The Ups and Downs of the Appalachian Approach Trail

Are you debating on whether to start your NOBO thru-hike at the approach trail or at the southernmost white blaze on the summit of Springer Mountain?  This age-old debate is one of the myriad questions potential thru-hikers have to answer during our massive planning stages.

My name is Clarity, a 2015 Appalachian Trail flip-flop thru-hiker who took the first of 5 million steps on June 5 from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I first trekked NOBO (northbound) and over 80,000 white blazes and three months later, found myself standing on the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Three days and an adventurous road trip later, I arrived back in Harpers Ferry for my SOBO (southbound) stroll to Georgia in my search for Clarity. My odyssey ended on Springer’s summit without ever having viewed the tallest cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River. It wasn’t until two months later when I began a 3-month stint as a ridgerunner for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that I beheld the beauty I had missed on my thru. My “office” was the Approach Trail, and I fell head over heels in love.

Approximately 50% of starting thru-hikers begin their hike at Amicalola Falls State Park and walk the arduous 8 mile approach trail before their official white blaze adventure even begins. Allow me to detail the ups and downs of the Approach Trail below so that you can make the best decision for your journey’s starting point.

Reasons to consider starting at Amicalola Falls State Park:

  1. Easier to access via car:  The approach trail adds 8.8 miles to your foot travel, but for many it is a much easier starting point transportation wise since Amicalola Falls State Park is located right off of Highway 136. Springer Mountain requires an adventurous drive up and then back down Forest Service road 42 to Big Stamp Gap at GPS coordinates 34.6376,-84.1954. This 7 mile road takes about 30 minutes of drive time in and of itself. It is a windy, gravelly, dodge-the-potholes game with the mountain dropping steeply off on one side of the road. On several occasions my Toyota Corolla and I have navigated up and down it with no problems, so it is doable, but not what one would call an easy commute. Amicalola Falls State park, however, involves only highway travel and is a short drive from Dahlonega, so shuttles are cheaper and easier to find.
  2. Famous arch: Amicalola Falls State Park is home to the famous archway. This beautiful threshold provides a memorable starting point photo. It also made its way into Bill Bryson’s movie, A Walk in the Woods. Robert Redford posed here!
  3. Hikers get their starting number when registering: The Amicalola Falls Visitor’s Center houses the official sign in for thru-hikers. The cool thing here is learning how many others have started ahead of you this hiking season. Since there are three other “official” sign in spots along the journey through 14 states, registering provides some interesting comparisons. The second opportunity is at the ATC in Harpers Ferry which sits near the halfway point between Georgia and Maine. It’s interesting here to note where you are in the rankings after about half of those who started will have gotten off trail.The final registration point is in Maine which is even more revealing.
  4. Start your excursion epically by climbing the tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi! After hiking the entire 2,189 mile A.T., I can adamantly confirm that there is not a more breathtaking waterfall along the whole trail, so why skip it? In the scope of a pilgrimage that involves several months of living at 2 miles per hour, what is one extra day? To start and end an excursion of this magnitude surrounded by remarkable beauty is a win win!

  5. Your mind is your pilot, and you might as well start its training on day one. The Approach Trail is a way to test yourself…to start practicing mind over matter and pushing your physical limits. I promise, the entire A.T. is hard, but when you learn how much your mind can overcome physical challenges, the length of the trail becomes doable. Plan to take your time. Hike your own hike!
  6. Starting from Springer requires backtracking. If you decide to skip the approach trail and start at Big Stamp Gap at the base of Springer Mountain, you actually have to go backwards and traverse southbound nine-tenths of a mile before turning around and beginning your northbound journey.
  7. Blue blaze debate: Though this shouldn’t play into your decision too much since you’re hiking your own hike and not worried about what others think, I feel it necessary to lay all of the information out there so you can make the best choice. Some hikers feel the approach trail is a rite of passage and a necessary addition to truly be a legit thru-hiker. Though the blue blazes that mark the approach trail technically say differently, this is an annual banter among hikers who take the approach and hikers who do not.
  8. It’s only 8 extra miles! In the scope of 2,189 miles, 8 miles is a mere drop in the bucket. Granted, there aren’t many beautiful views on the approach trail (other than climbing alongside and across a waterfall the first mile), but it’s an accurate picture of most of your Appalachian Trail miles when you’ll simply be walking through the woods.

Reasons some choose to skip the Approach Trail:

  1. It’s hard! The first mile is an 800 foot elevation increase up 604 stairs. (Hint: Carry very little heavy water as there is a water source 1/4 mile past the top of the falls to fill your 2 liters.) The remaining 7 miles to Springer roller coaster up and down with an overall increase of another 1,000 feet in elevation. In one short 8-mile day, hikers climb nearly 2,000 feet. This trail, especially without having had time to build stamina and hiker legs, takes a lot of folks off guard. It’s hard!
    This is only the first set of steps. There are 604 total to get to the top.

    Amicalola falls2

  2. Very little water and few campsites: The Approach Trail lacks reliable water, so be sure to fill up at the stream as you’re exiting Amicalola Falls State Park’s boundary. Although there are sporadic campsites and fire pits along the approach trail, there are no camping spots with water access until hikers reach Black Gap Shelter, 7.3 miles from the base of Amicalola Falls.
  3. Some complain that the approach is boring. Though it is true that there are no views along the approach trail once you leave the park area, this first hike provides an accurate simulation of what lies ahead of you for the next 2,189 miles. A thru-hike is truly a walk in the woods with occasional views. The journey is what happens between destinations.

Not to sound biased, but there truly are many benefits of hiking the approach trail if you face it with a positive attitude. At the end of it all, you want to have no regrets, and for most of us, this adventure is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Take advantage! Embrace it all…the natural beauty, the forest silence, the slow pace of using your legs as your transportation, and embrace the parts that suck too. Remember that all moments are part of the journey. Take an extra day to get to know yourself as a hiker on the approach trail. Get your mind set and ready for the journey as you walk to that first starting point as a NOBO hiker, Springer Mountain.

Take some time to reflect on top of Springer. Contemplate the beautiful insanity of what you are about to tackle.

Learn to love walking!

Happy to answer questions any time! Email Clarity.

5 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of the Appalachian Approach Trail

  1. Thanks for taking the time to inform us newbies. I planned on a thruhike this year but have to settle for a 3 week shakedown due to unforeseen family issues. But this will let me know if the AT is really in my future!


  2. Very encouraging. We leave in a few days out of Troutville VA going south. Thanks for this glimpse into my next adventure.


  3. I’m starting my section hike journey with an 11 yr old. I’m hoping that we can do the entire trail over the next 15 years. I have no intention of ruining him for the journey in the 1st 8 miles. When we’ve completed the 2k+ miles we may make a trip back there to revisit where it starts. Now we’re gonna check out the falls then drive to Springer and backtrack & I am more than positive there will be no regrets.


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