Friday, January 14, 2011

Southbound vs Northbound Part 1 The Beginning...

Beginning the AT Southbound, via the Abol Slide Trail, at Baxter State Park, Maine 2010

Welcome to a series of blogs on Southbound (SOBO) vs Northbound (NOBO) Appalachian Trail hikes. Since I have done both, I felt it a good idea to share some thoughts about each area that I hiked, as well as gear selections, food, prep, the trail itself, etc. It is hoped this will help interested hikers make informed decisions with regards to planning a southbound vs northbound attempt and ensure an adventuresome and exciting experience.

Whether ending or finishing, Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine is king of the Appalachian Trail. And it acts like one. It makes its own rules, has its own weather patterns, is unpredictable but yet grand. The rules in Baxter State Park can be confusing for both NOBO and SOBO hikers. For the hiker starting their grand adventure at this peak, there are a few rules one must follow. Baxter does have a backpacker's campsite (the Birches), but it is reserved ONLY for hikers who have completed at least the 100 mile wilderness. And normal SOBO hikers don't fall into that category. So the SOBO hiker must reserve a campsite at Katahdin Stream before and after their summit hike.

I found the reservation process quite smooth and without any hitches. Although they recommend reserving your campsite far in advance, I noticed plenty of sites still available only a few short weeks before my July 1st start (and near the big July 4th holiday, which was surprising). Not to say you shouldn't plan early, as you should. But it is not that arduous a process. You mail in your required forms, and they promptly issue a return form in the mail with the reservation set. Make sure you have this form on your person when you enter the park as they will check it at the entrance station and again at your campsite. Here is a link to Baxter State Park for all its rules and the reservation process. You can also check availability of sites. I used a walk-in site at Katahdin Stream myself, but they also have lean-tos. Also, new for 2014, they have extended their campsie season,including the Birches, for all you late comers.

We found it a more interesting experience taking a different trail up to the peak instead of hiking the Hunt Trail (which is the official AT route) both up and down. We took the Abol Slide Trail up (you need to get a short hitch from Katahdin Stream campsite to this trailhead) and came down the Hunt Trail (located right at Katahdin Stream). (Update NOTE- Abol Slide Trail Will be closed for 2014 season!) It cannot be overemphasized that for a hiker not in condition (which SOBOs are not, let's face it) this is a very difficult day. We had weather too on the mountain with fierce wind and sleet pellets. It took us a total of 10 hours to make the circuit hike (yes, that was a long time for us). But allow yourself plenty of time for the hike. Get out early. Be sure to have cold weather gear even in July, including rain gear, in your day pack (unless it is perfectly clear out. Though we had clear weather at the bottom, but Katahdin had its own cloud at top. Weather blows in fast). You will be very tired after this hike, even carrying a daypack (which you can pick up at the ranger station the night before. Get yours early as some of the condition of the daypacks leave much to be desired). You will likely be pretty sore also. So take it easy for a few days afterwards as you head south until your muscles have a chance to recover and heal. Before you leave Katahdin Stream, the rangers allow you to leave your garbage at the ranger station. They really are hiker friendly in the park. The next day we did 10 miles through Baxter State Park and stayed at the paid campsite at Abol Bridge and glad we did. They are hiker friendly there also and had nice sites they hold for backpackers. With showers, a campstore, and a pretty pond, it made for a nice beginning. Take it easy for a few days after that. Soon your muscles will feel better.

Our start at the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park, March 5, 2007

A return in 2013.

For those starting their trek NOBO at Amicalola Falls State Park, there also needs to be some planning. But there are no backpacking reservations to be had. There is a free shelter right behind the visitor center at the state park where you can stay before starting your hike up the Approach Trail (which, by the way is not the AT but a trail that goes roughly nine miles to the start of the AT on Springer Mountain). Many hikers also choose to stay at the Hiker Hostel run by Josh and Leigh Saint. They offer thru hiker rates, a bed, breakfast, and transportation to the trailhead. If you come by bus or plane, they can often pick you up with prior arrangements. They accept mail drops of gear and fuel can also be mailed there (check with them to see if they carry your type of fuel in stock). If you are sectioning, you can leave a car at the park at the lot across from the visitor center. Like Kathadin, there is an approach trail to the summit of Springer Mt where the AT officially starts. There are also easier ways to summit Springer, such as taking a drive up to a parking lot just a mile shy of the summit and starting there (and I met hikers that did do just that). But I believe that a true approach of hiking to the starting point of your grand AT adventure puts you right into the spirit of the hike and gets it off on a good footing. Besides, although the stairs are steep, the route by the falls is awesome.
Amicalola Falls

You feel like you have already accomplished something by hiking to it rather than taking an "easy" way to the initial start. Its a good morale booster. It gives you a good feeling when, at the end of a tiring day (or rainy day as I had), you can stand on Springer, look at the first White Blaze, and say, "Here I am. The first white blaze of my long trek northward. And I'm ready to do it!"

The hike up the Approach Trail will take you all day also, but it is certainly not the rigorous ascent that one faces SOBO at Katahdin. Nor is there any descent to speak of. You will still be sore, granted. But it is much easier in the woods of Georgia, without weather extremes and hazards. It's a gentler way to start. But still interesting and full of excitement, to be sure.

Other posts in the series:

Northbound vs Southbound Part II The Social Aspects

Northbound vs Southbound Part III Outfitters and Resupply


Amy Tate said...

Great post! I'm currently planning on a hike in 2012 that might be SOBO, but might also be NOBO, depending on how things shake out. I look forward to future entries.

Unknown said...

This is great! I really envy you, but honestly don't know if I could do it. That is a huge accomplishment to hike the AT. To do it twice just seems awesome!


VelociraptorRawr said...

Thank you SO MUCH for this. We are leaving for our SOBO thru-hike mid June, and we could not figure out this whole Baxter Park thing for the life of us.

Thanks so much, and you are completely amazing.

crestview_hiker said...

This site you have and the information you have presented answered my question the best I have found. The information and pics are the best. Thanks for your efforts. I am planning my NOBO hike beginning March 1 (or the first week)in March. I look forward to reading more of your post.