Sue, Jim & Cody on the 14,433' summit of MT Elbert, CO - The highest peak in the Rocky Mountains


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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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February  8
“Remote for detachment, narrow for chosen company, winding for leisure, lonely for contemplation, the trail leads not merely north and south,
but upward to the body, mind, and soul of man.”   
- Harold Allen, describing the A.T.

Endless blue ridges

The Appalachian Trail is a linear national scenic trail, part of the national park system. It currently stretches 2,174.9 miles through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine, passing through more than sixty federal, state, and local parks and forests. Ninety-nine percent of the land is now through public property or easements.

Access to most of the Trail is pretty easy. Hundreds of roads – everything from logging roads to busy highways – cross the AT, creating many trailheads. This is advantageous for Jim and me in some respects – it lends flexibility to the number of miles I run each day, makes it easier for Jim to crew than on a more remote trail like the Pacific Crest, and gives lots of options for going into towns for supplies.

On the other hand, being so close to civilization has its downsides. Some parts of the Trail are only a few hundred feet wide. Development encroaches more and more each year, destroying views and solitude. Crime is more prevalent near trailheads, and the Trail can be very busy on warm weekends near populated areas and in the national parks like Shenandoah and the Smokies. Many more people are out for day, weekend, or section hikes than to thru-hike the Trail.

Still, much of the Trail is a “green tunnel” during the spring and summer when I’ll be out there, which will help hide most buildings and roads. And the views from the high “balds” in the southern states and above tree line in New England are still spectacular. I’ll try to savor the quiet, scenic places along the Trail and hurry through the noisy, less perfect ones!


Some folks who live in the western United States who have never experienced the Appalachian Mountains up close and personal tend to minimize their beauty and ruggedness. They don’t think the mountains in the East can compare with the Rockies, Cascades, or Sierras.

What they fail to realize is the elevation gain up some of the mountains on the AT is as much or more as the gain up some 14ers in Colorado – it depends on the elevation where you’re STARTING!  I’ve run in those mountain ranges, too, and have seen many spectacular vistas. But looking down several thousand feet from Mt. Mitchell or Clingman’s Dome in North Carolina to the valleys below and across to layer after layer of “blue ridges” – well, those are memorable, dramatic vistas, too.

Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the highest elevation along the AT at 6,642 feet. (Mt. Mitchell is the highest point east of the Mississippi River, but the AT doesn’t go over it.) The lowest point is near sea level where it crosses the Hudson River in New York.

Total elevation GAIN is estimated to be 500,000 feet over the 2,175 miles; total elevation gain and loss (CHANGE) is about one million feet.

Over five million footsteps from Georgia to Maine, some figure.

How the heck am I supposed to train for THAT???  I know how to train myself for 100-mile trail races, but this is a whole different animal.

The ATC booklet, “Step by Step: An Introduction to Walking the Appalachian Trail,” describes the AT like this: “Its terrain ranges from flat woodland paths to near-vertical rock scrambles that challenge the fittest wilderness trekker; it can lead hikers from busy town streets to high mountain ridges where they won’t cross a road for days.”

The latter comment means I’m going to have several long running days in the Great Smokies and in Maine where the longest roadless stretches are located.  I will carry basic survival gear, but have no plans to camp out overnight along the trail. If necessary, I’ll run before daylight and after dark to get to my pick-up points in those areas. I’m used to running with a light.


As in any mountain range, the weather can change dramatically during the day anywhere along the AT - particularly along the high ridges in North Carolina, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Maine.

In the rugged alpine (yes, ALPINE!) mountain ranges in upper New England, severe weather can strike any day of the year. Not only might I “run into” snow in August when I’m there, but also the fastest wind speeds in the WORLD have been recorded on the summit of Mt. Washington (231 MPH in 1934).

Yikes!  Hope I can pick a low-wind day to be on top of THAT mountain!

At the other end of the weather spectrum, I can expect to encounter plenty of heat and humidity this spring and summer at lower elevations along the trail and in places where there is no tree canopy. Where there IS a “long green tunnel,” the humidity will be increased from all the transpiration going on with the leaves.

Rain is frequent the whole route; that’s why the Appalachians are so GREEN. Hopefully, there won’t be four hurricanes like last year. There were major problems with flooded creeks and rivers, washed out bridges, and numerous blow-downs – not to mention the misery of running/hiking on days when six inches of rain fell!!  Some of those bridges still haven’t been replaced because of lack of funds (one is in our trail maintaining club’s section south of Roanoke).


The variety of ecosystems on this very long trail corridor is amazing. I’ll travel through wetlands (swamps and bogs and other assorted soggy spots), fertile farmlands and orchards, hardwood and pine forests, small towns, grassy balds, boulder scrambles, sub-alpine ridges, and real alpine regions with permafrost – without ever getting over 6,700 feet! 

I don’t think there are any deserts or coastline. However, there will be lots of lakes along the way, a river that must be crossed on a canoe (the Kennebec, in Maine), and a river with a very long footbridge (the James, in Virginia) – more fun than the vehicle bridges I’ll be using across some rivers.

Sounds like a fine adventure to me!

Because of the wide variety of ecosystems, there is a corresponding variety of plants and animals on the Appalachian Trail. I’m really looking forward to seeing spring advance from south to north and from lower to higher elevations. In one day I’ll see early spring on the mountaintops and late spring one or two thousand feet lower in the gaps and valleys.

I can’t wait to observe and photograph all the beautiful wildflowers and trees I’ll see, like the proliferation of wild rhododendrons, laurels, azaleas, and dogwoods in the South in April, May, and June. Wildflowers are common along the entire Trail.

Wildlife is still abundant along the AT, despite encroaching development. I can expect about everything from mosquitoes to moose. Yes, there are rattlesnakes and bears and mountain lions in the Appalachians. I hope I'll get to see a bear and the herd of feral ponies near Mt. Rogers in southern Virginia. I had some VERY close moose encounters when I lived in Montana, but I haven’t seen bears or wild ponies on any runs.

Love to get the adrenaline going!


On the left side of each journal page there is a link to the Appalachian Trail Conference’s official web site [name changed to AT Conservancy after I began my trek]. You can find a wealth of information there about the history of the trail, an overview of the trail state by state, photos, locations of shelters and huts, updated trail conditions and re-routes, trail maintenance clubs, planning a thru-hike, many facts and statistics, the AT store (maps, books, etc.), and links to related web sites – everything you ever wanted to know about the Appalachian Trail, but didn’t know to ask!

Happy trails,

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

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 © 2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil