About the Appalachian Trail?

What is it?

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail or simply the A.T., is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. The trail is roughly  2,200 miles (3,500 km) long, though the precise length changes over time as parts are modified or rerouted. The trail passes through 14 states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

appalachian_traillargeThe A.T. was completed in 1937 and is a unit of the National Park System. The A.T. is managed under a unique partnership between the public and private sectors that includes, among others, the National Park Service (NPS), the USDA Forest Service (USFS), an array of state agencies, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and 31 local Trail-maintaining clubs.

A hungry black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains Nat'l Park

A hungry black bear in the Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park

Where do you sleep?

The trail has more than 250 shelters that are usually spaced a day’s hike or less apart, most often near a water source (which may be dry) and with a privy (a kind of backwoods outhouse) nearby (with some exceptions). Shelters (also called lean-tos and huts in some areas) are generally open, three-walled structures with a wooden floor, although some shelters are much more complex in structure. In certain areas with high black bear activity, a pole & pulley system called “bear cables” or bear poles are provided to hang your food bag from, in an attempt to thwart the pesky Yogi and Boo-Boo from stealing your grub. Unfortunately, mice are more prevalent at most shelters, and have been known to steal food, chew up socks for nesting material, collect acorns in shoes for storage, scurry along the walls (and over sleeping hikers), and one even gave birth to babies in a hiker’s backpack!


Walnut Mountain Shelter


Inside Bald Mountain Shelter. Note the two sleeping platforms.

Mollies Ridge Shelter


The best privy I’ve ever visited- Thomas Knob Shelter

There are hundreds more established, unofficial campsites spread out along the trail. These are usually nothing more than a patch of land cleared of leaves and debris, many with some kind of fire ring and a stump or log of some kind to sit on. Most shelters have tentsites co-located near them. People who don’t want to sleep in the shelters opt for tents, hammocks, and sometimes “cowboy camping” (sleeping directly on the ground under the stars).


a campsite near Hot Springs, NC


Some campsites are better than others- near Mt Rogers, VA


          What about water?

In case you’re wondering, there’s no need to start out a multi-day hike carrying every drop of water you’ll ever need. “The trail provides” is a saying, but it’s true- there are numerous piped springs, natural springs, streams, and creeks in which to get your water. It’s highly advised to treat your water somehow, either via chemicals tablets & liquids, filters, or ultraviolet pens, to prevent against Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and a host of other nasties that can ruin your hike. Even so, I’m convinced that there’s nothing better than water naturally flowing out of a fissure in the side of a mountain. Talk about refreshing!






…more water,







The best water!

The best water!

Isn’t it dangerous?

In a word, no. It’s safer than most medium-sized cities. There have been a few incidents, but the serious ones are few and far in between. Hikers tend to look out for one another, because we’re all out there with a common goal- enjoying the trail. It’s usually the weekend partiers and non-hikers who park at trailheads and hang out at shelters and campsites near roadways that cause the most trouble. It’s for that reason many of us won’t sleep at any site that’s within a mile of a road. The danger usually lies with getting careless, fooling around with snakes and wildlife, and generally not paying attention to your body.

What does it look like?

The trail itself varies. Sometimes it’s a narrow path no more than a foot wide. Sometimes it follows an old woods road, a US Forest Service Road, paved roads, and over bridges. It runs through the heart of a few “trail towns” such as Damascus VA, Hot Springs NC, Harper’s Ferry WV, and Boiling Springs PA. Most of the time it is deep in the woods, a path carved into the sides of mountains, following ridges, descending into gaps and crossing roads, climbing over numerous summits (both forested and cleared), and at times emerging out of the woods to open grassy fields and cow pastures. It can be rocky, rooty, wet, and challenging, but for the most part you’re always either climbing UP a mountain or descending DOWN one.

The trail can take you (click for slideshow):

This is just a small sampling of what the trail has to offer. No wonder it’s so popular.

Recent Posts



19 MAY 16
Appalachian Trail/Great Smoky Mountains Nat’l Park: Day 4
Newfound Gap- Icewater Springs Shelter
Miles today: ~4.5

“The soul usually knows what to do to heal itself. The challenge is to silence the mind.” – Caroline Myss

-My newest (and longest to date) trek- hiking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park end to end along the Appalachian Trail. All waypoint mileages are measured in the trip miles AND their northbound distance from Springer Mountain.-

I awoke at 7 am and wanted desperately to go back to sleep. For hours. The bed was so comfy and warm (I’d turned the AC on high so I’d bury myself under the covers). To buy some time, I went downstairs and asked the nice gentleman Tom at the front desk for a late checkout. He was the same guy who checked me in on Sunday, and upon recognizing me said of course. Kudos to Tom at the Travelodge in Gatlinburg! Now I had a few hours to gather my thoughts and make a decision.

It didn’t take long. I hadn’t spent all this money and invested all this time to quit now, so I got my things repacked, put my feet up for another hour or so, then checked out and hit up Luigi’s again for a big chicken parmesan sandwich. Hey, my body was yearning for protein! There were a few things I needed to get before I hit the trail again, so I got some more Motrin and water from Old Dad’s, and once again chatted with the lady at the register for a few minutes. I When we got in town Sunday, the Nantahala Outdoor Center had just closed, so I made it a point to stop in today and got a foot massage ball and a rain hat (forecast called for 60% chance of rain the next three days). It’s a really nice, full service outfitter, and although the prices are a little steep, had a great selection of backpacking gear.


Tourist display in the hotel. Dolly rules these parts.

To my dismay relief, I had to make a last-minute “pit stop” before I paid for my items. I guess that burger from last night and the chicken parm from lunch did a number on my belly, which brings me to my next point. I didn’t know if I wanted to bring this up, but in the interest of fairness (and probably a few laughs), it may be warranted. It seems like every time I get ready to go on a hike, my insides lock up. It never fails. At first it was eerily convenient; most of my trips were only 2-3 days and it didn’t really bother me, I’d just take some Colace at the end of the trip and be regular again. But after a while it gets annoying. I mean, here I am on a 6-7 day outing, and as soon as I checked in the hotel on the 16th, everything went on lockdown. Suffice to say, after my burger last night, everything was “regular” again. I guess I’d rather have the problem of “too little” than “too much”, but anyway. Let’s stop talking about this.

Guess who I ran into outside the NOC? Harper! I guess he was having a harder time than I was, because he said he’d gotten to Clingman’s Dome right before it got dark and had trouble finding a ride down. The climb up really took its toll on him- it took 6 hours to go the last 4 miles from Double Spring Shelter (where he caught up to me, I forgot to add yesterday) to Clingman’s Dome. He said it had something to do with not being able to get his heart rate down, so he was done until October. Too bad, he was quite the interesting fellow. Much luck to you Harper “Mockingbird”! The “three amigos” (Paul, Micah, and Nora) ran into me at the hotel before I checked out. They were making their scheduled stop for food & a shower and asked if I was going home or hiking. “I’m still hiking”.

Once at Newfound Gap I headed northbound again. It was cloudy, foggy, dreary, and the trail itself was a little slippery. This part of the AT is heavily traveled by day hikers, and I met a good bit of them, all coming down from what must have been trips up to Charlie’s Bunion, a popular destination from Newfound Gap. It was pretty chilly, maybe 60 degrees, and of course there were folks hiking in jeans, cotton sweatshirts, and other various items of clothing and footwear not suitable for the conditions. I’m not trying to talk down about doing day hikes in cotton, but you have to remember a very important fact- when cotton gets wet, #1 it takes forever to dry, and #2 it loses all of its insulating preoperties when wet. So those really comfy jeans  and your favorite sweatshirt? If they get wet at high elevations where there are cooler temps, and the possibility of rain & wind, you could be setting yourself up for a bad day. I don’t even take day hikes in cotton clothes anymore. If I’m hiking, I’m wearing hiking clothes. But I digress.

The trail to Icewater Springs Shelter (elev 5935 ft; AT mi 210.1) was wide by AT standards, and that’s probably because of the number of dayhikers. It was very rocky in places, but  well maintained. I will say that most of the trail through the Smokies was very well maintained. When I got to the shelter, a former Army Captain “Rock Doc” was there. We were shooting the breeze before some more hikers and my other trio came up. Of course, the deer made their usual appearance around 7pm, hanging out until the area was overrun with people and tents.Nora and I took a few photos, and she said to me “it’s good having you back”. That made me realize I’d made the right decision, and it was going to be okay.

Icewater Springs Shelter

There was a group of about 5 young men who tented, a few LASHers, and a SOBO who started in January called “Mountain Man”. He was quite the character, with the traditional thru-hiker long scraggly beard. He and Paul settled in to swap stories of their thru hike. I wanted to listen, but didn’t want to intrude, so I spent most of the evening after dinner taking pictures and relaxing. I have to say that Icewater Springs shelter is so far the nicest one I’ve stayed in. Although I recall the floor of the top bunks being a little angled, it was a pretty cool spot. Two sets of bear cables, and a wonderfully spacious privy that I used to change my clothes. Mountain Man, Rock Doc, and a few others went out to get fire wood and came back with a lot of red spruce wood that absolutely made the fire smell wonderful. If you’ve ever burned cedar or piñon wood in a fireplace you know what I mean. I already love the smell of the boreal forest, and this took it to a whole other level.

trail heading toward Icewater Springs Shelter

The spring was right ON the trail just north of the shelter, which was very convenient. I could hydrate tonight and have my water for dinner and coffee in the morning, then I could camel up again and hydrate on the way out. You can’t really appreciate a close by spring like that until you’ve taken some steep, blue blazed trails down to water, equivalent to walking down 8 flights of stairs, then back up, only over rough terrain, or going over a quarter-mile to get to the spring.

The evening was relatively uneventful, save for a few guys that seemingly left their food on the benches out front. I ended up getting out of the sleeping bag to ask who it belonged to, because even though I hadn’t seen a bear yet, it was too inviting for wildlife to come snatch it up. I’d even considered getting my Go Pro ready to catch a night-time bear in the act of stealing food. It belonged to some guys who came up late & hadn’t finished setting up. And that was the most exciting part of the night, except the rain, that came down in buckets and lulled me to sleep.



  1. Rage Leave a reply
  2. Straight up, no chaser 1 Reply
  3. Decision Point Leave a reply