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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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" . . . I am a runner, hiker and dog-lover and I would love to walk the Appalachian Trail. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your journal and over the past week or two I have managed to follow your whole journey . . .
Congratulations, best wishes for the future and many, many thanks for
providing such good reading material."

a reader from Brisbane, Australia

"Creeping spring" (new leaf growth as it climbs the mountains) in Georgia on Day 2

Thank you, Stephanie, and everyone else who wrote to say they enjoyed the journal.

One of the reasons I was so detailed every day that I was on the Trail (besides the fact that I am brevity-challenged!) was to give readers a good idea of what each section of the Trail is like in case they ever want to run or hike all or part of it. And that's why I'm including all these lists of "favorites" and "most difficult climbs" and "most runnable sections" and such - to help other runners and hikers.

It's also a good way for me to remember places I want to see again and to show Jim. I have CRS, remember?

Or, as I said in one of my prep pieces, it'll give me something to read when I'm 100 and immobile in a nursing home somewhere!

In this segment I'll give some suggestions for interesting weekend, one-week, and two-week runs or hikes in the first three southern states: Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Because it is so long, the next post entry (#11) will be for Virginia, which has one-fourth of the AT, #12 will cover the mid-Atlantic states (WV to NY), and #13 will cover New England (CT to ME)..

Since many readers will want to combine time on the AT with other nearby activities or make it a family vacation, I will also mention some other things that family members (adults and children) might enjoy besides hiking or running - activities like swimming, cycling, rafting, antiquing and other shopping, leaf-peeping, historical sites, festivals, etc. These will be in red.

My lists won't be anywhere near exhaustive, so do lots of research before you go to determine what other recreational, cultural, historical, etc. opportunities exist.

Consider the distance, terrain, and your anticipated speed and conditioning when determining where and how far to go. Obviously, if you're running you'll cover more ground than if you're hiking with a 35-pound pack. Modify my suggestions to shorten or lengthen the distances to suit your own schedule.

Consider these lists as just ideas to get you started, and remember that they are highly subjective. A section I loved might bore someone else, for example.

And when I indicate a section is "easy" or "hard," my perception may differ from yours. Mine sure changed the farther north I got on the AT!! (What I used to consider "hard" or "steep" is now "moderate.")

If you're backpacking, research the location of shelters and/or campsites. That wasn't a consideration of ours and I haven't included that information here. Our concern was the location of vehicle-accessible trail heads and that is the slant here. If I mention a "base," it's for camping in a vehicle/camper or renting a cabin, motel room, B & B, etc.

Finally, get detailed trail and road maps of the area where you plan to run or hike. Don't rely only on my description in this entry or the linked daily entries. I mentioned the sources for maps and computer software that we used in Post #9. The ATC maps show some side trails, but not all of them (and most are sorely lacking in road information). Check locally or on-line for topo maps, etc. if you will be on other trails besides the AT.

OK, let's go running or hiking on the Appalachian Trail!


SPRINGER MOUNTAIN, GA - southern terminus of the AT, an eight-mile hike from Dahlonega or a mile from Forest Service Rd. 42.

 Depending on the time you have, proceed as far north as you can go in the time you have. There are only 75 miles of the AT in Georgia, so you may end up in North Carolina before long! With several good access roads at various gaps, you can easily tailor each day's run/hike to your liking.

Compared to the rest of the AT,  the trails in N. GA are mostly runnable. The climbs are easy to moderate in difficulty if you are in good physical condition. Most of the Trail is well-marked and maintained. After climbing Blood Mountain and enjoying the views from the rock ledges on top, stop in at the store at Neel's Gap, one of the best outfitters on the AT. 

You can run/hike here most of the year. The leaves had not come out yet in early May when I was there, offering more views from high points than after the leaves are out. There are lots of spring flowers, such as the trillium below. The Trail is mostly shaded in summer. Fall leaves can be gorgeous. And even in winter, the ground is often dry or covered with just a little snow.

There are many suitable "bases"  for a weekend or longer. If you're running farther north. We enjoyed camping in both Vogel and Moccasin Creek State Parks. Unicoi SP and Black Rock Mountain SP are also convenient to the AT. Most of the parks offer other recreational opportunities for families, like swimming, boating, nature talks, and activities designed for children.

There are also several interesting mountain towns in north Georgia with a variety of "housing" for visitors, restaurants, antique shops, local arts and crafts, old general stores, numerous seasonal festivals, and beautiful drives through the mountainous countryside. Dahlonega is famous for its gold rush in the 1800s; you can pan for gold here. Helen is designed to look like a German village; there are also strong Scandinavian influences here. One of my favorite shops sells Christmas decorations all year long.

See Days 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 for details.


STANDING INDIAN AREA, NC - We used Standing Indian Campground as our base for several days in southern NC. You could go south from there into GA or farther north to Wayah Bald or Wesser/Rt. 19 and the Nantahala River, popular for its water sports (rafting and kayaking). There is another outfitter here, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC). We moved to Tsali, a great national forest campground near Bryson City, as we approached the Smokies.

If you aren't camping, a  good base for this area is the town of Franklin, NC. This area is famous for its ruby, sapphire, quartz, topaz, garnet, and amethyst gem mines, some of which you can tour. An interesting driving tour is a loop to the east through the beautiful towns of Highlands and Cashiers with their golf courses, antique shops, and lovely homes and farms.

The trails in this area are a moderate to easy grade, with some nice runnable sections. See Days 5 to 13 for details about the AT from the NC/GA border to Fontana Dam at the edge of the Smokies..

THE SMOKIES, NC/TN - all or part of the 70 miles of the AT through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (point-to-point or out-and-back) and/or side trails to make loops.

I have ultra running friends who've done this in a 24-hour period of time with a crew, but I wouldn't recommend it because you'd miss too much scenery (and maybe bears!) in the dark. To do it my way in three days between roads, you'll have to run some the first and third days when you've got 31+ mile days. You could easily spend one or two weeks here if you incorporate other trails in the park and take time to enjoy other activities off-trail.

This is a popular section of the Trail for very good reasons - it is beautiful, it is remote, and it has fantastic views on clear days (see photo below from Day 14). It also includes the highest point on the entire AT, with plenty of other long climbs and descents, but they are moderate (comparatively) and you can run in many places. If you haven't been doing long climbs and descents, be careful how much mileage you tackle here or your quads will rebel.

We stayed at the very nice Tsali National Forest CG west of Bryson City, then moved to a private campground near Cherokee, NC as I proceeded through the park. There are other public and private campgrounds to the north and south, and several inside the park. Be forewarned that Route 441 through the park is very slow with tourist traffic, as are the roads to Clingman's Dome and Cades Cove.

You and your family can enjoy many activities in this area, from recreational to more sedentary: short hikes, boating, swimming, cycling, fishing, birding and looking for other wildlife like bears, nature photography, scenic driving tours (238 miles of paved roads and 146 miles of gravel roads within the park), horseback riding, and visiting Cades Cove with its historical buildings. Entrance to the Smokies is free.

Then there are the tourist-trap towns of Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. The shopping and eating possibilities are endless, and they each have festivals, craft shows, antique auto shows, etc. throughout the year.

See Days 14 to 16 for further information about the Trail through the Smokies.

MAX PATCH TO HOT SPRINGS, NC - beautiful, runnable trail for 17+ miles from Davenport Gap at the NE edge of the Smokies to Max Patch Road, then another 20 miles to Hot Springs. If you have more time, keep going north and try to get to Virginia, as I did in two weeks (with three days off).

Numerous wildflowers and laurels were in bloom when I went through in mid-May (see photo below of yellow flowers). A bit later, the rhododendrons would be at their peak.

There are great views from Max Patch, a popular southern bald. If the weather is good, the top is nice for tent camping on a grassy knoll (backpackers only; this isn't a campground). There is a parking area just below the top, making this bald readily accessible to many people of all ages and abilities.

Hot Springs is a very hiker-friendly town. We stayed in a nice private campground next to the French Broad River; there are a few other places to stay. The restaurant selection is pretty limited. The one recommended to us was closed the night we wanted to eat there.

This would be a suitable place for a family vacation if the adults/kids are primarily interested in recreational and camping activities.

See Days 17 and 18 for more information.

ROAN MOUNTAIN AND THE HUMPS, NC/TN - I loved the views from these mountains!

Although I did 28 miles on Day 27, there are other accessible trail heads you can use to shorten the distance for a day or weekend hike. You can even drive to the top of Roan Mountain if you want to start or end there, eliminating the moderately difficult climb or descent on the south side of Roan (from 4,100 feet to 6,300 feet in three miles). This is also an option for other family members who want an easier hike with great views.

The footing on this 28-mile section is fairly rough, but once you're on the ridge between Roan and the Humps, the climbs and descents aren't bad. I enjoyed the sub-alpine eco zone near the top of Roan with its beautiful pine scent. Not much was blooming in late May. Roan would be even prettier in June when the rhododendrons are blooming - and more crowded.

To stretch this into a one- or two-week vacation, you could go south toward Chestoa and the Nolichucky River (or even farther), or go north and include Laurel Fork Gorge and even Damascus, VA. I ran from Max Patch (Day 18) to Damascus in ten segments, allowing three days off to go home and rest. If you run it you could use off days to sight-see and do other activities or keep going through the Mt. Rogers/ Grayson Highlands area (see Post #11 or Days 30-32).

This scenic view is from one of the Hump mountains:

While in this area we spent several days camping at a nice private campground (Woodsmoke) near Unicoi, TN, north of Erwin. There aren't many campgrounds in this area unless you head east toward Boone, NC.

There are motels, B & Bs, hostels, and cabins in Erwin, Johnson City, Elizabethtown, and other Tennessee towns, as well as nearby North Carolina (Banner Elk, Boone, Blowing Rock, etc.).

The main draw in this area of the Trail is recreation and nature - hiking, cycling, boating, fishing, nature photography, and gorgeous floral displays in May and June.  I love the NC towns above for their interesting shopping and arts and crafts. They also have great festivals and unique foot races, like Grandfather Mountain Marathon, which starts in Boone and ends up at Linville in the middle of a popular Scottish Festival. The Blue Ridge Parkway is also close for one of the most scenic sections of its 460-mile length.

LAUREL FORK GORGE TO WATAUGA LAKE, TN - only 13.1 miles from Dennis Cove to Watauga Dam, but it's of moderate difficulty up and down Pond Mountain in the middle.

For an easier hike, park at Dennis Cove and just do an out-and-back to Laurel Falls. The gorge has beautiful high rock walls. Follow the white blazes across the bridge (below) and down rock steps to the base of the falls, walk along the creek about half a mile, then climb back up the cliff. At the top, go right and follow the blue blazes back to the white AT blazes where you descended, then return to your vehicle at Dennis Cove. That would be about four miles.

There is limited camping at the Dennis Cove trail head. If you go on to Watauga Lake, there is a park at that end but I'm not sure about camping there. See Day 28.

For a longer hike, just go farther north or south from here. Note that I did this section out of sequence; it is not adjacent to the Roan-Hump Mountain section.

The next entry will highlight interesting sections of the AT in Virginia for a running or hiking vacation.

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil