Yonah Mountain Was a "Bear", But We Did It!
Yonah is the Cherokee word for Bear.
In an earlier post, I revealed that Yonah had long mesmerized me. Each time we took a trip to North Georgia, whether we were going to Unicoi State Park, Helen, Blairsville, or Vogel State Park, we passed by Yonah. (Yonah Mountain is located between Helen and Cleveland, Ga. on highway 75) And each time we'd pass by, I'd catch Yonah staring at me. For years it was if she was taunting me...daring me. I just couldn't get it out of my mind. Not only that, but each time we'd pass by, I'd insist on stopping and taking a picture of the great mountain. Though size wise, Yonah isn't that spectacular, her shape and her unique granite face causes her to stick out among the other peeks in the area. She is the largest peak in the Peidmont Range of the Chattahoochee National Forrest and her elevation is 3166 ft. The trail leading to the summit is 2.5 miles long and there is a gain of 1400 feet. This mountain hike would prove to be both challenging and strenuous, but very rewarding, as well.
Leading up to our hike, I did quite a bit of online research about the mountain and had even watched a few YouTube videos. Nothing that I read about or watched seemed to deter me from this endeavor. I was sure that we could do it, and we did.
In spite of the rocky trail, at times there were inclines which were very difficult for us. In fact, I actually started getting blisters on the back of my heels for the first time ever while hiking. Other times, the trail required us to climb over boulders or climb stone stairways. Thankfully, the day that we hiked was dry, though the area had recently received quite a bit of rain. Additionally, there were areas along the path in which the trail would narrow significantly, perhaps to about 8-10 inches wide. And while this didn't necessarily pose a problem for us, it was quite demanding when this happened along some of the side ridges of the mountain. The drop was quite steep and would've caused serious, if not fatal injury had one of us slipped and fell.
Adding to the excitement of this hike was the fact that a group of Army Rangers were performing maneuvers on the mountain. According to Wikipedia, the 5th Ranger Training Battalion conducts the Mountain Phase of Ranger Training on the mountain. On three different occasions, we were met along the trail by a squad of Rangers making their way down the mountain. (They were being shuttled to the mountain by a helicopter that made multiple landings at a staging area near the top of the mountain). We would gladly step aside until they all passed. Many of them would acknowledge us with a smile and a "good morning". I couldn't resist telling a few of those young men that I was proud of them and I thanked them for their service. Having served in the Armed Forces myself and being deployed twice during war time, I really have a great appreciation for those special people that sacrifice their personal freedoms in order to protect and serve our country! Seeing those young troops on that mountain made my eyes water, just as they seem to always do when I hear the Star Spangled Banner played.
Just below the peak of the mountain, my wife and I found a ledge with a breath-taking view and decided to have our picnic. Wow! The scenery was stunning! I was in awe! Not only was I up there on the side of that mountain with an incredible view, I was there with the love of my life, and I'd dare say that she is equally as beautiful. We enjoyed those few moments together and reflected on how thankful we were for having set out to accomplish this difficult task. It was during those moments of quiet reflection that we could often times hear instructors yelling at those young troops to "step off the ledge!". (They were rapelling on the granite face of the mountain to our left. We couldn't see them, however, as they were slightly around the mountain from us and there were quite a few trees between us.)
This was our view from the ledge where we had a picnic!
Once we finished eating, we took a few more pictures and continued our journey to the top. We arrived not long afterwards. At the summit, we were somewhat unimpressed with the view. In fact, though we had previously learned, the summit is simply a large grassy area surrounded by trees. To gain the optimal view, as we learned, we had to follow some side trails down to the ledge of the granite cliffs. It is there that we fully realized what we had accomplished. It is there also that we reflected on the magnificent beauty before us and we thanked God for allowing us to do what we had done...God is so good! This sentiment was especially true to me as I stood out on a ledge high above the valley below watching three to four hawks soaring out beyond where I was standing. Initially, they were below me, but one of them actually flapped his wings enough to gain a higher elevation than me. It was a great scene watching these magnificent birds just soaring...coasting! I thought to myself, "I wonder what they are thinking as they are just soaring above the land so high...so free". I did my best to capture the scene with my camera and then we proceeded to make our way down from the mountain.
The descent from the top of the mountain was quite a bit easier than the trip up, except for the fact that our toes stayed cramped into the front of our shoes during some of rather steep grades. The loose gravel on parts of the trail where the grade of the declines were most severe really added to the difficulty. I would add, however, that I performed a front "moonwalk" to perfection on more than one occasion. My wife was impressed and we did make it down safely with no trips or falls.
To summarize our hike, it was a wonderful experience for the both of us and I'd highly recommend that it be placed on your list of "things to do", especially if you plan to visit the Helen, Ga. area. Though my wife and I primarily hike state park trails two to three miles in length, this five mile round trip hike was particularly challenging for us in that it was the longest that we had ever attempted. It was also the first mountain in which we hiked to the summit. Overall, I'd say that this is definitely a strenuous hike and it is not one that I'd recommend to someone with no previous hiking experience. I would add, however, that it is not so difficult that someone with no previous hiking experience could not make it. Obviously, health condition should play a crucial role in whether or not one should make the attempt to hike Yonah, and I would recommend that a novice shouldn't attempt the hike without someone that is experienced with mountain hiking. Also, as I previously stated, while the views from the summit are less than spectacular, the big payoff is to follow the trails from the summit out to the edge of the cliffs. You won't be sorry!