Trail Love Letter: The Duncan Ridge Trail

AJW’s love letter to Georgia’s rugged and difficult Duncan Ridge Trail.

By on May 7, 2021 | 7 comments

AJW's Taproom[Author’s Note: This is the fifth installment of a monthly series to pay homage to some of my favorite trails. These are not trail guides, per se, but rather tributes to some of the finest running trails in the United States.]

Later this month, deep in the North Georgia Mountains, the Cruel Jewel 100 Mile will be held on some of the most challenging trails in the eastern United States. A big chunk of the out-and-back race will traverse the Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT), a 35.5-mile beast of a trail that traverses no fewer than eight knobs between the intersection of the Appalachian Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail on its western end and the terminus of the trail at the Coosa Backcountry Trail on the eastern end.

Generally thought of as the most notoriously difficult part of the Cruel Jewel 100, the DRT section is unique in that the trail goes straight up and over the steep knobs that dominate this portion of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. While many outsiders who know only of the Appalachian Trail on the eastern side of the country think that most of the terrain is benign, this particular corner of the world provides a decidedly different experience.

Cruel Jewel 100 race organizers are surprisingly matter of fact when describing the relentless ascending and descending between the gaps and the knobs: “Leave Fish Gap on the Duncan Ridge Trail through Sarvis Gap. Enter Rhodes Gap, and begin climbing the ridiculously steep Rhodes Mountain, then drop down to the junction of the Duncan Ridge Trail and Benton MacKaye Trail. The worst is now over, until the return trip.”

In many ways, the Duncan Ridge Trail is a throwback to the old days of trail building. Rather than chart the path around the knobs between the gaps, the planners and designers of old took a more simple approach and routed a course on the most direct route, even if that meant plowing straight up and over some of the steepest terrain in the entire eastern United States. The half or dozen or so times I have run the DRT, while I have traipsed up and down between the knobs and gaps panting with my hands on my knees, I have found myself cursing those trail builders of old as I have stumbled both up and down the frustratingly steep terrain of this forbidding trail.

I suppose nobody goes to the North Georgia Mountains looking for an easy stroll in the hills. And, on the DRT, the casual runner will find just about all the challenges they need. Later this month, another batch of intrepid runners, attempting to finish the Cruel Jewel 100, will come to face to face with the extraordinary misery of the Duncan Ridge Trail. I, for one, don’t envy them one bit.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Fannin Brewing Company in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Known for using all locally sourced ingredients, Fannin is popular in the area of North Georgia for their honest and tasty beers. Their WelchWeizen German Wheat is a unique take on the more typical hefeweizen. Generously hopped and refreshingly malty, WelchWeizen makes me feel more like I am in a Munich Beer Garden than the rugged mountains of Georgia.

Call for Comments

Have you run the Duncan Ridge Trail in Georgia? Leave your thoughts in a comment.

View on the Duncan Ridge Trail

Photo: Martin Schneekloth

"You are Not Almost There" sign on the Duncan Ridge Trail

Photo: Daniel Ott

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.