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
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!
WHO'D BELIEVE THAT EASTERN MOUNTAINS ARE SO RUGGED??
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
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
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
FICKLE MOUNTAIN WEATHER
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
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
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!
AT CONFERENCE WEB SITE
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