The Appalachian Trail
It’s summertime in the United States. What better time to get out and explore our country. One of the best places to start, and one of our national treasures, is the Appalachian Trail.
Stretching from Georgia to Maine, this 2,190-mile long trail has been developed in bits and pieces since 1921, when Benton MacKaye proposed joining existing trails together to form one long trail. You can imagine the coordination that state, local and federal governments had to navigate to accomplish this feat, but the trail was finally completed in 1937. President Johnson signed into law the National Trails Systems Act in 1968, and the Appalachian Trail became the first such trail in the system. It is now a scenic trail under the protection of the federal government, the last bit of the corridor finally added in 2014. The Appalachian Trail holds the distinction of being the longest hiking-only footpath in the world.
Each year, thousand of hikers come to test their mettle against the trail. There are three approaches to the trail if you plan to become a thru-hiker and want to go the whole way in one season. You can start from either end or from the middle. Only about one in four make it the entire distance, the average number being around 2,700 each year. The trail is at times strenuous, beautiful, peaceful and challenging. Thru-hikers are not the only ones who enjoy the trail each year. Over 3 million people use a portion of the trail each year. There are thousands of volunteers who devote their time to keep the trail in shape. For its entire length, the trail is marked by a white 2 by 6 inch blaze on the trees. Side trails are marked with a blue blaze.
Beginning around mid-March, hikers begin the trek at Springer Mountain, GA. Spring arrives earlier in the south, making this a logical approach to take for starting a thru-hike. If all goes as planned, hikers will arrive in Maine in September or October and will bear witness to the fall colors. Usually this south to north route gets clogged with hikers starting out and won’t winnow down until about May, so plan accordingly for sleeping accommodations and the like. In order to avoid the trudging masses, and the party atmosphere, it’s become more and more popular to start in the middle, somewhere around Harper’s Ferry, WV.
From there, go either north to Katahdin Mountain in Maine, or head south to Springer Mountain, GA. Maryland and Virginia are the easiest states to hike, with New Hampshire and Maine the most difficult. In addition to some of the best scenery on the east coast of the United States, you’ll also see a variety of wildlife, the American black bear being the largest. Snakes, deer, moose, elk, bobcat, coyote, fox, raccoon and other small species share the forest with the hikers.
In 1948, Earl Shaffer of York , PA claimed himself to be the first thru-hiker. His claim was later challenged, but it brought attention to the trail. He later claimed to be the first to hike the trail from the north to the south, the first to claim to have done the trail in both directions. When Shaffer was 80 years old, he hiked the trail once more. The first woman to complete the trip on her own was 67-year old Emma Gatewood, in 1955. She hiked from south to north in 146 days. In 2017, Dale Sanders became the oldest to complete the trail at age 82.
If the thought of hiking the entire trail is on your bucket list but time and stamina are not, why not do the fourteen-state hike, and just touch down in each state for a short time? The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has selected convenient points of entry in each state and selected some of the best hikes each state has to offer. A 14-state challenge patch is available as well as each individual state patch, for inspiration and bragging rights.
There are plenty of books available about hiking the trail. Start by spending time at the Appalachian Trail website, which has a wealth of information. Reading journals from those who made the trek is a good way to get a taste of the trail.
Even if you can’t devote days, weeks or months to hiking the trail, take the family for a bite-sized trek this summer. You’ll see some country that will take your breath away.
Becky Lower has hiked the Appalachian Trail in two different states–Virginia and West Virginia. She had hoped at one time to traverse the whole thing, but could never get it together enough to do so. Once she heard about the 14 State Challenge, though, she’s now reconsidering how she can still mark it off her bucket list.