The Appalachian Trail in 20 Rivers
Whenever I travel, I try to learn as much about where I’m going as I can, in as many ways as I can.
So I’ve been spending some time studying the creeks and rivers of the Appalachian Trail. Let me tell you, there are a lot of streams along the way. It’s easier to think in terms of rivers that flow directly to the coast—there are only 20 of those. Put them all on a map, and America looks like a weird assortment of little countries.
In the rest of this post, I’ll take a look at the trail’s path through each of these watery realms, moving (roughly) from south to north. All the listed mileages are 2022 NOBO from FarOut and include places where the trail runs along a watershed divide—that’s why many segments overlap. Most of my research is from Wikipedia and from studying the Watershed Boundary Dataset on the National Map.
The Gulf Coast
1. Mobile River
Mileage: 0.0-1.0, 8.6-13.2
Our first Appalachian river goes all the way to Alabama! The entire approach trail drains into Amicalola Creek, which flows through the Etowah, Coosa, and Alabama rivers down to Mobile Bay. In the first few miles from Springer Mountain, the AT just barely skirts the edge of this watershed along the divide with the Mississippi to the west.
2. Appalachicola River
The namesake of the Appalachian mountains, the Appalachicola finds the Gulf near Pensacola. Its main representative in Georgia is the Chattahoochee, the state’s longest river, which has its source along the trail at mile 48.2. The AT winds along the ridge dividing the Appalachicola’s waters from the Mississippi for a good 40 miles in Georgia.
(I can’t write “Chattahoochee” without hearing this song in my head. Thanks, country music.)
3. Mississippi River
Mileage: 0.5-666.9, 672.2-685.2
This is the big one. Almost the whole southern third of the trail either borders the Mississippi basin or lies within it. The trail’s time in the Mississippi Empire is divided between two tributary watersheds, the Tennessee—more specifically, its forks the Little Tennessee (0.5-223.5), the French Broad (211.2-390.7), and the Holston (365.8-497.0, 513.8-575.7)—and the Kanawha via the New River in Virginia (497.0-513.8, 536.5-539.9, 551.4-553.4, 569.8-666.9, 672.2-685.2).
In Southern Virginia, the trail zigzags back and forth between the Holston and New River basins before leaving the Holston for good near Burke’s Garden. It stays in the New River basin for a hundred miles, crossing the river at Pearisburg (mi. 637.5). On its way out of the Mississippi watershed, the AT crosses the Eastern Continental Divide three times, leaving behind the westward-flowing waters for good on Sinking Creek Mountain.
The Southeast Atlantic
4. Savannah River
About that Eastern Continental Divide… the trail actually runs along it for 33 miles way back in Georgia. After it leaves the Chattahoochee behind, the southern side of the Blue Ridge flows down to the Savannah, heading straight to the Atlantic sea islands. This section starts at Young Lick and ends at Ridgepole Mountain not far from Big Butt (seriously, what is up with Georgia mountain names??).
5. Roanoke River
Mileage: 707.2-752.8, 766.6-771.8
The only river along the AT that finds the sea in the Carolinas, the trail joins up with the Roanoke just south of Roanoke, Virginia. Well, it’s actually in the Roanoke watershed for only 15 miles—for the rest of this 50-mile stretch, the trail runs along a divide between the Roanoke River to the south and the James to the north.
The Chesapeake Bay
6. James River
Mileage: 666.2-672.8, 680.1-720.2, 735.3-911.5
After crossing out of the Mississippi basin, the trail travels north into the domain of the James River. This is one of the biggest rivers in Virginia, the only one apart from the Potomac to cut through the Blue Ridge. The trail crosses the James (mi. 787.2) and several of its tributaries along its way north, before straddling the divide between its north branch, the Rivanna, and the Shenandoah to the west as it climbs into the mountains north of Rockfish Gap.
7. Rappahannock River
Mileage: 911.5-968.3, 974.5-976.3
North of Saddleback Mountain in Shenandoah National Park, the east side of the Blue Ridge slopes down towards the Rappahannock. The trail runs the full length of this divide except for a brief detour at its northern tip, and the source of the river itself is just downhill from the trail near Front Royal (mi. 975.1).
8. Potomac River
We’ve arrived at another big one! At Meadow Mountain south of Waynesboro, the Shenandoah Valley begins on the west side of the Blue Ridge, and there it remains all the way to the Shenandoah’s mouth at Harpers Ferry (mi. 1026.2). North of the Rappahannock, the east side of the trail lies in the Potomac watershed too, and it stays all the way to Pennsylvania. The AT finally crosses over into Susquehanna drainage west of Pine Grove Furnace, almost exactly at the midpoint of the trail (mi. 1097.3).
(Contrary to popular belief, the song “Shenandoah” is about the daughter of the Oneida chief John Skenandoa, and not about the river at all. Still makes for a nice tune.)
9. Susquehanna River
For the next hundred miles, the trail runs the ridges through the Susquehanna valley, crossing the river near Duncannon at the mouth of the Juniata (mi. 1151.2). This is the first big northern river that flows south instead of east, and the last that goes down to the Chesapeake. From here on out, we’re firmly in the North.
The Middle Atlantic
10. Delaware River
The Appalachian Trail traverses the Delaware Valley on one long ridge, known as Blue Mountain or Kittatinny (aka Rocksylvania) depending on who you ask. It dips down to cross the Schuylkill and Lehigh before reaching the Delaware Water Gap (mi. 1297.1), then keeps on going across the river to New Jersey’s High Point, where the Walkill River, a Hudson tributary, takes over. But before we get there we need to talk about the…
11. Passaic River
This one’s an oddball. Now that we’re getting further north, glacial landscapes are taking over, and the streams have what geologists call “deranged drainage systems.” They simply haven’t been around for long enough to figure out the best path from one point to another. And so, deep into in the Hudson valley, almost within sight of the river itself, the trail takes a detour into the valley of the Ramapo River, which flows south in a windy way until, as the Passaic, it dumps into New York Harbor between Newark and Jersey City.
12. Hudson River
Mileage: 1330.9-1378.6, 1391.9-1447.9, 1514.1-1516.8, 1576.2-1634.5, 1658.2-1662.3
You might know the Hudson River as the low point of the trail, the only place where the elevation hits sea level (mi. 1407.6). Its various tendrils cross the path five times over a 300-mile stretch from New Jersey to Vermont. The first section, ending at Greenwood Lake and the Ramapo, is the Wallkill River valley (1330.9-1378.6); the second is the valley of the Hudson itself (1391.9-1447.9). The third is a brief contact west of Great Barrington, where the western slopes drain down into Bash-Bish Brook (1514.1-1516.8). Then comes the long valley of the Hoosic, flowing north through the Berkshire valley once the Housatonic peters out (1576.2-1634.5). And finally, all the way in Manchester, Vermont, a last goodbye to the Hudson where Batten Kill comes up from the west (1658.2-1662.3).
Long Island Sound
13. Housatonic River
The Housatonic is a nice straightforward river. It starts in Pittsfield, Mass, and flows south through a tidy little valley to the coast. The whole thing is barely 150 miles long, but the trail’s there with it for almost half its length. In fact, for the better part of 30 miles (1476.0-1498.6), the trail follows the river bank itself, something the ridge-running AT almost never does. The Housatonic may be humble, but it has a special relationship with the trail.
14. Connecticut River
Mileage: 1555.8-1564.9, 1620.1-1664.2, 1699.6-1782.4, 1789.9-1816.5, 1827.6-1838.4, 1855.6-1865.6
Thanks to the trail’s snaky path through the Green and White mountains, it has a crazier, more complicated relationship with the Connecticut. You first meet the Connecticut watershed at Becket Mountain, Massachusetts, where the east side of the ridge flows down to the Westfield River (1555.8-1564.9). Later, coming out of the Hoosic Valley, the land slopes down to the Connecticut to the east of the Green Mountains (1620.1-1664.2). The trail then dives north away from the watershed for a while, but comes back up to the divide in the Coolidge Range, finally descending and crossing the Connecticut at Hanover (mi. 1751.6). Then come the White Mountains, where the Connecticut (to the north) seems to fight with the Merrimack and Saco (to the south) for the trail’s attention at every notch until it leaves the Connecticut’s domain for wilder waters on the slope of Mt. Adams.
North into Canada
15. St. Lawrence River
Remember that Eastern Continental Divide? There’s also a more northerly divide separating the waters of the Great Lakes and Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast. (The two come together on a farm in central PA, but let’s stay on topic). For 44 miles near Rutland, Vermont, the trail meets up with this St. Lawrence Divide and crosses over it, where Otter Creek flows north into Lake Champlain and then to the St. Lawrence near Montreal.
The New England Coast
16. Merrimack River
Mileage: 1775.5-1777.0, 1782.4-1846.7
The Pemigewasset River, which flows down to the Merrimack, defines the south side of the White Mountains through the Franconia Range. The trail first touches its divide on Smarts Mountain, picks it up for good on Mount Cube, and crosses its tributary the Baker River at Glencliff, New Hampshire (mi. 1795.4). It dives down to cross the Pemigewasset in Franconia Notch (mi. 1821.2), then leaves the Merrimack watershed on its way down to Crawford Notch.
17. Saco River
Mileage: 1846.7-1861.4, 1874.9-1881.9
This is the first of four rivers that find the coast in Maine. It’s the river of Crawford Notch (mi. 1849.0), and the south side of the Presidential Range. The trail arcs north out of the Saco watershed at Mt. Washington, finds it again at Pinkham Notch, and leaves it behind on the way up to Carter Dome.
18 & 19. Androscoggin and Kennebec Rivers
Mileage: 1865.6-1874.9, 1876.7-2060.7
I’m discussing these two together because they flow to the same place, and it’s not clear if they should be considered one watershed or two. Even Wikipedia admits defeat: Merrymeeting Bay “defies common landform terms.” On some maps it’s part of the Kennebec River; on other maps, it’s not. What’s clear is that between the two of them, the Androscoggin and Kennebec drain most of the trail in Maine, and the water all goes past Bath before it hits the ocean.
The land east of the Presidential Range falls down to the Androscoggin, and the trail crosses the river as it wraps around to the north of the White Mountains (mi. 1896.5). The Kennebec’s watershed first appears at Little Swift River Pond in the Blue Mountains (mi. 1969.1), just a few miles before the Androscoggin’s ends on Saddleback Mtn. (mi. 1979.4). The Kennebec River crossing (mi. 2042.7) looks like one of the trickier spots along the AT; you have to be ferried across in a canoe!
20. Penobscot River
Here it is, finally—the last river to the north, the one that flows down from Katahdin. From Saddleback to Little Boardman Mtn. (mi. 2129.8), the trail traverses the valley of the Piscataquis; then the waters flow through a series of enormous lakes down to the West Branch Penobscot. It crosses the West Branch at Abol Bridge (mi. 2179.2) and then starts its ascent up the mountain, where all the streams for miles around make their way down through Bangor to the sea.
And with that, our watery tour of the Appalachian Trail is complete. Thanks for sticking around if you’ve read this far! This might not have been the best way to spend my last week before starting, but it certainly helped me get to know the trail better. Talk to you soon from Georgia!
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