You know, there were some days on the Appalachian Trail when I wasn't so sure whether I
coming or going, especially by the time I got to Maine and was asked the vague
question above at a road crossing. I don't think the inquisitor appreciated my
evasive response, but what can you expect from a tired runner/hiker after four
months of following little white blazes all day long?? Some mornings it was all
Jim and I could do to make sure I was heading in the right direction on the
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy helps hikers find their way on the
AT by providing not only millions of white blazes (and a few painted
arrows) but also
thousands of signs, plaques, posts, and devices like the survey marker above
in Virginia. For simplicity, I'll refer to the whole category as "signs."
The majority of the Trail signs tell hikers how far it is to the next landmark(s) -
a road, shelter, summit, etc. I call those "directional" signs. They are
the most prevalent type of sign on the Trail and are usually pretty accurate. I'll highlight
directional signs in
The next largest category of signs identify landmarks, such as
shelters, gaps, summits, elevations, rivers, swamps, towns, parks, road
state lines, historical sites, and side trails with other destinations. I'll show you
some of these in
Other signs give warnings about trail hazards and alternate
bad-weather routes. They advise hikers of dangerous exposed rocks and ridges,
detours, private property and other boundaries, bears, Lyme disease, bridges
that are out, flooding on trail, fragile alpine zones, and endangered species of
plants and animals. All of these should be heeded, but some are actually
humorous, as you'll see in
AT signs come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and degrees of complexity. They
are made from a variety of materials, including bare and treated wood, painted
wood (from subtle sage green in Connecticut to can't-miss blaze orange in New
Hampshire), plastic, metal, stone, concrete, and even paper!
There are some very attractive and elaborate signs and bronze plaques along
the AT, and a few that are so weathered they are hard to read, such as this sign
in the Smokies (Day
Despite a few complaints about lack of clear signage, I think most of the
signs along the AT are well-placed and very helpful. I appreciate all the hard
work that goes into producing, placing, and maintaining them, especially the
ones in very inaccessible places - someone has to carry them in and put them in
place. Thank you!
a lot of photos of signs to help me identify photos of scenery
later, so I have a good variety of signs to give you a feel for what you might
see along or near the Trail (we found some great ones in towns, too). I hope
some of them make you smile or bring back pleasant Trail memories of our own.
WHERE AM I GOING??
The most basic directional signs along the AT are simple wooden ones that are
similar to the one above, with only two or three destinations and mileages.
are more readable, however. Here's another one from the same day in the
Smokies (I think I have more photos of signs from North Carolina and
Tennessee than the rest of the states combined!):
The signs above are interesting in that the top one (the Russell Field side
trail to Cades Cove) is weathered and worn, and the AT sign below is almost new.
As wet as it gets in the Smokies, let's hope the new sign is made from treated
Simple wooden signs can possibly withstand the elements better and are more
distinctive if they are painted. Connecticut has some sophisticated soft green
signs, while New Hampshire specializes in blaze-orange ones that stand
out boldly in the rain and snow. You can't miss this sign even on a
foggy day like
This painted wooden sign between the Great Smokies and Max Patch in
North Carolina/Tennessee has loads of information for hikers,
is still very readable despite some weathering, and even has three different AT
logos on it. (Day
Then there are the fancier directional signs.
The fairly new wooden structure below, near Standing Indian Campground in North
Carolina (Day 8),
provides hikers with a lot of information and serves almost as a bulletin board.
The plastic-covered notice cautions hikers about hurricane damage in the area
and an individual tacked a message for a buddy in a plastic sandwich bag below
the sign. (Jim and I also did that at several trail heads on our trek - either
tacked notes on signs or put them on the ground below, encased in a bag and held
down by a rock.)
The sign below as you enter Duncannon, PA (Day
69) from the south is helpful because it indicates north (Maine) and
south (Georgia) and shows the route through town.
As many hikers have noted in their journals, the hardest places to follow the
AT blazes are through towns.
Some directional signs themselves are confusing, particularly in the
Presidential Range of New Hampshire, where the AT follows pre-existing trails. The
names of the original trails are much more prominent than the little
"Appalachian Trail" words or symbols. Some days I was on several different
trails that the AT followed and I had to write down all the names in my little
notebook to be sure I
stayed on the AT. (I rarely carried our trail maps. Jim needed them more than I
did to find trail heads.)
New Hampshire is also the state most badly in need of some cans of white
paint. They have far fewer blazes per mile than any other state on the Trail. Fortunately, I never got lost
there. If you're hiking in the
Whites/Presies, just be sure to consult your map frequently or write down the
names of all the trails you'll be on.
AM I GOING THE RIGHT DIRECTION??
Many times last summer I wished more signs clearly indicated "north" and
"south" on them. Two places where this really mattered to me: at trail
heads and shelters. This problem affects backpackers as well as hikers
and runners who are crewed.
The AT crosses numerous dirt and paved roads, some with AT parking, many
without. When Jim dropped me off at those trail heads I had to make sure I was
going the right direction.
One problem was unmarked trail heads - no sign at all to indicate this was
the AT. We'd have to look hard for a blaze either direction, sometimes several
yards into the woods.
Where there was an
AT sign, it might be very attractive like the one below
in Virginia (Day 38), but not indicate north and south:
Now that's not a problem if there is a sign just up the Trail on either side of
the road that tells you what is ahead, such as this sign from the Smokies on
15 - and as long as you know whether you're headed toward or away from those
Unfortunately, there aren't mileage/destination signs at every
trail head. So if you don't know for sure which way is up (er, north), you might
discover you've gone the wrong direction and get some bonus miles.
Even this simple little sign by a road in Massachusetts (Day
102) lets you know if you're going north or south!
The trail head sign below is so much more helpful to hikers.
It is easy-to-see reflective metal
Day 8) and you don't have to guess about
the correct direction (although it's a bit odd that Georgia is printed on
the "N" side and Maine on the "S" side!):
Pennsylvania also had some trail head signs marked with north and south arrows.
They were harder to read from a vehicle (dark brown painted wood with not much
contrast in the lettering), but hikers could see them up close just fine.
Sometimes I'd get turned around when I went to shelters to sign the
registers. It didn't matter whether the shelters were right next to the Trail or
on side trails.
I quickly learned I had to remember which way I turned in to a shelter so I'd
continue in the correct direction when I returned to the AT. It seems like that
would be even harder for backpackers who sleep overnight in the shelters. (I
heard their stories of accidental back-tracking.) Sometimes there are no signs
at the shelters, or signs don't indicate north and south.
Gotta stay alert on the Trail for all kinds of things!
UNIQUE TYPES OF SIGNS
Some of the most interesting Trail "signs" are painted on or chiseled into rocks,
such as this attractive boulder in the trail head parking lot at Dick's Creek
Gap in Georgia (Day
That one is nice because it identifies the gap AND has "north" and "south" on
That's a lot fancier than the "signs" on some other rocks I saw, but even
painted arrows are effective on mountain summits. Although it was sunny on this
North Carolina bald - one of the Hump Mountains, I believe -
Day 27, the arrow might make route-finding
easier on a foggy day.
I think the main purpose of this arrow is to emphasize a scenic view,
Similar to stone in that they are virtually impervious to the weather (and
vandals) are concrete or other rock aggregates. Nearly every AT marker in
Shenandoah National Park in
Virginia is made of this material:
Most of these markers stand about three feet tall. The metal band on the post,
below, has the destinations and distances:
At trail intersections, there would be destinations on all four sides.
While these "signs" will last about forever, they are hard to read with Granny
eyes because the embossed words are so little and the same color as the metal
band. I saw a few concrete/aggregate posts like this in several other states,
Here's another unusual type of "sign" made from a slice of a tree trunk! It's
effective because it catches your eye - even on a rainy, foggy day - while still
blending in nicely with the environment. It's slick when wet, though. This is a
Clingman's Dome in the Smokies (Day 15):
That's pretty effective, eh? Unless, of course, some wise-acre digs it up and
turns it around! (I happened to know I was going north that day.)
Next up: Are we there yet?? (signs along the AT that identify
various landmarks). I hope they bring back good memories for readers who have
been there - and pique the interest of ones who haven't!