By Clint Williams

Set atop a ridge overlooking the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains, the Len Foote Hike Inn at Amicalola Falls State Park in north Georgia offers a sweeping view of the foothills, the lights of the old gold-rush town of Dahlonega and distant peaks to the east. The 20-room lodge, celebrating its 10th anniversary in October, also offers a close-up view of how thoughtful design and day-to-day diligence combine for low-impact living.

The Hike Inn was built for those who love the outdoors, but aren’t so crazy about sleeping on the ground. Guests arrive on foot, hiking a five-mile trail that takes you through a deeply shaded forest of oak and pine, tulip poplar and maple; through tunnels of rhododendron and patches of pungent galax, a broadleaf evergreen groundcover. Your steps will be lighter, though, knowing that a hot shower and hot meal are waiting for a you at the end of the trail.

The inn, named for the naturalist who inspired the Mark Trail newspaper comic strip, was designed to provide accommodations “somewhere between a tent and a Holiday Inn,” says architect Garland Reynolds of nearby Gainesville, Ga.

Traditional Japanese inns inspire the steeply pitched roofs and deep eaves, Reynolds says. And there are practical concerns: the eaves provide shelter from rain and snow as you move from the bunkhouse to the bathhouse to the mess hall and on to the Sunrise Room, the social center of the inn where guests gather around a wood stove, reading, chatting or playing one another in a collection of board games. The covered deck off the Sunrise Room (pictured above) is the place to stand, coffee cup in hand, to welcome the crimson streaks of daybreak.

The inn’s design also is aimed at preserving as much of the wooded landscape as possible. The four buildings that comprise the inn were built on pilings to minimize grading. Composting toilets are used, in part, because building a septic tank leech field would have meant cutting down many more trees. And the trees that had to be felled provided firewood to heat the inn for its first four seasons.

The 20 rooms in the bunkhouse are Spartan, little more than an 8-by-10 foot wood box with bunk beds. There is a wall-mounted fan and a ceiling light – burning, of course, a compact fluorescent bulb. There is no electric outlet to charge your iPod or cell phone. Cell phones, in fact, are banned on the grounds.

When the inn was built, there was no heat in the rooms. Electric space heaters were added later, a concession to winter nights at 3,100 feet. Some guests that first winter spent the night in the lobby or Sunrise room where you find the woodstoves.

The bathhouse offers two showers for each gender. There are also wall-mounted hair dryers. There are five composting toilets, each in a separate water closet. Or should we say waterless closet?

The use of composting toilets cuts water use by more than 200,000 gallons a year, compared to a traditional system. More importantly to most guests, they aren’t yucky at all. An extremely effective ventilation system sucks out any odors. The only downside: there is a bit of a breeze on your bum.

A solar hot water system atop the roof of the bathhouse helps heat the 60-degree well water and cuts propane use by about 30 percent, says the inn’s general manager Stan Krajeski.

Likewise, 24 photovoltaic solar panels installed in 2002 on the southern side of the roof of the Sunrise Room have cut power demanded by 30 percent.

Krajeski, or another staff member, point out all the design features – and show you the worm beds – during a tour given before dinner each day.

“We hope the tour will instill some ideas how you can conserve energy and green up your house a little bit,” Krajeski says.

All the steps taken at the Hike Inn earned it Gold Level Certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

The tour is interesting, but the best part of the evening is dinner.