Long Distance Trails

The Appalachian Trail: One of the World’s Most Famous Long-Distance Trails

POSTED ON December 18, 2019 BY Ralph S.

Along the Appalachian Trail

Introduction

Embark on an epic journey through the heart of America’s wilderness on the legendary Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT).

Stretching about 2,180 miles (3,510 km) through 14 states, this iconic trail is a testament to the indomitable spirit of hikers and the awe-inspiring beauty of the Appalachian Mountains.

Managed by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in partnership with the National Park Service and passing through eight national forests, this continuous path weaves its way from the southern terminus in Georgia’s rustic landscapes to the northern terminus atop the majestic Mount Katahdin in Maine.

The Appalachian Trail is the longest hiking-only trail in the world and offers adventurers a chance to thru-hike the entire length, immersing themselves in diverse terrains and ecosystems. Traverse through charming state parks, visit historical locations along the trail, and witness the scenic wonders of Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and more.

Owned by the public and protected by federal agencies, the entire trail presents a unique opportunity to connect with the outdoors.

Appalachian Trail History

Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is not merely a footpath; it’s a living testament to the enduring spirit of exploration and conservation that has shaped America’s outdoor landscape.

The story of the AT begins with a regional planner named Benton MacKaye. In 1921, MacKaye proposed this continuous trail as a refuge for urban dwellers seeking solace in the wilderness. The idea quickly gained traction, and the trail’s construction began in 1923, primarily driven by volunteers at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

The long walk along the trail takes hikers through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, presenting an array of scenic wonders. The AT is more than just a linear trail through the woods; it is also a living museum, with myriad locations along the trail bearing testament to the historical and cultural evolution of the regions it traverses. The trail winds through 14 states, featuring unique trail names, from the southern terminus on Georgia’s Springer Mountain to the northern endpoint on Mount Katahdin in Maine.

It’s a part of the triple crown of hiking, and the most popular one of the three most famous American long-distance trails, the AT, PCT and CDT.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), established in 1925, has been pivotal in protecting and managing the AT, fostering a collaborative effort involving thousands of volunteers, federal agencies, and state ownership.

This visionary concept materialized with the passage of the National Trails System Act in 1968, officially designating the AT as a National Scenic Trail under the stewardship of the National Park Service (NPS).

Among the remarkable people who have left their mark on the trail is the oldest person to thru-hike it, Dale Sanders, who completed his journey at 82. Fastest known time (FKT) records also add to the trail’s intrigue, with ultra-runner Jo McConaughy setting the unsupported FKT in 2017. These feats inspire a new generation of hikers to tie their boots, shoulder their packs, and embark on their adventures.

The trail continues to evolve, with the Hiker Resource Library and other resources offering invaluable information for planning hikes.

Ultimately, the Appalachian Trail is more than a path through the mountains; it’s a testament to human endeavor, the serene beauty of nature, and our enduring desire to explore the world around us.

Key Facts about The Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail

  • Location: stretches along the eastern part of the United States, from Springer Mountain in Georgia (location) to Mount Katahdin in Maine (location), traversing 14 U.S. states.
  • Total Length: Approximately 2,180 miles (3,510 kilometers).
  • Time to Hike: For a thru-hike, the average time is 5 to 7 months, with hikers covering an average of 10 to 15 miles per day. However, section hikers may complete it over several years.
  • Trailhead(s): The trail has multiple trailheads, with prominent ones at Southern Terminus – Springer Mountain, Georgia. Northern Terminus: Mount Katahdin, Maine.
  • Difficulty Level: From easy stretches to challenging terrains.
  • Number of Visitors: Each year, thousands of hikers attempt to trek portions of the AT, with a few hundred attempting to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail.
  • Established: The trail was first proposed in 1921, and the entire trail was completed in 1937. It was designated a National Scenic Trail on October 2, 1968, under the National Trails System Act
  • Total Elevation Gain: over 515,000 feet (156,972 meters) over the entire trail.
  • Best Time or Season to Hike: varies from south to north. Generally, northbound thru-hikers start in Georgia in spring (March to May) and reach Maine by early fall (September to October). However, specific timing depends on weather conditions and personal preferences.
  • Lowest Point: Bear Mountain State Park in New York, at 124 feet (38 meters).
  • Highest Point: Mount Mitchell, Appalachian Mountains, at 6,683 feet (2,037 meters) above sea level.

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Popular section along the A.T

Embarking on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail promises a transformative journey through diverse landscapes. Established under the National Trails System Act and maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, it offers a challenging but inspiring thru-hikers experience.

Trail Orientation

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail offers two main thru-hiking options:

  • Northbound (NOBO) and
  • Southbound (SOBO)

The trail is divided into three sections. The southern portion (Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee), the central portion (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania), and the northern portion (New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine).

For most hikers, the adventure commences either at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia for a NOBO hike or at Mount Katahdin, culminating at Springer Mountain for a southbound SOBO hike.

Each direction offers a distinct experience. However, NOBO is the most popular choice, with many thru-hikers taking iconic completion photos at Mount Katahdin.

Southern Portion

The southern portion of the Appalachian Trail consists mainly of moderately difficult hikes through rolling hills and mountains in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

However, the terrain becomes more challenging as you approach the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Stecoah Gap to Fontana Dam in North Carolina and Tennessee, with steep ascents and descents.

Hikers will also encounter rockier paths through the Roan Highlands of North Carolina and into West Virginia.

Central Portion

The central portion of the Appalachian Trail offers a mix of easier, flatter stretches through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania.

However, hikers will also encounter more challenging elevations, including Peters Mountain and Blue Mountain in Central Pennsylvania.

Northern Portion

The northern portion of the Appalachian Trail offers some of the most rugged and challenging terrain, with steep ascents through New York’s Harriman State Park and the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

The trail also includes the infamous 100-mile Wilderness Section in Maine, known for its remote and rugged terrain.

Hikers will also encounter some of the highest elevations on this stretch, including Mount Washington in New Hampshire and Katahdin in Maine.

Difficulty Levels

The Appalachian Trail offers a range of difficulty levels, making it accessible to hikers of all experience levels. Each section has its unique challenges, with varying terrain and elevations.

Generally, the Appalachian Trail is considered a moderate to strenuous hike due to its challenging mountainous terrain, but it also offers easier sections for beginners.

Kindly check out further information about the route.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike The Appalachian Trail and Weather Conditions

Appalachian Trail

When planning a hike on the Appalachian Trail, it’s essential to consider the weather conditions and the best times to hike for safety and enjoyment. The trail is generally open year-round, but certain sections may be closed during the winter months due to hazardous conditions.

Here’s what to expect in each season:

Spring (March to May)

Spring is an exciting time on the Appalachian Trail. As the snow melts away, budding trees and blooming flowers bring vibrant colors back to the trail. However, the weather can be quite unpredictable during this season.

In March, temperatures along the trail can vary widely, with lows of around -6°C (20°F) in northern Georgia and highs reaching up to 10°C (50°F) in the afternoon. As you head into April and May, temperatures rise, offering warmer hiking conditions.

If you plan to start your thru-hike in the spring, be prepared for occasional cold snaps and late snowstorms, especially in higher elevations. It’s not uncommon for the Smoky Mountains to experience snowfall in early spring.

Keep an eye on the Green Mountain Club and Appalachian Trail Conservancy websites for the most recent trail conditions and weather information.

Summer (June to August)

Summer brings hot, humid weather to the Appalachian Trail. The average temperatures in the south can reach highs of 20–30°C (68–86°F), and while it’s a bit cooler in the north, temperatures still regularly reach 21–26°C (70–79°F). Heavy rainfall and thunderstorms are also common during this period, particularly in the afternoons.

Thru-hikers during this season often relish the longer daylight hours, making substantial progress along the continuous trail. However, be mindful of proper hydration and sun protection during the sizzling summer months.

Use the interactive map provided by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to access the most current water sources along the trail.

Fall (September to November)

Fall is arguably the most picturesque time to hike the AT. The changing foliage paints the mountains in shades of red, orange, and yellow. Temperatures are generally mild, ranging from 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F) in September, cooling down to -1°C to 10°C (30°F to 58°F) by late November.

While the weather is relatively stable, always be prepared for sudden changes. Early frosts can occur, especially in New Hampshire and Maine. Hiking through locations like Vermont during this season becomes a breathtaking experience, with the changing colors of the leaves providing a scenic backdrop.

Finally, keep in mind that daylight hours decrease significantly during this season, so plan your hiking accordingly.

Winter (December to February)

Winter is the most challenging season on the Appalachian Trail due to severe weather conditions. Temperatures often drop below freezing, and snow and ice can make the trail treacherous.

The southern parts of the trail experience temperatures ranging from -5°C to 5°C (23°F to 41°F), while in the northern regions, it can be much colder. While sections of the trail, especially at higher elevations like Mount Katahdin in Maine, may be snow-covered and require careful planning, specialized gear, including insulating layers, robust lightweight tents, and knowledge of available shelters as well as water sources.

Most shelters along the trail remain open, but some services and roads leading to the trail may be closed. So check trail conditions with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy before setting out, and the precise weather conditions are here.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Appalachian Trail Hike

Appalachian Trail Essential Gear

Embarking on a journey along the Appalachian Trail requires careful consideration of your gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Whether you’re planning a thru-hike or a section hike, having the right equipment is essential.

One of the most important items are high quality socks. Our bestselling Silverlight socks have become a favorite among thru-hikers and backpacker alike. One of our customers Daryll even hiked more than 1,900 miles of the Appalachian trail in a single pair!

Silverlight Socks Medium Crew Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

Here’s a comprehensive guide to the recommended gear for traversing this iconic trail:

  • Footwear: Remember, comfort is paramount on the Appalachian Trail, so choose footwear that fits well and offers good support to withstand the varied terrain. Check out our hiking footwear tips for choosing the right footwear.
  • Backpack: Choose a comfortable and durable backpack that suits the length of your hike. Our blog offers insights into ultralight backpacking and packing ideas.
  • Tent: A lightweight tent is crucial for thru-hikers. However, ensure your tent has a robust wooden floor to protect against damp ground.
  • Clothing: The trail passes through varying climates, so layered clothing is essential. Hikers should have moisture-wicking base layers, insulating middle layers, and waterproof outer layers. Check out our hiking tips on clothing to ensure you’re prepared for the diverse climates along the trail.
  • Navigation Tools: Although the trail is well-marked, having a map and compass and considering using the National Park Service’s interactive map for real-time trail updates are safety precautions.
  • Headnet: Protect yourself from pesky blackflies with a headnet, especially for thru-hikers starting from the southbound.
  • Water Filtration: Locations along the trail provide water sources, but they need purification before consumption. So, ensure access to clean water with a reliable water filtration system. This also includes chemical disinfection 
  • Bear Canisters: In some sections of the trail, bear canisters are required for food storage to prevent any human-bear interactions. Check out the AT Lending Program for preventing bear and wildlife encounters.
  • Sleep System: Invest in a quality sleeping bag and pad for a restful night’s sleep on the trail.
  • Cooking Equipment: Lightweight cooking gear and high-energy trail food are essential. Proper nutrition along the trail is also crucial. Carry a lightweight, portable stove for cooking meals. Silverlight’s hiking tips on the most delicious backpacking food ideas can aid in your selection.
  • First Aid Kit: Be prepared for minor injuries like blisters with a well-stocked first aid kit. Refer to Silverlight’s hiking gear tips for assembling a comprehensive kit.
  • Safety Essentials: A multi-tool for utility needs and portable chargers for electronic devices are indispensable along the trail.
  • Lighting: Carry a reliable headlamp for navigating trails at night or on early morning hikes.

Remember, the Appalachian Trail traverses diverse landscapes, so adaptability is key. We have a guide to 25 hiking hacks every hiker should know and the essential wilderness survival skills for backpackers.

That’s not all. Silverlight’s hiking tips page provides an excellent resource for the necessary day hiking and multi-day hiking checklists to make sure you don’t forget anything important.

Lastly, reach out to volunteers and visit the hiker resource library for valuable information.

Navigating the Appalachian Trail: Maps, Markers, Permits and Regulations

Appalachian Trail Marker

Embarking on an Appalachian Trail adventure requires meticulous planning to ensure a seamless and enjoyable journey through the diverse landscapes it traverses.

While much of the trail does not necessitate permits, there are three critical exceptions: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Baxter State Park. Obtaining the required permits for these national parks is crucial for both your safety and the preservation of the trail.

Permits

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Secure backcountry permits through the National Park Service’s official website here.
  • Shenandoah National Park: Obtain permits via the park’s official website here.
  • Baxter State Park: For those aiming for the summit of Mount Katahdin, visit Baxter State Park’s website here.

Click here for more information about the necessary permits.

Overnight and Thru-Hiker Registration

AT Camp serves as the central hub for overnight and thru-hiker registration. Registration for thru-hikers is required in order to avoid overcrowding of campsites. Here’s a real time chart of current thru-hiking registrations.

It not only aids in managing the trail’s capacity but also allows hikers to receive critical trail alerts. Visit the AT registration portal through ATCamp.

Maps and Trail Alerts

In terms of navigation, the trail is well-marked with white rectangular blazes. However, access the National Park Service’s interactive map for real-time trail updates here to assist in planning the hike and ensure safety.

This map provides real-time trail updates and is an invaluable resource for hikers.

Utilize the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Hiker Resource Library for comprehensive trail information

Regulations and Voluntary Registration

Familiarize yourself with the regulations along the AT to ensure a responsible and sustainable hiking experience. Explore the regulations outlined by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Camping and Overnight Stays Near The Appalachian Trail

Camping areas along the A.T

Camping near the Appalachian Trail offers a unique blend of solitude, natural beauty, and a connection to the trail’s rich history. With approximately 125 designated campsites and over 260 shelters spread along the AT, hikers have a range of options for their backcountry stays.

Designated Campsites

These sites are strategically placed to offer relatively flat areas for tent pitching or portable shelter setup. In some New England areas, especially on steep terrain, wooden platforms may be provided.

Natural water sources, like springs or creeks, are usually nearby, ensuring a refreshing stay.

If you are hiking with a group (6–10 people), you need to register your hike in the ATCamp system.

Dispersed Camping

For those seeking a more secluded experience, dispersed camping is permitted in specific areas, notably in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia on U.S. Forest Service lands.

Known as “stealth camping,” it offers hikers the freedom to choose their campsite location but requires a greater level of skill to identify a suitable and sustainable site based on local regulations and expertise in low-impact camping practices.

Backcountry Shelters

More than 250 backcountry shelters dot this national scenic trail, serving as vital havens for backpackers on a first-come, first-served basis. These shelters, often resembling lean-tos, feature an overhanging roof, a wooden floor, and three walls, offering protection from the elements and reducing hikers’ impact on the trail environment.

Shelters are strategically spaced, averaging about 8 miles (13 km) apart on average, but this can range from 5 to 15 miles (8 to 24 km) and even up to 30 miles (48 km) if there is a town with lodging in between. This ensures hikers’ ability to stay dry and minimize their environmental impact.

Most are situated near creeks or springs, with many offering the convenience of nearby privies.

Popular Campgrounds

  1. Mount Rogers National Recreation Area (VA): For various access points, consult the official website for specific locations. Also, check with the Forest Service for any required permits.
  2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (TN/NC): There are several campgrounds within the park; details are available here.
  3. Shenandoah National Park (VA): Campgrounds are located along Skyline Drive, with details available here. For the required permits and reservations, visit the National Park Service’s reservation page.

Apart from official campsites and shelters, there are various inns, motels, and hotels along the trail for those seeking a more comfortable night’s stay. These establishments provide a chance to recuperate, restock supplies, and enjoy a hot shower before resuming the trek.

Planning Tips

  • Interactive Map: Utilize the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s interactive map for comprehensive planning.
  • Guidebook or Map: Carry a map or guidebook to locate shelters and plan your daily mileage.
  • Local Regulations: Be aware of dispersed camping regulations and check local guidelines.

Kindly check out this link for more details about camping, shelters, and cabin options.

Resupplying and Refueling

Hiking along the A.T

Successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail requires adept planning when resupplying and refueling. With stretches of the trail demanding self-sufficiency, hikers typically carry provisions for 6–8 days or more, navigating through a mix of nearby towns and remote areas.

Resupply Points

The AT Thru-Hikers’ Companion is an invaluable resource, offering insights into grocery stores, outfitters, and businesses within 10-15 miles (16-24 km) of the trail. These establishments, often open seven days a week during peak hiker season, serve as crucial resupply points. Previous thru-hikers also worked together to provide free resupply information via this very detailed Google Sheet Spreadsheet that can be copied and edited for your own thru-hike planning..

From Georgia through central Virginia and northern New England, resupply points become more spaced out, requiring strategic planning.

  • Package Shipments: To streamline the resupply process, consider shipping packages ahead to post offices, hostels, or businesses near the trail. This ensures a seamless transition from one stretch to the next. However, bear in mind that post offices operate Monday through Friday, with limited hours. Most are open Saturday mornings, offering a narrow window for package pickups.
  • Bounce Box Strategy: Long-distance hikers often employ a “bounce box” strategy, a dynamic solution for sending ahead periodic necessities without adding extra weight to their packs. This box becomes a lifeline for items like extra batteries, cell phone chargers, town clothes, and toiletries. It also proves handy for situations where bulk purchases are necessary, allowing hikers to send ahead surplus supplies.

Planning for Remote Areas

Along The trail

In remote areas, especially through central Virginia and northern New England, resupply points become more sparse and might require additional planning. Hikers should consider the distance to the next reliable resupply option and carry sufficient provisions accordingly.

Business Hours Consideration

Given the sporadic hours of post offices and the fact that many close during the weekend, it’s crucial to plan arrivals accordingly. Businesses catering to hikers are often more flexible, operating seven days a week during the prime hiking season. Luckily, hiker-friendly businesses tend to be more accommodating, opening seven days a week during the hiking season.

Trail Angels

Along the Appalachian Trail, there is a phenomenon known as “trail magic,” where hikers receive unexpected acts of kindness from strangers called “Trail Angels.” These individuals are often former thru-hikers or trail enthusiasts who set up makeshift stations along the trail to provide food, drinks, and other treats for tired hikers. This spontaneous act of generosity brings much-needed cheer and resources to hikers, boosting morale and providing a welcomed break from the trail.

Trail angels can often be found at road crossings or in remote areas along the trail, offering unexpected treats like fresh fruit, homemade cookies, or even full meals. They may also offer helpful advice and information on the next resupply point or shelter location.

Hikers are encouraged to pay it forward by leaving a thank-you note or making a donation to show appreciation for the Trail Angels’ generosity. This sense of community and support is what makes thru-hiking the Appalachian National Scenic Trail such a unique and memorable experience. For more information about Trail Angels, click here.

Water Sources

Hydration is a critical concern for hikers tackling the Appalachian Trail. Luckily, the trail is known for its abundance of water sources, making it possible to carry less water and lighten your load. Most of these sources are natural, including springs, streams, and occasionally larger bodies of water like lakes and rivers.

However, depending on the season and weather conditions, some water sources may run dry, especially at higher elevations or during extended dry spells. Therefore, hikers must carry a reliable water treatment method, such as a filter, purification tablets, or ultraviolet light. Kindly visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page on healthy water for detailed information on water treatment methods.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s interactive map and the A.T. Thru-Hikers’ Companion Guide Book provide valuable information about reliable water sources. However, conditions can change rapidly, so it’s always wise to check for recent trail updates and carry a little extra water just in case.

Check out the Appalachian Trail’s Resupply Page for more insights about the trail.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Trail Direction

Embarking on an Appalachian Trail (AT) adventure begins with strategic planning on how to reach and navigate this iconic trail.

Here’s a detailed guide to help you get there and get around:

Nearest Airports

  • Southern Terminus (Georgia):
    • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL): Located approximately 80 miles (129 km) south of Springer Mountain, ATL is one of the busiest airports globally. From ATL, you can opt for shuttle services, rental cars, or private transportation to reach the AT’s southern starting point.
  • Northern Terminus (Maine):
    • Bangor International Airport (BGR): Situated about 70 miles (112 km) southwest of the Appalachian Mountain Club 100 Mile Wilderness Conservation Area, BGR serves as a convenient gateway. Shuttle services and rental cars are available for transportation from the airport to the northern terminus.

Transportation to the Trail

  • From Atlanta to Springer Mountain:
    • Utilize shuttle services like the ones listed on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Transportation page.
    • Consider renting a car for a flexible and personalized journey.
  • From Bangor to Mount Katahdin:

Navigating the Trail

  • Trail Passes and Access Points: Familiarize yourself with the trail passes and access points, ensuring compliance with regulations outlined by the National Park Service.
  • Trail Names and Signage: The AT is marked with white blazes, and trail names often signify specific sections. Familiarize yourself with common trail names using resources like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Volunteerism and Community Support

  • Engage with Volunteers: Volunteers play a vital role in maintaining the AT Connect with local trail clubs and volunteers for valuable insights and support.
  • Community Engagement: The AT community is vast and supportive. Attend local events, meet fellow hikers, and gather information on trail conditions and tips.

Conclusion

Embarking on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail is more than a physical journey; it’s an odyssey of self-discovery and connection with nature’s grandeur.

Silverlight Socks Medium Crew Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

As you traverse it through diverse landscapes and challenging terrains, each step echoes the legacy of pioneers who envisioned this awe-inspiring path.

Whether you’re a thru-hiker conquering the entire trail or a section hiker savoring glimpses of its beauty, the AT leaves an indelible mark. From the southern charm of Georgia to the rugged splendor of Maine, the trail weaves tales of resilience, camaraderie, and the untamed spirit of the outdoors.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

Discover our Bestselling Hiking Socks

Shop Nowx

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *