The Best Blue Blazes on the Appalachian Trail – Part 2
It’s no secret that the Appalachian Trail (AT) takes you to many breathtaking destinations. However, if those white blazes guided you to every worthwhile destination in Appalachia it’d take a lot more than six months and 2000 miles to reach the end. Therefore we must rely on those trusty blue blazes to take us places the AT cannot. The AT connects to hundreds of these trails spread throughout its entirety. These trails provide access to the amazing sights and scenes the AT can’t directly pass by. From short out-and-back spur trails to longer detours there is no shortage of opportunities to explore. Earlier this year we introduced you to 10 of these spectacular blue blazes on the Appalachian Trail, but why stop there? Why not share another 10, or 20, or perhaps even 30 more blue blazes!
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Perhaps we need to pace ourselves a little bit. It wouldn’t be as much fun if we gave it all away up front, would it? So whip out your guide book and get ready to take some notes! Here are 10 more blue blazes you’re not gonna want to miss on your AT journey!
1. Siler Bald
Siler Bald is one of the first bald summits northbound thru-hikers will encounter on the AT (Not to be confused with Silers Bald in the Great Smoky Mountains). Sitting around mile marker 114.4 Siler Bald is about a 4.5 mile hike up from Winding Stair Gap. However, like many mountains on the trail the AT only skirts the summit. To get a glimpse of the wonderful views on top hikers must hop off the AT and onto a spur trail climbing the final 0.2 miles up to the summit. The summit offers fantastic 360 degree views of the surrounding North Carolina mountains including the upcoming Wayah Bald just a few more miles north on the trail. Spectacular views at the cost of minuscule mileage make this detour a veritable “no-brainer”.
2. Mount Cammerer Trail
Mount Cammerer sits at the northern fringe of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is the last mountain northbound hikers must descend before leaving the park and the inagural ascent for incoming southbounders. Near the top of the Mount Cammerer climb at mile marker 233.4 the AT intersects with the Mt. Cammerer Trail. Hikers who venture down the 0.6 mile out-and-back spur trail are treated to one of the best Smoky Mountain vistas as well as one of the more unique lookout towers found near the trail. The tower itself was constructed from hand-cut stone in the 1930s but was fully restored in 1995. The extra 1.2 miles this side trip tacks on may sound like a lot, but the reward is well worth the price. Besides, why would you want to deprive yourself of a little more time spent in some place as gorgeous as the Smokies?
3. Spy Rock
In Virginia about 3 miles before northbounders start climbing up the Priest the AT opens to a quaint flat field near mile marker 823.1. Campsites abound here and offer an excellent base camp location for northbounders to rest up before tackling the 6,000 feet of elevation just a few miles ahead (or if you’re a southbounder a great place to crash and recover). The main attraction at this campsite is the rocky outcropping known as Spy Rock. A short 0.1 mile spur trail runs from the AT through the campsite leading to this “must-see” destination. With a bit of fun rock scrambling hikers can climb atop Spy Rock to receive one of the better vistas central Virginia has to offer. Hikers can scope out 360 degree views of the surrounding Virginia mountains as well as the taunting Priest looming to the north. Whether or not you choose to camp here there’s really no reason to pass this one up. At only 0.1 miles off the AT Spy Rock is a tough one let yourself pass by.
4. Mau-Har Trail
Not far from Spy Rock sits our next blue blaze. About 1.7 miles into the climb up Three Ridges from the Tye River and VA 56 the AT intersects with Mau-Har Trail at mile marker 833.5. Unlike our previous selections so far the Mau-Har trail is no mere out-and-back spur trail. The Mau-Har provides an alternate path around Three Ridges by way of Campbell Creek Canyon reconnecting with the AT at Maupin Field Shelter (mile marker 840.8). What that means is that if you wish to hike this trail you are deciding to forego hiking 7 miles of white blazes over Three Ridges.
That being said, my friends, do not mistake the Mau-Har as a “bypass” trail. Despite the shorter mileage this blue-blaze is by no means a short cut. Over the course of its 3 miles you are still treated to more than 2,000 feet of elevation change over rugged terrain. This blue blaze does not seem to get as much maintenance as you may be use to on the AT through this area, so be prepared. The reality is that the Mau-Har Trail is as time-consuming and strenuous (if not more so) as the climb over the mountain. Don’t just take my word for it either. The Tidewater Appalachian Trail Club agrees.
If you’re looking to hike a more purist hike then this trail is more or less out of the question unless you’re just a glutton for punishment. For the rest of you the question is that given the facts why should you even consider taking the Mau-Har Trail in the first place? It comes down to a choice in scenery. Sticking to the AT you’ll get some great views from the mountain by way of Chimney Rock and Hanging Rock among others. On the flip side the Mau-Har Trail trades beautiful vistas for water falls, swimming holes, and cascades. The first 1.5 miles (hiking north) descending towards Campbell Creek Canyon is rough and doesn’t hold much to see beyond more trees. Eventually the trail will open up to a fantastic campsite as your reach Campbell Creek. A short yellow-blazed trail from the campsite leads hikers to Campbell Creek Falls and a delightful swimming hole. The next 0.75 – 1.0 miles of trail will take you up and out of the canyon where you can enjoy numerous falls, cascades, and pools along Campbell Creek. A welcomed sight indeed. By this point in the trail you’ve seen more vistas than you have waterfalls. The Mau-Har Trail provides an excellent opportunity to help even up the score, but only if you’re up to the challenge.
5. Maryland Heights Trail
All right. Truth time. Technically the Maryland Heights Trail isn’t directly connected to the AT. Still, it’s so damn close that shouldn’t matter should it? Nevertheless you won’t find this side trip marked in the most recent copy of AWOL’s guide book (2015). After leaving Harpers Ferry by way of the Byron Memorial Footbridge the AT takes you down to the C&O towpath (mile marker 1023.7). From the bridge normally northbound hikers would turn right heading east down the towpath in order to continue along the AT. However, if you were to turn left and head west up the towpath after about 0.5 miles you’d find yourself at the trail head for Maryland Heights! If you’re a lover of Civil War history than the Maryland Heights Trail is not one to miss. Along the trail you’ll be able to see many historic naval batteries as well as a stone fort all built in the early 1860s. Yet, the main draw for the Maryland Heights Trail are the cliffs overlooking the town of Harpers Ferry. If you’re just looking to take the shorter out-and-back route up to the cliffs expect about a 4.1 mile round trip journey from the railroad bridge. If you’re looking to hike the entire historic loop then expect around a 6 mile round trip back to the bridge. Even if you are not much of history buff this one-of-kind view of one of the AT’s most iconic towns should be reason enough to seek out this trail.
6. High Point Monument
Traveling through New Jersey on the AT as you approach High Point State Park you may ask yourself when they moved the Washington Monument to the Garden State. Jokes aside, the obelisk known as the High Point Monument is visible well before you arrive at its steps. As the name suggests, the monument sits atop the highest point in New Jersey at a modest 1,803 feet. Built in 1930 the monument was commissioned by the Kuser family to honor war veterans. A 0.3 mile green-blazed trail connects with the AT at mile marker 1337.3 to take hikers to the monument site. Visitors can even climb to the top of the 220 foot monument and enjoy views of the Pocono and Catskill Mountains and the Wallkill River Valley. Also, just a few tenths of a mile south on the AT from the monument sits another short spur trail down to Lake Marcia. Here hikers can enjoy a relaxing beach day in the park complete with bathrooms and concessions!
7. Sherburne Pass Trail
While trudging northbound through the glorious Green Mountains of Vermont you will find yourself climbing over Mount Killington. After taking the time to enjoy another spectacular blue blaze on Killington Peak the trail will continue north towards Pico Mountain. About 2.5 miles past Cooper Lodge Shelter and the Killington Peak spur trail the AT will come to a fork at mile marker 1697.1. You can take the left fork and continue on the AT around the western side of Pico Mountian another 3.8 miles down to US 4. Alternatively you could take the right fork for the Sherburne Pass Trail around the eastern side of Pico Mountain another 3.1 miles also down to US 4. Much like the Mau-Har Trail the choice of whether to take Sherburne Pass may be easy for those with a more purest intent. For everyone else there are a few things you can consider before coming to a decision.
First off the Sherburne Pass Trail is an original historic route that the AT use to follow. Taking historic routes like this instead of the modern AT route is something I like to call “retro-blazing”. In the late 1990’s the AT was rerouted as a result of land-swap agreements coupled with the development of an interconnect between the Pico Mountain and Killington ski areas. Scenery-wise you won’t find too drastic of a difference between the eastern and western sides of Pico Mountain. Both routes will take you by a shelter should you need to set up camp for the night and neither routes offer any spectacular vistas.
That being said the Sherburne Pass Trail will treat you to a couple opportunities that the AT does not. From Pico Camp shelter (about 0.5 miles down the Sherburne Pass Trail) you can take a 0.4 spur trail up to Pico Peak should you be looking to snag a few more views before continuing the descent. This detour could more than make up for the 0.7 miles you’d be “skipping” by not taking the AT if that is a concern.
Yet, the main attraction for the Sherburne Pass is that upon reaching US 4 you will find that the trail spits you out right on the doorstep of the famed lodge and hiker pit-stop, the Inn at Long Trail. Who says a good blue-blaze always has to lead to a pretty view or a waterfall? Why not an Irish pub instead? Naturally this destination is still accessible for those who choose to travel down the AT. However, they will have to hike or hitch the extra mile up the road from where the AT crosses US 4 to get there. Of course they could skip the hike/hitch and continue up the AT over Deer Leep Mountain where the trail will once again cross with Sherburne Pass Trail at mile marker 1702.8. From here it’s possible to head south onto the northern fringe of the Sherburne Pass Trail and hike only 0.5 miles down to the Inn at Long Trail to reap the same rewards.
8. Mt. Moosilauke: South Peak
New Hampshire’s White Mountains claim some of the most beautiful scenes on the entire AT. The strenuous climbs, alpine peaks, and views beyond amazing make this section of the trail one all hikers look forward to. Unfortunately the AT will only take you through a small portion of this spectacular mountain range. Luckily for those looking to spend as much time in the Whites as possible the AT connects with many blue blazes and spur trails to let you explore the Whites to your hearts content. One such opportunity lies in one of Mount Moosilauke’s subsidiary peaks: South Peak.
Hiking north on the AT up Moosilauke (contiguous here with the Glencliff Trail) the trail will begin to level out as it approaches the mountain’s alpine zone approximately 3.5 miles into the climb. Eventually the AT/Glencliff Trail will intersect with the Moosilauke Carriage Road about a mile shy of the primary summit. Near this intersection an easy 0.2 mile spur trail leads off of the AT towards South Peak. Unfortunately the spur trail to South Peak is not explicitly listed in the most recent copy of AWOL’s guide book (2015), but the intersection sits near mile marker 1795.0. South Peak offers an open alpine summit with wonderful views back towards Vermont and the Connecticut River valley while also providing a unique view north to preview Moosilauke’s primary summit. Moosilauke already boasts some of the best views the White’s has to offer and South Peak only adds to this. Why not spend a few extra minutes taking it all in?
9. Mount Liberty
Dropping us off at Franconia Notch our driver and frequent Trail Angel, G-Hippie, left us with one final thought. “Don’t skip Mount Liberty.” This proved to be one of the best pieces of advice we ever received during our time in the Whites. Sadly, like South Peak and the Maryland Heights Trail the path to Mount Liberty is also not labeled in AWOL’s guide book (2015), but this is one to definitely make a note for. From Franconia Notch the AT climbs up to ridge by way of the Liberty Spring Trail. The AT meets with the Franconia Ridge Trail atop the ridge at mile marker 1819.0. At this intersection northbound hikers turn left to continue following the AT north. However, taking the path to the right for a mere 0.3 miles takes you to the summit of Mount Liberty. Pointy rocks and outcroppings make Mount Liberty’s summit a stand out beauty compared to the other Franconia peaks. On my own trip I easily spent at least an extra half hour climbing around and basking in the views of Liberty’s summit. To pass Liberty by would be doing yourself a great disservice. Not only will taking this easy side trip bag you another one of New Hampshire’s four thousand footers, it will treat you to a summit you won’t soon forget. Besides, do you really need an excuse to spend more time on Franconia Ridge? I think not.
10. Mt. Katahdin: Knife’s Edge
For northbound hikers climbing up to the AT’s northern terminus is the final challenge. It is also the most difficult climb they’ll experience on the AT. Yet, it isn’t the most difficult trail Mount Katahdin has to offer. The AT follows the Hunt Trail up to Baxter Peak, but this is just one of nine major trails that wind all over the mountain. By far the most ominous of Katahdin’s trails is the Knifes Edge–a 1.1 mile trail that traverses a precarious ridge between Baxter and Pamola Peak. This blue blaze will take you over four of Katahdin’s peaks treating you to the most incredible views the mountain can muster.
Take note that this trail is not for the faint of heart. While Katahdin’s Knifes Edge is not quite as dangerous as those of other mountains in the world, taking on this hike requires much energy and concentration. Traveling along this narrow ridge requires you ascend and descend rocky outcroppings and boulders throughout the hike. Blue blazes will outline the “suggested” path along the ridge but there are no climbing aids to help you here. You must be prepared to scramble and climb completely on your own. Also it’s no secret that Katahdin is sometimes subjected to extreme weather conditions. The Knifes Edge trail has been the source of many accidents, some of which have been fatal. Take great care in any and all preparations and planning before setting out. Please…DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS TRAIL IN POOR WEATHER CONDITIONS!!!
It is also worth noting that this trail’s starting and ending terminus sit atop two different peaks. This means that no matter which direction you hike you have to first take a connecting trail to Pamola or Baxter Peak. Naturally as a northbounder you would approach the Knifes Edge from Baxter Peak at mile marker 2189.2. If not for the blue blazes it would appear as if the AT just continued on following the Knifes Edge down the other side of the mountain. If you’re hiking the International Appalachian Trail it technically does. Baxter State Park (BSP) lists the official trail head for the Knifes Edge at Roaring Brook Campground on the opposite side of the mountain from Katahdin Stream Campground and the start of the Hunt Trail. This is where any hiker starting the Knifes Edge from Baxter Peak should plan to end regardless of where they started their initial ascent. Still, if you’re just looking for a day hike (or are a southbounder looking to do the most epic approach trail ever) it’s recommended to start the Knifes Edge from Pamola Peak. From Roaring Brook you have two options. On one hand you can take the 3.2 mile Helon Taylor Trail straight up to Pamola Peak. Alternatively you can take the easier, more roundabout 3.3 mile Chimney Pond Trail before jumping onto the more difficult 1.4 mile Dudley Trail up to the peak. Whatever your choice expect the trip up to Pamola to be very strenuous.
That being said, “challenging” does not mean “impossible.” The Knifes Edge is a popular and frequently hiked trail and it’s no wonder. On the right day with the right weather the Knifes Edge provides one of the most thrilling and unique blue blazes you can find on the AT.
That’s all for now but don’t worry!
There Are More Blue Blazes to Come!
So stay tuned!
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How could you forget the Gulf Hagas loop?! Because no northbounder took it ever? #KatahdinTargetFixation
Forget? No, no, good, Sir. This is only Part 2 in a 4 part series. As I said in the article, I can’t give away all the best ones up front! Even with two more articles I can’t discuss every blue blaze out there, but you can count on the Gulf Hagas making an appearance down the line.
Okay then. Carry on …