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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal
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FEBRUARY 3, 2006
"It is good to have an end to journey toward,
but it is the journey that matters in the end."
- Ursula K. LeGuin

Bronze plaque at the Hot Springs, NC visitor center, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first recorded thru-hike on the AT in 1948 by Earl Shaeffer

Ms. LeGuin, you hit the nail on the head. Although I wanted to enjoy my adventure run on the AT by learning and having fun along the way, my original goal was to do it much faster than I managed.

Gosh, if I had gone faster, I would have missed even more than I did by taking over four months to travel from Georgia to Maine. It didn't take very long for me to succumb to the lure of the Trail. I soon learned to value the journey as much as, or even more than, the end goal of reaching Mt. Katahdin.

I really enjoyed many of the landmarks along the Appalachian Trail, not only because they signified forward progress, but also because Jim and I learned a lot about the bio-diversity, culture, and history along this vast, ancient chain of mountains during our journey.

The AT Conservancy has done a great job educating hikers through their web site, guide books, maps, and signage along the Trail. In this essay I will highlight signs and plaques that identify some of the many historical sites, towns, view points, parks, rivers, swamps, summits, gaps, shelters, huts, elevations, road crossings, and side trails with other destinations.

If you have hiked or run all or part of the AT, I hope these signs bring back great memories of places you enjoyed. If they are new to you, I hope they pique your interest in getting out on the Trail soon!


The easy-to-read painted wooden sign in North Carolina (Day 23) that is shown below has most of the information I can think of that I'd want in the middle of the woods.

It identifies Spivey Gap and its elevation, tells me I'm going north on the Appalachian Trail, and gives the distances to five different locations ahead of me. It also includes two logos.

The only things missing on this sign are the two shelters that are in this section. Usually that information is included on signs like this.


There are many landmarks along the AT that have varying degrees of significance for different hikers/runners.

Some of the most important ones for me marked my progress, such as entering each new state, reaching Damascus, and getting to the halfway mark. Some hikers look forward to various hostels, towns, or other landmarks that weren't on my radar screen.

While Neel's Gap in northern Georgia is a significant stop for some backpackers who are laboring under too-heavy loads (the outfitter there has saved more than a few hikers from quitting within the first week), my first big landmark going northbound was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Jim took this photo of me on Day 11, a rest day when I unexpectedly ran the one-point-five mile paved road over Fontana Dam and up to the Smokies trail head (that's why I'm not in running clothes). See Day 11 for photos of the lake and dam and Days 14, 15, and 16 for photos of the AT through the park.

Awesome experience, and another place Jim has to see! I think the Smokies are significant to most AT hikers and much of the Trail is runnable there.

Hot Springs, North Carolina, 269 miles from Springer Mountain, is the first popular trail town for north-bound hikers. The little town has an interesting history and lots of services for hikers.

I arrived too late on Day 18 to see the interesting visitor's center, housed in a red caboose. This is one of the helpful signs out front (the commemorative plaque at the top of the page is also located here):

The next big landmark for me was Damascus, Virginia, the psychological "quarter-way" point for me although it isn't that far mileage-wise. I'd never been there but had heard good things about "the friendliest town on the AT." And I was now in my new home state!

This is the welcome sign at the south end of town, where Cody and I entered Damascus on Day 30:

Damascus was our favorite trail town and we spent several days camping there (see Days 29, 30, and 31 for information about the area).

It's also very popular with backpackers, cyclists, and equestrians for its good restaurants and other services, hospitality to visitors, and the Virginia Creeper Trail, the rails-to-trails path which the AT follows for a mile or two. I like the little train-motif signs:

I was happy to reach Shenandoah National Park in northern Virginia, but for some reason I didn't take a photo of the sign there.

The next place that held a lot of significance for me was Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, the psychological halfway point on the AT. Here is the first sign I saw for the historical area, which encompasses so many acres that it lies on both sides of the Shenandoah River in Virginia and West Virginia:

Harper's Ferry is steeped in history. We loved it! There are also numerous services for hikers.

A visit to the national Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters is a must, especially for thru-hikers. You can spend hours looking at all the maps, books, and hiker notebooks. The staff will take your photo and add it to the current notebook, as well as tell you how many other thru-hikers have passed through town (on June 27, I was the 476th thru-hiker to reach the office from Georgia in 2005).

See Days 59 and 60 for more photos and information about Harper's Ferry. If you haven't hiked the Trail yet, a visit here just might tempt you into doing a section-hike or thru-hike!

The photo below is NOT one of my better ones (see my reflection?), but reaching Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania was one of my biggest milestones. I'd finally reached the REAL halfway point on my way to Katahdin!! When I began the trek, I had no way of knowing how far I would get. It was a definite "high point" (at a low elevation) for me on Day 63 to reach that mark.

For some other thru-hikers, the tradition of eating one-half gallon of ice cream at the park store to celebrate their accomplishment might be the "high point!" It's definitely a "treat" in more ways than one.

From that point on, I gained confidence that I could finish this thing.

Mileage-wise, it was all "down hill." In reality, of course, the most difficult parts of the Trail were ahead of me. I looked forward to getting back to higher elevations in New England, so reaching the first glacial pond, pictured below, was significant to me - even if it was in New Jersey and not New England.

This is the sign for the gorgeous Sunfish Pond, which captivated me with its beauty on Day 89:


I continued to see many more beautiful ponds and lakes on my journey north, but Sunfish Pond remains my favorite because of what it signified to me.

I was excited to reach sub-alpine terrain again in Massachusetts (Mt. Greylock) and Vermont, but what I was really looking forward to were the White Mountains of New Hampshire. They are legendary! Hikers who have done them love to regale newbies with tales of the mountain chain's grandeur and perils. I approached them with equal optimism and dread.

Could I make it through? Did I have what it takes to survive the Whites - and have fun doing it??

Yes, yes, and yes!!! Well, most of it was fun. Sunny days were fun. Rainy days sucked, frankly.

The Whites are everything other hikers tell you they are - and more. They were exhilarating, gorgeous, and scary at the same time. I want to go back, and I want Jim to experience much more of the Whites than he did last summer.

This is the first sign Jim and I saw going up Mt. Moosilauke. We were going southbound on Day 118 so I could go up the very steep slope instead of down it:

It was foggy and some of the rocks and precarious wooden steps on the steep slope were wet, making our ascent and descent tougher.

Another challenge was the strong wind and fog on top, which obscured the great views:

Mt. Washington, in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, was another milestone.

I've heard about this mountain for many years. There is a seven-mile foot race up the road to the peak which has intrigued me, as well as the severe weather it has - the highest wind speed in the world was recorded here!!

I saw the sign below near Crawford Notch on Day 120 as I began the section north to Mt. Washington.

This sign is full of useful information. It includes the names and distances of several peaks, huts, campsites, and even Mt. Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Trail. It has elevations of all the summits and a little blurb about the AT at the bottom. This was one of my favorite days on the Trail, a sunny August day with awesome views.

Crossing into Maine on Day 127 was significant, as it represented the final link, the last state, of my adventure run.

It also meant climbing and crawling through the infamous Mahoosuc Notch. I don't have any signs for it, but if you've been there, I hope you have happy memories. I'm mostly happy I survived it and did 20+ miles through those rugged mountains that day! It's another one of those places I have to take Jim to see.

Then, of course, there is Mt. Katahdin, the goal destination I'd been dreaming of for thirty-six years. The sign at the top is legendary. You'll find it on every thru-hiker's web or journal page, including this one (Day 148, Photos 17, and every Post and Photos page in the top left corner).

Katahdin:  The goal. The end of the Trail, for that season at least.


Here is a variety of signs marking interesting places along the Appalachian Trail that should bring back happy memories to readers or spark new goals:

This side trail in North Carolina brought a smile to me on Day 5:

Many hikers spend a night or two at the popular Kincora Hostel near Dennis Cove, Tennessee (see Days 25 and 28). I met the proprietor out working on a Trail relocation with a group of hikers, but I didn't go to the hostel since I was crewed. You can't beat $4.00 a night!


Following is a sign for a nearby rival, with the emphasis that this hostel is "less than 1 mile down hill!!!!"

Yeah, but what about the one mile UP HILL the hikers have to go the next morning?? (Maybe he has a shuttle service, too.)

We saw this horse-and-buggy sign not in Pennsylvania Dutch country where you'd most expect it, but in southern Virginia on Day 38 near the Lickskillet Hollow trail head:

Here's an appropriately-named little road the AT followed for a bit soon after a railroad track crossing in Pennsylvania on Day 64:

Remember High Point State Park in New Jersey with its numerous rock walls and tall spire on the state's "high point?" (Day 91):

Then there are the beautiful Harriman and Bear Mountain state parks in New York, full of fun things like the Lemon Squeezer rock formation and a zoo to hike through! (Day 94):

Now here's an important landmark if you gotta go! This is the sign on the privy near the shelter on Killington Peak in Vermont (Day 110):

I'll show you several other unique privies in a later photo essay . . .

Two more great shelter signs are on Moose Mountain in New Hampshire (Day 114):

The next photo shows one of my favorite signs on the whole AT. The original sign, pointing out a remote scenic view on a rugged mountain, is comical (since the place is virtually deserted), but the graffiti is even funnier to me. This one is south of Glencliff, New Hampshire, Day 115:

This bronze plaque on Spaulding Mountain in Maine (Day 134) commemorates the construction of the final two miles of the AT back in 1937 by the CCC. It indicates the Trail was 2054 miles long then (21 miles shorter than in 2005):

I'll end this essay with a smile.

Someone, probably a hiker, stuck this cheerful little smiley face on a simple wooden AT marker along a remote logging road trail head in Maine's Hundred Mile Wilderness (Day 145):

You never know where you'll find hospitality and humor on the AT. Signs like these make the adventure run more fun.

Next up: Welcome to Our State!  [signs at the state lines and the northern and southern termini (my dictionary says "terminuses" is also correct, but that sounds funny)]. These were all major goals for me, indicating forward progress.

Journey on,

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

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2006 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil