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Runtrails' 2005 AT Journal

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    POST #5: FAVORITE PLACES, PART 3          

"What an incredible adventure! Having your journal, photos,
advice, etc. may just help the dreams of others come to reality. Thank
you very much for all your efforts (and Jim's support throughout)."

- e-letter from a journal reader


Bright summer flowers in the Pochuck Swamp in New Jersey, above.

Thanks, Brenda! That was one of my goals when I decided to write the journal. Some folks want to do all or part of the Appalachian Trail, while others have different goals.

Hopefully, this journal will serve as a catalyst for all sorts of dreams!

In this section I will highlight my favorite places along the AT for prolific spring flowers, great campsites, and unusual rocks.

I'll also tell you where some of the most rugged rock sections are located so you can either avoid them or seek them out for a real challenge.


You really can't go wrong anywhere along the Appalachian Trail in the spring! There will be flowers nearly everywhere.

Since I began at the southern terminus in late April, the floral show I enjoyed was primarily in the first few states in May and June - through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. There were very few flowers blooming during the summer and fall in the mid-Atlantic and New England states, but I bet they were just as spectacular during their spring seasons.

The locations I've listed below are NOT in my order of preference, but simply range from south to north. I listed flowers I saw and included photos in many of the first fifty-nine days through Virginia, and a few after that (like in the Pochuck Swamp in New Jersey). I plan to put many of my AT flower (and other) photos on the Picasa link above left when I finish with all my post-run entries.

In my opinion the most spectacular floral displays were the rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and wild azaleas. Timing the blooming season of these shrubs, as well as all the other wildflowers, is tricky, since bloom time depends on elevation, latitude, and weather. Check locally before driving a good distance to see these blooms, just as you would for fall leaf color. There are numerous locations along the AT through at least New Jersey where laurels, azaleas, and rhodos thrive.

1. Between Springer Mountain and Woody Gap, GA - numerous rhododendron tunnels here, but not blooming on April 30 (Day 1).

2. North from Fontana Dam in the Smokies, NC - these brilliant flame azaleas were blooming on Day 12 (May 11):

3. Wayah Bald and Nantahala River Gorge area in NC - numerous wild irises and other flowers and shrubs in bloom on Day 10 (May 9).

4. Between Davenport Gap and Max Patch, NC - I waxed poetic on Day 17 (May 16) because I saw such a proliferation of flowers: whole hillsides of trilliums, spiderworts, and violets, as well as fire pinks, blue irises, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, and other gorgeous yellow, white, and blue flowers.

5. Lover's Leap, north of Hot Springs, NC - on Day 19 (May 18), lots of pink Lady Slippers and laurels, which hadn't yet peaked.

6. Roan Mountain area in TN - numerous rhododendrons but the flowers weren't in bloom yet at that elevation when I was there on Day 27 (May 26).

7. Straight Mountain, VA - a few miles north of Damascus on the Trail above Laurel Creek Gorge, I found rhodo/laurel/azalea heaven on Day 31 (May 30). It was the most beautiful display I saw in the first month on the AT. There was a profusion of lavender and fuschia-colored flowers, all gorgeous. This photo doesn't really do them justice:

8. Shenandoah National Park, VA - rhododendrons usually bloom mid- to late June here, laurels a bit earlier. See Days 53 to 57.

9. Pochuck Swamp, Vernon Valley, NJ - lots of purple, white, and yellow wildflowers blooming on Day 92 (July 30) and would probably be even better in the spring when it is wetter.


If you have a tent, van, or small camper you can find numerous wonderful places to camp along the Appalachian Trail.

If you have a larger camper, your options are more limited. But Jim did a terrific job finding some scenic, spacious, and/or convenient camping sites during our trek. Some were even free in national forest areas.

These were some of my favorites, again listed from south to north instead of by preference:

1. Vogel State Park, north Georgia - What a beautiful park! There are numerous trails in the park and surrounding mountains, a lake for swimming and fishing, and huge shaded campsites next to a clear, rocky creek with lush rhododendrons on the far bank (not yet in bloom when we were there in late April). Kids would love it here. See Prep #26.

2. Big Meadow Campground, Shenandoah Natl. Park, VA - Jim found a terrific site here that was right next to the AT, so I could end one day's run and begin the next morning right from our camper. All the details, including bear sightings, are at Day 55. This is another great spot for families.

3. Round Pond Family Campground at West Point Academy, NY - one of the few locations to camp near the AT in the Harriman State Park area, this is a great place if you have any military connections (veteran, active military, or family of military personnel). Situated above the broad Hudson River, the scenery, architecture, and history are interesting. See Days 93 and 94.

4. Pine Valley RV Resort, Quechee, VT (near Woodstock) - see Days 74 and 111 for information about our favorite campground in Vermont. This one is privately owned, but we've enjoyed the same spacious wooded site there three times now (twice for VT100 and once for the AT) for several days each time. The nearby town of Woodstock is one of our favorite trail towns, too.

5. Northern Outdoors campgrounds, Caratunk, Maine - the sites Jim found for us in Maine just kept getting better and better! This one is right next to the Kennebec River, a mile or so upriver from the AT crossing. It was great to just look over and see the river from our camper. See photo from Days 137 and 138. In September, we had the place nearly to ourselves.

6. Jo-Mary Lake Campground, Katahdin Ironworks-Jo-Mary Multiple Use Area in Maine (Hundred-Mile Wilderness) - imagine our surprise when we camped in the fog but got up the next morning to clear blue skies - and a perfect view of Mt. Katahdin across the lake! We were right next to the water. Again, in mid-September, we just about had the whole place to ourselves. See Days 145 and 146. Jim took this dramatic photo of the mountain from our campsite:

7. Abol Bridge Campground, Maine - we didn't think it would get any better than the Jo-Mary Campground. We scoped out this campground on a cloudy day, too, and were more than surprised the next day to find out that we were in the shadow of Mt. Katahdin. I was delighted to end two of my runs (Days 147 and 148) at this campground, located right next to Abol Bridge. See the photo above from Day 147 of the view I saw when I walked across the bridge and saw how close we were to Katahdin. Wow! Jim just out-did himself here (once again).


I had a love-hate relationship with rocks the entire journey.

I never expected the AT to be so rocky. I encountered every imaginable kind of rock along the way: huge rock boulders, rock outcrops and ledges, vertical rock slabs, horizontal rock slabs/bedrock I could run on, big and little rocks, pointed rocks, grooved and  fluted rocks, hollow rocks, rockwork done by the CCC in the 1930s, rock cairns, rock crevices, rock jumbles, scree, rocks flowing down the hillsides like lava, stacked rocks, balanced and cantilevered rocks, rocks in beautiful colors, rocks with lovely designs, and rocks with moss, crusty lichens, ferns, and even trees growing on them.


It took me a while to appreciate them, but most of the more unusual rocks I grew to like. Reading about their origins helped. Taking photos of interesting formations and designs helped. And just realizing I couldn't run as much as I wanted to helped. Once I slowed down a bit, I discovered these interesting rocks, for example:

1. Virginia Rocks - some of the more fascinating formations are in the Mt. Rogers NRA (see Days 32 and 37 re: Fat Man's Squeeze), Dragon's Tooth (Day 44), The Guillotine (Day 47), and Day 56 in the Shenenandoahs (fluted, balancing, hollow, etc.). Northern Virginia also has its share of boulders to climb over.

2. New York Rocks - the Lemon Squeezer in Harrimon State Park is fun (Day 94) if you take your time, and I just loved the multi-colored "puddingstone" rock slabs on some of the ridges (Day 92). Of all the rock samples I collected this is my favorite. I could run on those slabs but mostly walked to enjoy them more (how's that for a one-eighty in my thinking??).

3. Massachusetts Rocks - I loved the white and pale orangey-colored rock formations at The Cobbles on Crystal Mountain (Day 104) and the gorgeous white marble and multi-colored quartz rocks on East Mountain (Day 105) in northern Massachusetts. Many of the buildings in this area are made from these beautiful stones.

4. Vermont Rocks - I was simply mesmerized some days in Vermont by the beautiful colors of the rocks. Some had unusual streaks and designs in them. Some had shiny gold or silver flecks. There were also plenty of mossy rock boulders, and even a rock cairn "city." This is one of the fun cairns from Day 109:

5. New Hampshire Rocks - rocks galore here, from colorful, fun rocks to nasty "suicide slabs" above enormous drops. Every imaginable form of rock is present in this state, including rock walls to climb and mountains that are nothing but boulders or bedrock above tree line. I collected lots of pretty little rock samples from this state. (Don't worry; there are plenty more if you go!)

This is one of the more unusual patterns I found in a rock on Day 115, a great section of the AT for rock hounds:

6. Maine Rocks - home to many of the above-mentioned types of rocks, Maine also has lots of dark blue-gray slate (especially around Monson) and the notorious "slowest mile on the AT," Mahoosuc Notch, with its truck- and house-sized boulders to climb over, around, and under. Mahoosuc Notch (Day 127) is a major challenge, particularly if you have short legs and arms or you are in a hurry. If you have more time, companions, and a dry day, it's a blast. As in the other northern New England states, Maine has a lot of  beautiful "velvet" rocks, huge boulders that are covered with soft green moss.


Ha! They are everywhere on the AT, if you're as rock-challenged as I am. For other people the difficulty would be a plus, drawing them like a magnet.

These are just a few of the toughest spots to negotiate if you're running or speed-hiking the Trail, going south to north again:

1. Blackstack Cliffs, NC - these were the first challenging boulder ledges I encountered when I was still trying to run as much as possible. Well, there's no running here for about a mile! The views are nice, though (see photo below). There is a blue-blazed bad-weather route, but you'll miss the views if you take it.

This is one of many spots on the AT where a torn ligament or broken  bone would spell Bad News because it would be hard to get rescued. In retrospect, these cliffs aren't nearly as difficult as those in northern New England, but at the time they seemed formidable. See Day 22.

2. The "Roller Coaster" in northern VA - this was my first real encounter with ten miles of rock boulders to negotiate and steep, nasty PUDs (pointless ups and downs in hiker-speak). Trail designers here found the very worst terrain through these hills and are doggone proud of it, as evidenced by the signs erected by the "Trail Boss." Again, after negotiating much worse places in NH and ME, this section now seems relatively tame. Perspective. See Days 58 and 59 for details and a photo.

3. Pennsylvania - the AT is rocky in much of the state, making running slow at best and impossible in many places. There aren't a lot of rock slabs and verticals but many places have annoying sharp rocks that frustrate the hikers as much as the runners. I pretty much hated the Trail in most of Rocksylvania. No offense to residents there!

4. New Hampshire - every size and form of rock you could ever imagine exists here. The Trail is often very rugged, such as in the Kinsman Range (see Day 117).  Mt. Moosilauke and the northern portions of the Presidential Range that are above tree line are often boulder piles, especially from Mt. Washington to Mt. Madison (see Days 121 and 126).

This is a photo of Jim on Day 116 in the fog on top of Moosilauke:

Some other summits in New Hampshire have smoother rock slabs (bedrock) that are more runnable, like Franconia Ridge (Day 118) and the southern Presies (Day 120).

You'll get lots of rock climbing experience in New Hampshire. It will serve you well in Maine . . .

5. Maine - Mt. Katahdin (Day 148) and the southern part of Maine in the Mahoosuc Range have the worst boulders and rock climbs (slabs, verticals) in the state. Mahoosuc Notch deserves its notoriety, especially if the rocks are wet or you're in a hurry (Day 127). In the rest of Maine, water and roots are more of a problem than rocks.

COMING UP NEXT: tough stuff - the hardest climbs and descents for you masochists, and some of the more dangerous places along the AT.

After that, I'll identify some of the most runnable and scenic places I found, sections that are easy to crew, areas where other family members can find fun things to do while you're out on the Trail, and a few interesting weekend, weeklong, and two-week runs or hikes along the Trail.

I'll have a lot more "post" entries eventually. Don't cha just hate it when real life interferes with your passions??

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

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2005 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil