Trail Love Letter: The Duncan Ridge Trail

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

There are 7 comments

  1. Sebastian

    Perfect timing! Just the kick i needed to be awake and focused on the effort ahead. Lining up for the CJ100 this Friday so love the article.

    Given your experience with Hardrock, WS, and a host of other races, this clearly a testament that this race is not too be underestimated. Looking forward to be there with all the expected ups-and-down physically and mentally.

  2. Chad

    Can’t wait to die a thousand deaths at Cruel Jewel next week! Curious to hear from those that have run multiple Hardrock qualifiers: how does this one stack up against others? I’m biased as I train almost weekly on the DRT, so would love to hear from others!

    1. AJW

      I have run CJ and Grindstone as well as Bighorn, Angeles Crest, Wasatch, Leadville and Western States (I know those last two are not HR qualifiers but just for perspective I put them in there). I’d put CJ on par or a little harder than Wasatch. Certainly harder than Grindstone, Angeles Crest and Bighorn. And, with the noon start in mid May the humidity can be brutal. But, with a generous 48 hours cutoff you can soldier through it. Have a great day(s) out there.

  3. David

    Looks like they runners may luck out for cruel jewel this year as the weather has been super mild. Humidity hasn’t struck yet (by georgia standards) and most days are in the mid 70s as opposed to the typical mid 80s this time of year.

    There are sections of the DRT that are as tough as anything I have seen anywhere in the country especially if running in the middle of the summer with the suffocating humidity. Lots of great races use it too like Cruel Jewel, GDR, and the Duncan Ridge 50k. North Georgia in general is a great place for some tough miles.

  4. Will

    I’ll be toeing the line as well for CJ 100 and am now even more terrified! Thanks AJW :)

    At least we have some good weather predicted and good luck to all the runners!

  5. Greg Loomis

    AJW, glad I didn’t read this until today…two days post my CJ 100 finish. LOL! Honestly in the very begining of this years CJ 100 I was thinkning that the DRT was honestly not that bad at all. The climbs are not all that long compared to training runs on the preist here in Virginia or climbs I have done in races out west (The Bear/Wasatch/Bighorn/ Cascade Crest/Leadville/Hardrock. But after 50 some miles the climbs out of Deep Creek and Weaver creek were RIDICULOUS. Both took me close to or over an hour. Then as the night lead into day number two and I hit the DRT for the return trip. WOW! This direction was hard. Miles 88 to 101 on my Garmin were some of the most brutal miles I have covered on foot. (By the way the race is not 106 miles. its at least 109…ask the RD)
    The CJ 100 is unrelenting with no real flat stretches to really roll or loosen back up other than a couple road sections. And due to the technical nature of the trails not allowing you to relax and just stroll downhill for an hour or two, like at a big western race, one becomes more and more fatigued. Because of this continuous beat down hour after hour I consider this to be the hardest “100” I have ever done. (Those bonus 9+ miles put it over the edge)

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