Tom Lamb decided to move to Dahlonega from Birmingham, Alabama, because he wanted to be closer to the Appalachian Trail.
He was an avid hiker and thought he would get to the small North Georgia town and learn about the trail from local residents. That didn’t happen.
“I found out a lot of people in Lumpkin County didn’t even know what it was and didn’t know anything about it,” Lamb said.
Yet Dahlonega has long been a hub for hikers getting ready to begin or end their hike on the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. When the city was named an Appalachian Trail community in 2011, Lamb helped it celebrate by hosting Trail Fest, a three-day event honoring all things outdoors, with himself as chairman.
The event, now in its eighth year, is set for Sept. 7-9 on the downtown square in Dahlonega.
“It really started off specifically as an Appalachian Trail festival, and people that came to it had all different kinds of interests,” Lamb said. “So about two years into it, we expanded it out to not just be the Appalachian Trail.”
The event is attended by thousands of outdoors people every year. Lamb said the reason he thinks it’s been so successful, especially in recent years, is the involvement of outdoor store REI Co-op.
Trail Fest includes food and drink along with local vendors, speakers, a film festival, activities and demonstrations. The event was busy last year with just two food vendors, Shenanigans and Bourbon Street Grille, so Yahoola Creek Grill is being added to the lineup this year. There will also be beer from Jekyll Brewing, mead from Etowah Meadery, wine from Tiger Mountain Vineyards and cider from Urban Tree Cidery.
But the key part of Trail Fest is the knowledge guests gain from everyone who attends.
“Our most popular thing we do every year is called a thru-hiker panel,” Lamb said. “We get five or six people who have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail before, and they just answer questions from the audience.”
This year’s featured speaker is Jennifer Pharr-Davis, who set the male and female speed record for completing the Appalachian Trail in 2011 (46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes); though it has since been eclipsed, she still holds the female record. She’s an author and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Co., a guiding service that creates hikes specific for each guest. Lamb said she’s popular in the world of hiking, so he’s excited to have her and hopes she draws a big crowd.
Last year, one of the popular additions was the mountain bike pump track set up by REI, which allowed visitors to test their own bike or use one provided by the store on a 160-foot wooden path. Lamb said everyone loved it, so it will be back again this year.
There will be booths for guests to learn about hiking, along with kayak demonstrations from Outside World Outfitters.
“Dahlonega is the closest town to the southern end of the Appalachian Trail, which is Springer Mountain,” Lamb said. “We’re 2 miles closer than Ellijay — which the guidebooks tell people to go to Ellijay to access the trail. One of the things we want to do is let people know Dahlonega is here.”