A Walk on The Appalachian Trail Is What You Make of It

a panoramic view of mountains with trees on both sides and rocks in the foreground
Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.

The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.”  This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.

a cement trail marker post with the AT logoIn 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.a teal blue marker set in a block of cement

There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.

Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, with March 1 through April 15 the most popular dates to start. There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This northern section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, so most experts suggest building up to that level.

Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (so you would then progress to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.

Preparing for your hike

the trail is a series of rocks
This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
a trail with a downed tree across it that has been cut out to provide access
A section in Shenandoah

switchbacks on a trail with leafy trees above a path through the woods with trees on each side and rocks off to the left

There are a number of excellent websites and  books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name for yourself, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone.  Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is of course a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where camping is allowed and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).

Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you (not to mention helping with preparations), it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.

Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.

The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.

Enjoy the trail’s beauty

Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.

The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border).  I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.

The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail. The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome, hopping into NC, then back to TN and back to NC once again.

a man looks at a map in front of a trail sign
We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
trees and a rock jutting out with a woman perched on the end
Just off the trail in Tennessee
the foggy view of a mountain through trees bare of foilage
The view looking into North Carolina

A couple years ago, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.

The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).

a stone foundation of a ruined building
The ruins of the Episcopal Mission
a crude shelf holding objects presumably found among the ruins
A makeshift shrine to the Pocosin Mission

a wood structure partially collapsedparts of a stone foundation among trees

While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! Now that sounds like a manageable goal!

 

This was previously published as A Walk on The Appalachian Trail

A Taste of Portland Maine Will Leave You Hungry for More

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We planned Portland, Maine as a stop to break up the ride to Bar Harbour which would be our home base as we explored Acadia National Park. Though we had only a short time in the city, we discovered that it has a certain charm, wonderful food and history to discover, making it worthy of being a destination itself.

Spring Point Ledge Light, South Portland

Home to not one, but SIX lighthouses, Portland’s history (surprise, given the city’s name) is in shipping. Established in 1632 as a British fishing and trading community, Portland has suffered setbacks, such as fire and loss of industry, but remains a thriving metropolitan center with the current focus on art, shopping and food. Named by the National Historic Trust one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2003, the city demonstrates the resilience of its natives.

The city’s cobblestone streets contribute to its historical vibe as do its forts and the historically significant architecture found throughout the city. The Portland Museum of Art, in the center of downtown, is home to over 17,000 pieces of art. The childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is also in Portland, next to the Maine Historical Society. Paddling enthusiasts can rent kayaks or paddle boards and go on their way or choose a guided tour. Bicycle rentals and tours are also offered.

Spring Point Ledge Light

Since my son was prepping for a week-long backpacking trip, I took the opportunity to plan a half a day completing a 10k “year-round” hike organized by the Southern Maine Volkssport Association which “conveniently” took us past the Spring Point Ledge Light.  Built to warn ships of a dangerous ledge in Portland Harbor, the

a rocky breakwater leads to the base of a lighthouse
The breakwater is composed of large granite boulders,and touring the lighthouse involves climbing a ladder, so good shoes are recommended

lighthouse took almost ten years from approval to completion and was first lit in May of 1897. Originally it stood out in the harbor at the end of the ledge; a 950 -foot granite breakwater connecting it to the shore at Fort Preble was completed in 1951. The breakwater is open to the public (solid shoes are recommended as the footing can be slippery) and admittance to the lighthouse is by ticket at select times. Since we were hungry after our walk, we stopped at Joe’s Boathouse for lunch and enjoyed both the food and atmosphere.

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Portland Head Light from a distance

Before heading up to Acadia, my family knew it was inevitable that I would suggest we visit the lighthouse we saw in the distance from the Spring Point Ledge Light. The Portland Head Light, the nation’s first lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and built in 1791 and was even more impressive up close. It is adjacent to Fort Williams Park and is owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. The 90-acre park offers hiking, picnicking and other outdoor recreation as well as the option to explore the historic fort structures.

Portland Head Light

We stopped again in Portland on our way home later that week. It was an even shorter stop this time, just for dinner and an overnight, but we did have another wonderful meal at a place we found nearby.

I will readily admit to being a pizza snob. When asked my favorite food, yep, it’s pizza, and although I like many varieties (regarding crust and toppings), I have to admit I am a bit judgemental when it comes to quality. I am happy to say that the Portland Pie Company met all expectations. We each ordered a personal size, which was a rare treat for me as it meant I could choose thin crust (the rest of the family prefers the thicker stuff). Of course being in Maine, I went with the option of putting lobster on mine. It sounds a bit strange, but was delicious! (Unlike everyone else, I had no leftovers for lunch the next day.) If pizza is not your thing (gasp!) they do have other items on the menu as well.

This was our first trip to Maine and we saw several things that make us want to return. Portland (and the Pie Company) are definitely on the list!

 

Note: No compensation was provided for mentioning any of the businesses in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.

 

This was first published as Portland, Maine Has Much to Offer

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A Trip to the Garden Isle Is the Ultimate Salve for the Soul

Hawaii’s Garden Isle, Kauai, is a true paradise and the only place I have visited that I could honestly say I could permanently relocate to. With a year round temperature of about 78 F and terrain ranging from powdery sand beaches to mountains and cliffs, it the perfect environment for me. (If only it weren’t so far away from everywhere else!) Despite wicked jet lag (we had a 13-hour flight each way from our eastern US  home, with short layovers on the west coast), the relaxing power of this visit lingered for weeks after our return home.

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Evidence of Kauai’s volcanic heritage can be seen around the island. This is near Hanalei.

100_9764Kauai gets its nickname by virtue of being the rainiest place on earth, with an annual average of  350 to 400 inches measured at Mt. Wai’ale’ale. We happened to visit during the rainy season, in mid November, but this didn’t dampen my appreciation of all the natural wonder the island has to offer. Even though it rained every day we were there, it was not raining everywhere, and since the main road that travels most of the perimeter of the island can be traversed in under an hour, it is easy to just go for a ride to find someplace sunny. We stayed in Lihue, which is fairly central, and over the course of a week traveled pretty much the entire island. (There is plenty more to see, hiking or boating further inland, plus some areas accessible only via 4-wheel drive. We hope to do more exploring on a future trip.)

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Chickens, as well as wild boar can be found on the island. They have no natural predators and can be seen all over. (The chickens that is, the boar are more elusive.)

It would be impossible to detail everything to do (or even everything we did) in such a small place, so I will focus here on my favorites.

 

100_9500Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is well worth the admission fee and the 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot. The views are amazing, especially on the south side of the lighthouse, where a U-shaped crater is all that remains of the 100_9511volcanic vent that formed this area 15,000 years ago.

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This small island is home to many albatross which if you look closely can be seen nesting here.
A young shearwater sitting on the ground
This Wedge-tailed Shearwater crept out to say hello

The area is home to a number of birds, including the Laysan Albatross, which nest on the refuge, and the Red Footed Booby as well as a number of native plant species (signs help identify these). A number of young Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were roaming about, peeking from under the fence that protects them from visitors (there are many notices warning that the birds are protected, and that touching or harassing them is an offense). 100_9517The 1913 Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse is the northernmost point of Kauai and is on the National Register of Historic Places; tours are offered on select days, pending staff availability.

 

a rocky cave entrance
One of the caves near Hanalei

We spent another afternoon wandering the shops in Kapaa Town and headed north, up the coast to Hanalei Town. We stopped to take a look in one of the caves (sadly, we didn’t see Puff the dragon) and continued on to where the road ends at the shoreline.

Some large rocks on the cave floor
inside the cave

Though we didn’t go explore it, there is a trail from here that goes along the Napali Coast. There is a bridge on the main road that frequently floods, cutting off access to the rest of the island. It was raining that day, so we didn’t want to take our chances and stay too long. We chose an area restaurant for dinner and had one of many wonderful seafood dinners. (In fact, we didn’t have a disappointing meal the entire week.)

A collection of signs on a beach warning of the dangers of swimming there
Hawaiians take safety seriously
A small stretch of beach and the ocean. A few trees are on a spit to the left of the image
The end of the road and the beginning of the Napali Coast

Though people say that Hawaii is very expensive, it seems to me that if you eat food grown and harvested on the island, it is no more so than back home. (I did stop in a local grocery store as I like to do when traveling to get a better feel for the true character of a place. Items shipped in from the mainland tended to be pricey, but local foods were very reasonably priced.)

A waterfall that appears as two, surrounded by greenery with mountains in the background.
Opaekaa Falls

100_9707Also on the east side of the island is Opaekaa Falls, which can easily be viewed from the road. Nearby, overlooking the Wailua River, is Poli’ahu Heiau (a place of worship), where we explored some of the sacred ruins of Hawaii’s past. Hawaii Visitor Bureau signs near the heiau state that the Hawaiians believed this 100_9720structure was built by the Menehune, an ancient race of small people who inhabited the islands before the Tahitians. There are a number of informational placards explaining the sire and the environment as a whole is peaceful.

 

100_9557Another day we traveled southwest and found ourselves at the home of Lilo and Stitch, Hanapepe Town. The town is small but considered Kauai’s art capital, with more art galleries than any other place on the island. It was once a busy town and has

A head on view of a narrow wooden bridge with wooden rails covered with chicken wire
The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge

been the “location” for films such as The Thornbirds, and Flight of the Intruder as well as the aforementioned Disney film. We picked up some gifts for family back home and made a trip across the famous Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

100_9211Of course you can’t make a trip to an island without spending some time on the beach. Kauai has many beaches and the sand differs quite a bit depending on location. We tested out the water at Poipu Beach Park, and I sat for over an hour watching the birds run into the surf, then back as it chased them up the beach. Not far from here, on Route 50 (which is the only main road on Kauai) we stopped at The Shrimp Station, a roadside stand, for what they advertised as “The Best Coconut Shrimp on the Planet.” After trying it, I would have to say I agree.

Also while in Kauai, our adventures included hiking the Waimea Canyon and kayaking the Wailua River. These were highlights of our trip and things I hope to do again.

Mountains, ocean and trees, with a hint of a rainbow just below the clouds
One of the many breathtaking roadside views

Thankfully I had done my research and knew about Waimea Canyon before leaving home. This is the reason I packed hiking boots for a Hawaiian vacation, causing some to laugh at me. The boots were a must.

A parking lot with cars parked and moving. There are chickens on the road and the nearby grass
The Kauai chickens are everywhere

Waimea Canyon is breathtakingly beautiful, with each roadside vista more impressive than the last. Waimea Canyon State Park is the largest canyon in the Pacific. Ten miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep, it is on the western side of the island and is only accessible from the 18 mile long Rt 550. The hiking is rugged. At times we questioned whether we had gone off trail; unlike many other state parks I have hiked, there are no guardrails.

a brownish river
We started our journey at the boat launch

View of the river from a kayak. You can see the yellow bow in the picture

 

 

 

 

The geography of the Wailua River, on the east side of the island was completely different. We chose Wailua Kayak Adventures to guide us down the river and on a very muddy hike (thankfully they had warned us before we set out – be aware that your sneakers will never recover). Our journey took us down the river,

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We hiked through an ancient mango forest to get to the falls

beneath low-hanging branches to a spot where we left the kayaks and started our hike through the rain forest to the Secret Falls, where we took a break and snacked on mangoes and chocolate! Our knowledgeable

a box of chocolates and a bag of dried mangoes laid out on a large rock
Yummy mangoes and chocolate to refuel

guide pointed out flowers and seeds and told us that the hibiscus flower can forecast the weather. The flowers apparently bloom yellow and turn red within 24 hours. If bad weather is approaching (also known as “big water”), the color changes much faster. A light rain started while we were heading back and the river had many red hibiscus blossoms floating.

a large waterfall into a pool below
The 120-foot Secret Falls

There is much more to see on Kauai. I hope to return and explore the Napali Coast, more of the beaches and maybe even try ziplining or go on a helicopter tour.

 

Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.

A version of this previously appeared as Kauai’s Garden Paradise and Exploring the Waimea Canyon and Wailua River

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Virginia’s Breathtaking Natural Bridge Is a National Treasure

 

Natural Bridge, Virginia’s 37th state park showcases one of the oldest geologic features on the East Coast. Part of a limestone cavern system, the bridge likely formed when the James River changed course and the existing cave collapsed, leaving only part of the ceiling intact. The history of the ownership of this “natural bridge” and its surrounding property goes back to colonial days.

rock face with initials G.W. carved into it, boxed in with white paint
This G.W. engraved in the rock is said to have been carved by George Washington

The recorded history of the 215-foot bridge goes back to 1750, when Lord Fairfax hired Washington to survey the bridge. It is said that at or around this time, he carved his initials into the stone under the bridge where they can still be seen today.

a plaque on a white pillar: George Washington surveyed the patent 1750, granted to Thomas Jeffersn 1774
Plaque commemorating George Washington’s survey of the patent and its granting to Thomas Jefferson

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge, along with another 157 acres of land, from King George III for 20 shillings. He later built a two-room log cabin on the property, one of these rooms was to be used for guests. In 1833, the property was sold and the new owner build the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the area. During the 1880s, while owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, it became known as a resort. In 1998 it received its National Historic Landmark status and in 2014 ownership transferred to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund.

a plaque on a white stone pillar noting that Natural Bridge is a Virginia Historic Landmark
At the entrance to the park

This natural stone formation is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places and is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature of the park is the 215-foot natural limestone arch. Until recently, the bridge was in private hands. On September  24, 2016, the property was turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia for use as a state park.

A tourist attraction as early as the 18th century, Natural Bridge has attracted guests from all over the world to see the wonder and to explore the area. It has been memorialized in literature; Herman Melville likened the arch formed by Moby Dick to Virginia’s Natural Bridge and William Cullen Bryant said that the bridge and Niagara Falls were the “two most remarkable features of North America.”

a red brick building with white pillars and "Natural Bridge State Park" across the top
The Visitor Center at Natural Bridge State Park

The Visitor Center is a large building with a variety of merchandise emblazoned with the Natural Bridge State Park logo. Also in the center is a small food concession and information booth. There is a small waterfall, Cascade Falls, next to approximately 137 steps (one of the park rangers confessed to having tried to count them and coming up with different answers each time) that go down to the path that leads to the bridge. If you are unable, or do not want to take the stairs, a complimentary bus shuttle goes back and forth at regular intervals.

Monacan longhouse made of sticks and bark
An example of a Monacan longhouse
mud wall
Protective walls were built using sticks and mud

Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to 6 miles of trails on the property as well as the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

 

wood bridge leading to a roped off cave
A bridge off the trail leads to the saltpeter mine

Following the Cedar Creek Trail from the Visitor Center, you can walk across a bridge to look into the saltpeter mine. Continuing along an easy path, you pass the Lost River, which broke through the ground and currently spills into Cedar Creek . The trail ends at the beautiful 30+ foot Lace Falls. There are two other trails on the property, the Monacan Trail is a loop on the other side of Route 11, the Buck Hill Trail, another loop, is near Natural Bridge Caverns.

The bridge is easy to find near the intersection of Route 130 and Route 11, Route 11 goes over the bridge, but you won’t realize the natural wonder beneath you unless you know what to look for.

a series of waterfalls on a creek
The approach to Lace Falls

Nearby are related sites, including Caverns at Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Hotel. (Neither of these is run by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation which manages all of Virginia’s state parks. The town of Lexington is about 20 minutes away heading north on Route 11 and the Blue Ridge Parkway is about a half hour’s drive to the east.

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