Faculty Spotlight: Climbing High with Associate Professor Amy Pritchett

Amy Pritchett suggests some great hikes in Georgia and around Atlanta, and shares some stories from her global hiking adventures

How long have you been at Georgia Tech and where did you grow up?

I'm a faculty member in Aerospace. I started in January of 1997. I'm originally from Calgary, Canada. I grew up with summer camps in the Canadian Rockies, hiking, canoe trips down the Bow River and Athabasca River, horseback trips up around Banff National Park. All that great outdoors stuff.

So you've been a lifelong outdoor enthusiast?

I have. When I was an undergraduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts it was harder to get out hiking, so I jumped at any opportunity I could. The summer between my junior and senior year I did 900 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

I started in Damascus, Virginia, which is right where Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina all come together. It was also where the bulk of the through-hikers would be at that time, so while I was officially solo I could at least join in with a crowd, and the services that people tend to put out would all be available.

Since then I've loved hiking, and whenever I have an excuse to travel as faculty on Georgia Tech business I love adding a bit of time on my personal time to the front or back end of the trip. There was a conference in Sweden where I ended up hiking in the fjords in Norway. I didn't do any serious backpacking there, but even day trips out of a lot of those places are great. 

Since then I've had kids, and the oldest is almost 12. He also loves hiking, so some of our recent family vacations have begun being those types of trips where we add time at the beginning or end. Two years ago we had an excuse to be in Europe and we went to Switzerland. Elliot and I did some hut to hut hikes up in the Alps. 

We got some great views, and I have a wonderful picture of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Mönch. 

Then this past summer my husband and I taught in the summer abroad program in Limerick, Ireland. Elliot and I flew in a week early and we hiked a thing called the Wicklow Way.

It starts on the city limits of Dublin and goes south through the Wicklow Mountains. At the start of it when you're just south of Dublin the mountains are pretty fierce and you're in national parkland or national historic areas. The trail goes by may historic points like Glendalough, which contains an old Irish monastery that was burned by the British. As you go further south the trail becomes more pastoral with farmland and country lanes. They have rules there that state that anybody can walk on private farmland as long as you follow the rules. Watch out for cows and lumber trucks, and that sort of thing. So the Wicklow Way was 131 kilometers and at the very end there's a pub and if you go in and order something they give you a little commemorative map that they stamp with your dates. So those are some of the big hikes that we've done recently.

I've loved hiking in Europe because it's got a different feel from hiking in America. Here hiking is about roughing it and the rugged individual. It might be something a parent does with their kid. In Europe you might hike from B&B to B&B or from alpine hut to alpine hut. There's a notion that wherever you arrive you're going to sit down to a communal dinner. There's an air of congeniality, and alcohol is served at all of these places. you put your feet up and enjoy local beer or local wine as you eat local food. It has a very different feeling. 

What are some of your favorite places to hike in Georgia that you can recommend to readers?

When the kids were little we started doing some small hikes, like the stairs at Amicalola Falls, or the Appalachian Trail Hike Inn. We've stayed at Vogel State Park, and we've done the Coosa Trail recently with Elliot. He and I have also been working on the Appalachian Trail backpacking. We've done a couple overnights there- Springer Mountain to Neels Gap.

Amicalola Falls is a lot of fun with kids. There are about 600 stairs to climb, but then there's an all you can eat buffet at the lodge at the top. Then you can take the east trail down the side. It goes through the woods and avoids the crowds and it's an enjoyable hike. I especially love doing that pretty early in the morning to beat the crowds on the stairs, then we linger on the way down after lunch. It's very scenic. It's about a mile up, and two and a half down if you take the east trail. 

Staying at Vogel and hiking out of there is a lot of fun because they have so many trails. We recently took some friends and rented a three-bedroom cabin for three different families. We all had different notions of what hiking was and came with different types of footwear and clothing. Vogel gives you so many options, like a one mile walk around the lake to the four mile Bear Hair Gap which has a nice viewpoint that makes you feel like you accomplished something. If you want to do the Coosa Trail you'll go along long ridges and then join parts of the Appalachian Trail at Slaughter Gap, and from there you can hike back down to Vogel or keep going over Blood Mountain, which is beautiful on a good day. If you just do the loop starting and ending at Vogel it's about 14 miles. If you go up Blood Mountain and then come down at Neels Gap you can cut off a couple of miles but you have quite the grunt going up and down Blood Mountain. So those are some of our favorites.

When it's colder out I've been loving Pine Mountain. FDR's Little White House is on the edge of it and there's a place called Dowdell's Knob where FDR used to have picnics, and there's a brass sculpture of him there. It gives you a great view of South Georgia. It's about an hour and a half away, down by Callaway Gardens. At FDR State Park they have CCC built cabins and camp spots right on Delano Lake. They have a whole bunch of trails that run along the Pine Mountain ridge that give you nice views on either side. Unfortunately they are one-way trails, so it helps if there's someone happy to drive you and drop you at one end or the other.

Those are some of my favorites in the area, especially with kids. Anything farther away than that and the drive isn't really worth it for me with kids. 

For us the Hike Inn was an adventure as well. It's 4.9 miles each way from the top of Amicalola Falls where there's a parking spot. The kids feel all victorious. It's rated one of the most scenic trails in America because you follow the ridge line, and on a clear day we've seen the skyscrapers of Atlanta. It's not a challenging trail, but for kids it's a big deal. It does go up and down the ridge and along creeks, so it's beautiful. Then at the end there are bunk beds and composting toilets. You're kind of roughing it, but you don't have to carry a tent or sleep out in the open with mosquitoes. You do have to book it a long way in advance if you want to spend the night. High season weekends book out 10 months in advance.

What do you recommend in the immediate Atlanta area?

There are some wonderful local hikes right in Atlanta. Jonah McDonald has a book, "Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests: Intown and Out" and it's wonderful. He was a thru-hiker. When he came back to Atlanta and settled down he started investigating hikes within 30 miles of the Gold Dome. About 20 of them are inside the perimeter. For example, there are a few miles of trails around the lake on Emory's campus. There's another trail behind Northlake Mall. 

Sweetwater Creek State Park is neat on multiple levels. It's one of the newer state parks and was formed around several interesting things that happened to be co-located. One was a reservoir that needed to be protected as a water source, and it has paddle boats and whatnot. But you can also rent kayaks there that you can take through a tunnel under the road to a more protected area where there's an eagle nest and a beaver dam that you kayak up to. Next to the protected water was this different area that used to be the town of New Manchester which had a population of 1,000 or 1,500. Then Sherman's troops came and burned the only reason that the town as there- one of the few cotton mills in the South. It's still standing now, and they filmed one of the Hunger Games movies there. The mill itself is historical. The bricks were made by slaves, Sherman's troops burned it and carved their initials into it, and so forth. the town was eventually unincorporated and abandoned, so when you're hiking through the woods you see indentations where buildings used to be. They recently acquired some farms at the top of the hill, so there are some markers for old power lines or water mains, and you realize that this used to be somebody's home. You can do a five-mile hike by the mill that takes you through the crowded part, but also includes the farms where you might see deer and it's not so crowded. The visitor center is fun too and explains the history of the area.

The trails in the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area are nearby, but they can be very crowded, especially on weekends. Personally I tend to avoid them because of the crowds, but it depends what you're looking for. Overall there are plenty of options in the area, so everybody interested in getting outdoors should be able to find something.