The Appalachian Trail crosses many rivers. Fortunately, most of them have
bridges and don't have to be forded!
Unfortunately, most of the bridges also carry vehicles.
Fortunately, the beauty and intrigue of the rivers helps you forget about the
traffic whizzing by at rates that stun hikers who've just emerged from the peace
and quiet of the woods.
Everything has a trade-off, it seems.
If you can believe it, I probably took even more photos of rivers during my
AT trek than I took of creeks. Rivers are grand. They are milestones along the
2,175-mile Trail corridor, helping thru-hikers measure progress on their long
And they are memorable.
How can I ever forget
crossing the mighty Hudson River on foot over the Bear Mountain Bridge? Or the
beautiful Penobscot River with Mt. Katahdin, my journey's end, reflected in its waters? Or fording the
Little Wilson River and wondering if I'd live to write about it??
Obviously, I did!
Come along with me northbound as we cross many of the rivers along the AT,
rivers that captivate the imagination and reflect our fears and dreams.
NORTH CAROLINA & TENNESSEE
The first river I photographed during my run was the Nantahala, which
is very popular for white-water rafting.
This photo shows the bridge at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) near Wesser, NC where the AT crosses the
river. It was very shallow on
12 but the water was moving swiftly:
Hikers sometimes get multiple views of the same river from various vantage
points, especially before the leaves come out in the spring.
Although some of my
views were obscured by leaves I was able to get pictures on
19 of the French Broad River at Hot Springs, NC from
the auto bridge the AT crosses, from half a mile of
Trail along the bank of the river, and from about a thousand feet up on Lover's
I was also able to get good views 1,500 feet down to the Nolichucky River
and Erwin, TN from Cliff Rocks at the end of my run on
23, despite all the leaves:
Some creeks look more like rivers to me, and some rivers, like the Elk (below)
look more like creeks.
I unexpectedly skirted the Elk River in Tennessee
for a while on
Day 25 during a relocation I wasn't expecting.
(Lesson learned = check for updates to your old maps and guides! That day's
section was about four miles longer than I thought it would be.)
VIRGINIA & WEST VIRGINIA
The North Fork of the Holston River looked very peaceful and inviting on
34 as I approached Tilison's Mill from the south. To the right of the
Trail was an attractive fence and farm, to the left were lots of irises and
purple flowers blooming along the quiet, shallow river:
The AT crosses the river on that low concrete bridge and follows the river
upstream. It wouldn't take much of a storm for the bridge to be under water. It would still be easier to cross than most flooded
creeks and rivers, however.
You can see other photos of this beautiful area in
the journal on
Day 34 and in
The James River is one of many that you can see from ridges on either
side as well as at eye level. This view is from
48 as I approached from south of the river:
Jim took this dramatic photo of the Foot Bridge (that's the real name, which is
why it's capitalized) across the James. It's the longest foot bridge on the
entire AT. I appreciated not having to share the bridge with vehicles.
You can see other views of the river and bridge in the journal on
Because of trees and haze I was not able to get any good valley shots of the
Shenandoah River to the west of Shenandoah National Park. I took this photo
up close on
Day 59 just before I climbed the steps to the long vehicular bridge that
crosses the river to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia:
After I traipsed through town following white blazes I came to the
confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, shown below, which I
consider one of the grandest sights on the entire Appalachian Trail:
The Potomac comes in from the left. You can see other views of both rivers,
their confluence, and the two bridges hikers follow in the journal on
60 and in
Post 12 (favorite places),
Photos 10 (bridges), and
Photos 22 (clouds).
MID-ATLANTIC STATES (PA, NJ, & NY)
The AT crosses several large rivers on vehicular bridges in Pennsylvania.
The first one going northbound is the Susquehanna River on the outskirts
of Duncannon (Day
69). I took the next photo from the bridge over the nearby Juniata
River, which merges right there with the Susquehanna. There is another shot
I liked the quiet little Schuylkill River near the Reading Railroad in
better, however (Day
Have you ever seen the Schuylkill River farther downstream in Philadelphia? It's
much wider there, before it empties into the Delaware Bay. Here it is
reminiscent of New England, with the red barn in the background.
My views of the lovely Delaware River on the PA-NJ state line were mostly
obscured by leaves but I got a few shots of it from the ridges and across the
Days 85 (at the top of this page) and
There's a picture of the Delaware River and its bridge from "eye
Photos 10 and another view toward the river
from Kittatinny Ridge in New Jersey on
Jim and I took at least a dozen photos of the mighty Hudson River
in New York. Mine were views from the AT; Jim's were from a run he did around
West Point Military Academy, where we camped for a couple days.
These photos of the Hudson are from
Day 94 (view from West Point looking north) and
(view from the AT crossing on the Bear Mountain Bridge):
You can see another view of the Hudson that Jim took from campus
and one I took from Bear Mountain State Park in
Photos 30 and how it looks to cross the
bridge the AT over the river on
CONNECTICUT AND MASSACHUSETTS
"The mark of a successful man is one who has spent the entire day on the bank
of a river and not felt guilty about it." - unknown
That would be a very difficult thing for me to do!
Since I retired seven years ago I've been gradually morphing from a hyperactive
Type A personality into a more mellow Type B, but I'm a work in progress.
If I ever arrive at a serene
enough mental state that I can spend an entire day on the bank of a river and
not feel guilty about it, this is one of the rivers in the eastern U.S. that I'd consider:
The Appalachian Trail follows the scenic Housatonic
River, a tributary of the Hudson River, off and on through Connecticut and
Massachusetts. Hikers descend several times into the Housatonic Valley from three mountain
ranges - the Taconic Range, Berkshire Highlands, and Greylock massif - and skirt
In some places the river is very placid ("lazy") and doesn't appear to be
moving very fast. In other places the drops are more significant and there are more rocks, rapids, and waterfalls.
I'll show you one of the
Appalachian Trail's nicest waterfalls in Falls Village, CT in the
Some of the flattest, most runnable trail on the AT is along the
I talked about those sections in some detail on
can see other views of the river in the first two of those entries and in
VERMONT AND NEW HAMPSHIRE
If you've read the daily journal you know how grateful I was for all the
bridges across the major streams along the AT in most of the states. Maine and
New Hampshire were the least likely to have bridges hikers could use.
The photo below shows Clarendon Gorge, through which the Mill River
flows. The AT crosses the rocky gorge only a tenth of a mile from VT 103
in western Vermont (this section is also part of the Long Trail).
Several years ago a hiker named Robert Brugman drowned fording the river.
Thankfully, now there is a suspension bridge for hikers to use. It is dedicated
I took this photo on a foggy afternoon (Day
109) when the water was low:
It was also very foggy the day (113)
I crossed over the Connecticut River on the Vermont-New Hampshire
Several rowers were gliding silently by on the calm water under
the vehicular bridge the AT uses:
I was very grateful for the sturdy suspension bridge across the West Branch of
the Peabody River south of Pinkham Notch on
121. You can see a photo of the bridge in the journal that
The picture below shows some of the large boulders in the river. Too bad
there isn't a person down there to show perspective. The water
was low but very fast that day; I would have had trouble crossing it
without the bridge. I could hear the roar of the water from quite a distance
You probably guessed I'd have a separate essay on Maine, didn't you?? It does
have an abundance of rivers, but I'll include the main ones here. I also wrote
quite a bit about Maine's waterways in
I thought of the nice foot bridge across the Peabody when I approached the South Branch of the Carrabassett River on
Day 134. This is one of those "streams" with
warnings in the guide books about how difficult it can be to ford during high
water. It hadn't rained recently, to my knowledge, but my fears were fueled by
the roar of the river from high above it on the saddle between
Sugarloaf and Spaulding Mountains.
Oh, dear. If it sounds that bad up here,
what's it like down there??
After a challenging two-mile, 1700-foot descent through boulders to the river,
what did I notice first (after confirming there was, indeed, no bridge)??
"Patches," a thru-hiker, napping on a large boulder in the middle of the river
I tried to ford the river without disturbing him but he noticed me and said
I love that photo because it not only shows a hiker relaxing to the max, but it
also gives perspective on just how big those rocks are.
trying to ford this river when it's flooded and you can't see the bottom.
No, thanks. I was nervous about it on a good day.
The water was really moving through that narrow channel. I knew I couldn't hop the
boulders next to Patches because they were too high, so I scouted up and downstream for a better place to
cross. I managed to boulder-hop to the left where the water was calmer (i.e., lower and more
spread out), in case I fell in. I got across OK and was mighty relieved. Silly,
in fact, as you can see in the journal that day.
This is a new view of the river to the right. The larger boulders are three to
six feet above the water:
One of the "milestone" rivers along the AT is the Kennebec, near the town
of Caratunk, ME. It's the only river on the Trail for which the AT
Conservancy hires a company to ferry hikers across.
Some hikers tempt the river gods by fording the river a couple hundred feet
upstream from the ferry crossing, but I wasn't going to be one of them. I really
looked forward to going across on the canoe and it is one of my fondest memories
of the entire trek.
This is a photo I took from the south side of the river as I waited for the
canoe guy to show up; there are only two crossing times per day. I haven't
shown this one in the journal previously:
Jim and the
dogs appeared on the far side.
At that point, the ferry guide estimated the
river was 220 feet wide; he expected it to reach 250 feet pretty soon (the river rises and falls unexpectedly because of releases at the
hydroelectric plant upstream).
The guide said the river was at least 17 feet
deep at the time we crossed. In the next photo you can see the red canoe on the shore:
Meanwhile, Jim took this photo of several of us waiting on the far side for the
canoe. That's Pierce Pond Stream merging with the Kennebec to the far left (one
of my favorite creeks on the whole Trail):
You can read all about this adventure in the
journal and see more photos of the canoe ride on
Day 137 and in
Photos 11. Very fun!
I had to ford two more potentially dangerous rivers on
140, the east and west branches of the Piscataquis River. Both
are listed as dangerous when flooded, so I was pretty nervous approaching them.
But neither was flooded. In fact, they were both only knee deep, and although
the water was flowing pretty quickly and the rocks were slick on the bottoms, at
least I could see bottom in the clear water.
The next photo shows beautiful Bald Mountain Stream, which I followed about
three miles until it merged with the West Branch of the Piscataquis River:
This is where the AT crosses the West Branch of the Piscataquis:
Bald Mountain Stream comes in from the left to merge with the river. I followed
the white blazes to the "island" between the streams, then across the other side
of the river and up a steep bank.
The next six miles of the AT follow the West Branch, one of the most beautiful
"river walks" on the entire AT. Finally, hikers cross the wider East Branch of
the Piscataquis a few miles south of Monson, ME.
Then there was my scariest river adventure on the entire trek:
crossing the flooded Little Wilson Stream and Thompson Brook twice each on
Thank goodness I had only a few more days on the Trail
after that, because I'm not sure I could have kept fording Maine's "streams"
much longer. Seven months later I continue to have occasional nightmares about
the experience and think about it during my waking hours. I was damn lucky that
day. I still love to run and hike along creeks and rivers, but fording
them is another story.
Little Wilson doesn't even come with high-water warnings in the guide book or
map, but it was a churning, dangerous crossing after several inches of rain
apparently fell before I arrived that day.
We'd been warned by seasoned veterans of the Trail ("Bear," an overseer in the
Hundred-Mile Wilderness, and Regis Shivers, who nearly drowned in the two Wilson
rivers when he ran the AT in 2003) about the dangers of crossing these streams
after a lot of rain has fallen.
Here are three photos I took after crossing the flooded Little Wilson Stream on the
AT. This is the first time I've shown the third one:
You say, "Oh, that doesn't look so bad!"
You had to be there.
The water was fast and furious, too dark to see bottom or the boulders lurking beneath
the surface. I clung to a serendipitous rope, the only one I ever saw across a
river on the AT, and lost my footing completely about two-thirds of the way
across when the water was up to my chest. Somehow both Cody-pup and I made it
If you've never read the journal entry for
141, I encourage you to go back and read it now (there's even more
about that crossing and Jim's and my subsequent rendezvous in
This was only the
beginning of the challenges I faced that day.
I was supposed to cross the Big Wilson Stream a few miles later, but it
would've been my death for sure. I met another hiker ("Kokomo") who tried,
twice, to cross it. He was so traumatized from nearly drowning that he vowed to
end his thru-hike then and there (he did finish most of the rest of the way and
intends to return this summer to do this section).
I took the official high water detour (ha!) along the Big Wilson but I wouldn't
recommend it to anyone.
This is what
the river looked like that I refused to ford. It was a hundred feet wide, or
more, 'way over its banks. The second view is new to the
Someday I want to do that section again so I can see what the Wilson rivers look like
at normal levels.
I still had several rivers to ford after that, including the wide but shallow
(and, well, pleasant) West Branch of the Pleasant River
three days later when the floodwaters had subsided:
One of the most beautiful scenes we saw last summer was looking over the
Penobscot River from Abol Bridge and our campsite next to the bridge, with
magnificent Mt. Katahdin.in the background.
Here are my favorite photos from Day
147, my next-to-last day on the Trail. I could definitely spend a lot of hours
simply looking at this river as the light changes throughout the day:
Jim's photo of the fisherman is almost enticing enough to make me want to take
up fishing for a hobby! And it's an appropriate finale to this river essay.
"A river . . . has so many things to say
that it is hard to know what it says to each of us."
- Norman MacLean, A River Runs Through It
Next up: cascades, flumes, and waterfalls along the Appalachian Trail.