) is the last source of water on the way to Coosa Bald (mile 6.9) and beyond to the final descending section, which begins at mile 9.9.
After the loop crosses a nearly level section of Coosa Bald’s broad crown, it ties into the blue-blazed Duncan Ridge Trail at an old road. If you want to finish the walk to the mountain’s highest point (4,271 feet), turn right onto the road and follow Duncan Ridge Trail for 0.2 mile. The “Coosa” bench mark embedded in a knot of protruding rock pinpoints the exact spot.
Coosa Backcountry turns left onto the old road and joins Duncan Ridge. Together they descend sharply, first by rocky road, then by rocky, switchbacking path. At mile 7.4 the trail turns left onto Duncan Ridge Road (FS 39), follows it for 30 yards, then returns to the woods on the left side of the road. Here the treadway ascends a moderate, 0.3-mile grade to the top of Wildcat Knob before continuing its rugged descent to Wolfpen Gap (3,260 feet) at mile 8.3.
At Wolfpen Gap the trail crosses GA 180 onto a dirt road, then immediately turns left onto the path. The loop’s next 0.9 mile rises to the upper slopes (approximately 4,140 feet) of Slaughter Mountain. The first 0.5 mile of this climb is the trail’s steepest grade. After 0.7 mile of easy walking on the moist mountainside, Coosa Backcountry turns 90 degrees to the left and begins a 1,820-foot descent to Vogel State Park. This turn is marked by a sign and double yellow blaze at mile 9.9. (Duncan Ridge continues straight ahead to Slaughter Gap.) The trail’s final segment makes switchbacks through an area of lush ferns, small streams, and big boulders. At mile 11.0 the path turns right and completes the loop on a treadway shared with Bear Hair Gap Trail.
Coosa Backcountry traverses botanically rich areas – moist, rocky slopes, hardwood coves, the Coosa Bald mountaintop. The section of the loop from Calf Stomp Gap across Coosa Bald is a wild garden. The Forest Service has designated Coosa Bald Cove as a Botanical Natural Area. This 244-acre tract preserves and protects the cove’s unique plant communities. A short segment of the trail wanders through the southeastern corner of the botanical area.
North Georgia’s most beautiful spring-blooming wildflowers can be found along the trail. The showy orchis, which has small purple and white bi-colored blooms, is fairly common. This orchid usually flowers from mid-April through early May.
The corridor of the Coosa Backcountry Trail is now almost totally protected. North of GA 180 the trail makes a half circle through the 7, 100-acre Coosa Bald National Scenic Area. After it crosses to the south side of GA 180 at Wolfpen Gap (walked counterclockwise), most of the remaining mileage is within the 7,800-acre Blood Mountain Wilderness.
Note: Because much of this trail is routed outside of Vogel’s boundaries, its regulations differ from those for other state park backcountry trails. Here there are no reservations, no designated campsites, and no fees associated with camping along the trail. However, you must still obtain a permit for both day hiking and backpacking at the visitor center, and you must still pay all necessary Park Pass fees.
Miles 5.8-7.1: Good wildflower displays in spring and early summer. Mile 6.9: Top of Coosa Bald.
Vogel State Park is located on the west side (left if you are heading north) of US 19-129. From Turners Corner, where US 19 joins US 129, continue north on US 19-129 for approximately 10.5 miles to the park sign and entrance road.
From the Blairsville square, travel south on US 19-129 for approximately 10.3 miles to the park sign and entrance. Because trailhead parking is very limited, park rangers ask that hikers park at the visitor center and walk the short distance to the trailhead.
To reach the Vogel State Park access trail, turn left immediately after the visitor center. Just before the road forks, look for a set of stone steps and the Nature Trail sign to the right. Follow the green-blazed access trail 0.1 mile from the first trail sign, past a wooden overlook, to the second sign. All of the park’s trails begin and end here.
Both Coosa Backcountry and Bear Hair Gap Trails turn left at the end of the access trail at 0.1 mile and follow Burnett Branch. The trails soon cross the branch and arrive at a sign next to a road. Here, at 0.3 mile, the loops of both trails begin and end.
This hiking guide to the Coosa Backcountry Trail is adapted from The Hiking Trails of North Georgia by Tim Homan and is published in cooperation with the publisher, Peachtree Publishers. With his meticulous attention to detail and accuracy, Homan has long been recognized as the authority on North Georgia hiking trail by serious hikers. His other books include Hiking Trails of Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wilderness, Hiking the Shining Rock and Middle Prong Wilderness and others. For a complete inventory of his books see his Amazon Author Page. For an inventory of Peachtree Publishers books including its Nature books for children, go to the Peachtree Publishers website.