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Len Foote Hike Inn leads the way in innovative conservation
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The Len Foote Hike Inn offers a picturesque view of the north Georgia mountains. - photo by Jessica Taylor

As guests trek through beautiful mountain trails, they welcome the sight of the Len Foote Hike Inn, which is both a step back in time and a step into the future.

Only accessible by a five-mile hike through Amicalola Falls State Park, the Hike Inn offers incredible views, a chance to unplug from life’s hustle and bustle, an inviting family experience and a basement full of worms. 

In the fall, the forward-thinking and environmentally friendly backcountry lodge will celebrate its 20 year anniversary. The inn also recently won the 2018 Fulcrum Lifetime Achievement Award from Southface for its efforts in sustainability and conservation.

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After a five-mile trek, guests are welcomed to the Len Foote Hike Inn, nestled high in the north Georgia mountains at Amicalola Falls State Park. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Named after Georgia conservationist and biologist Leonard Foote, the Hike Inn honors his legacy and passion for environmental conservation by preserving the wildlife around the lodge and reducing waste materials to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

In fact, the Hike Inn was one of the first two buildings in the pilot program for the Leaders in Energy Efficiency Design certification in 2003, the second building being the National Geographic Headquarters.

“The state park built this way before LEED certification – all that kind of stuff – was a thing, but they built it with energy efficiency in mind and conservation in mind,” said Executive Director Eric Graves. “The state park was actually way ahead of their time. [They have] done a really phenomenal job designing not just the property itself and the conservation standpoint but the systems we operate with. They were very ahead of the time on that.”

Since the inn’s beginning in 1998, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club (GATC) has run the nonprofit organization which Graves describes more as an environmental group than a hotel group, though it is both.

The self-contained inn is isolated from the rest of the world, only accessible by a service road for supplies and a hiking trail for the guests which created a question the GATC had to answer: How can the Hike Inn be self-sufficient with limited access to outside resources?

And the answer came beaming down bright and clear: Solar energy.

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Solar panels were installed in the summer of 2017 thanks to a grant from All Points North Foundation. The panels are part of an initiative Len Foote Hike Inn has dubbed “Above the Grid,” which helps to produce a majority of the inn’s power. - photo by Jessica Taylor

Thanks to a $60,000 grant from All Points North, Graves and his team installed an “Above the Grid” solar initiative, consisting of three large solar panels capable of providing 70 percent of the inn’s annual electric energy, in July 2017.

With the new solar panels in place, some of the lodge’s electricity bills have gone from a high of $1,200 to as low as $300 this past year.

While the Hike Inn has had solar power since 1998 via a passive solar system mounted to the top of the bathhouse and photovoltaic panels installed by BP Amoco above the sunrise room in 2003, it had been 15 years since the inn had been able to expand its solar efficiency.

“It’s amazing how much more efficient solar panels have gotten in 15-ish years or so,” said Graves, who explained that solar panels have gone from 30 watts to 340 watts since he’s been at the Hike Inn.

The addition of the new solar panels meant that trees had to be cleared for their installation, but the wood isn’t going to waste. It’s been stockpiled to be used in the inn’s wood burning stoves to keep the lobby and sunrise rooms nice and toasty for guests in the cold winter months.

But the conservation efforts guests love most are behind the scenes in the basement.

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The Hike Inn uses red wiggler worms to compost food and paper waste as one way to be eco-friendly and reduce pollution in the environment. - photo by Jessica Taylor

“We try to get rid of as much food and paper waste as we can by composting it. We use red wiggler worms to compost food and paper,” Graves said as he lifted a tarp, unveiling hundreds of wiggly worms. “These little guys are eating half their body weight a day in food. The worms are something that the guests love.”

Many guests come back just to retake the tour of the facility and make a point to visit the worms that are responsible for producing hundreds of pounds of organic fertilizer that is used on site.

Also being used on site is the byproduct of the composting toilet system: “Humanure,” which is used to fertilize nearby trees, shrubs and flowerbeds.

The six compost toilets available to guests in the bathhouse are waterless and odorless and use a ventilation system to release air up above the tree line. Underneath the bathhouse are three composting systems that dehydrate human waste materials and encourage naturally occurring and healthy bacteria growth.

Overall, the waterless system saves the inn over 350,000 gallons of drinkable water every year.

While guests don’t necessarily come to the Hike Inn for a lesson in energy conservation, Graves hopes that he can provide some education and tips guests can take home and implement in their everyday lives.

Though it’s not exactly feasible for guests to go home and install solar panels and a compost toilet system, Graves said being mindful of food waste is something everyone can do.

“Most people think about conserving electricity, turning lights off and adjusting your thermostat. Most people think about fuel costs and not riding all the way into town for one thing…but most people don’t think a single thing about wasting food,” Graves said.

After guests have taken a gander at the red wiggler worms eating leftovers, they think twice about wasting food when they sit down for a family style dinner in the dining room.

The friendly kitchen staff talks about not being wasteful with food, even weighing leftover food on guests’ plates to see how much waste was produced during the meal – which they keep track of on a chart.

“It’s just trying to get people to look at conserving food because it takes water, electricity, fuel to get food to your plate,” said Graves. “Most people don’t think about it that way…it’s so easy to get food that you don’t think about it.”

Whether or not guests intend to learn some important money saving and environmentally friendly tips at their stay at the Hike Inn, Graves hopes they walk away with just a little bit of the lodge’s message.