Estimates of the exact length of the Appalachian Trail vary, but most agree that it’s somewhere around 2180 miles from start to finish. It passes through 14 different US states from Georgia to Maine and most of those who make it from one end to the other usually take about 6 months to do it. The recommended procedure is to start at the southern end in early spring and hope to make it to the finishing point before winter starts to bite.
Along the way, the Appalachian Trail (or AT) takes in some of the most beautiful scenery in North America. Although much of the trail goes through woodlands there are also meadows, rocky peaks, lakesides, and even old farmland heading slowly back towards wilderness. Sharp eyed hikers might catch sight of moose, bears, skunks, opossums, porcupines, and even salamanders. The land around the AT is also an incredibly important habitat for several species of threatened songbird.
It’s more than just a series of blazes to show the way. The Appalachian Trail surface is extensively maintained by thousands of volunteers and it’s dotted with simple shelters that are free to use. By any yardstick it’s one of the world’s great footpaths.
However, few people can take 6 months off to go for a hike, and completing the whole AT is a huge challenge. Most people never aim to do the whole 2180 mile length in one hit. Instead they take short sections from the trail, from a day to a couple of weeks in length. A few aim to walk every mile of the trail over a period of years but the majority pick out the most interesting sections and leave the rest.
Inevitably, some parts of the AT are more spectacular than others. Here are a few of the trail highlights favored by section hikers:
-Blue Ridge/Shenandoah National Park, Virginia Hikers are attracted to this part of America by stunning views of wooded mountains dotted with rocky outcrops. In the warmer months there are opportunities to spot all kinds of wildlife, particularly birds.
-Clingman’s Dome, Tennessee At 6643ft Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smokies and also the highest point on the AT. There is an observation tower on top that offers a full 360 degree view. In the best conditions those who climb the tower can see for up to 100 miles over some truly beautiful terrain. Many thru-hikers rate the Smokies as their favorite part of the AT so you can be sure of wonderful hiking in this area.
-The Hundred Mile Wilderness, Maine One for experienced hikers only! This is the most isolated parts of the trail and one of the wildest areas in the lower states. There are no shops, no hospitals, and no hotels for about 100 miles, so hikers have to carry everything they need to make it through to the other side. The reward is real pristine wilderness, something that’s not easy to find.
-Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania A huge notch in the ridge, the Gap offers views from high above the Delaware River. The woods around it are also some of the most beautiful on the trail, with unruffled lakes, quiet woods, and the odd black bear roaming free.
Section hikers don’t have to carry as much as through hikers (those who aim to go the whole way) and they’ve almost always got less distance to walk. Throughout the AT it’s considered good manners to give through hikers priority when it comes to the shelters and in some states, section hikers are asked not to use the shelters at all. Either way it’s a good idea to carry a tent if you’re only doing a section of a couple of days or a week.
Transport from one end of your walk to the other is usually the hardest thing to organise. In most cases
the best thing to do is walk with a group of friends and take two cars, dropping one vehicle off at the end point before getting onto the trail.
Hiking the AT is free, but if you do end up walking long sections, consider joining the nearest branch of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. There are 31 local chapters and they all do valuable work keeping the AT and the land around it safe for future generations.
Jess Spate is a committed long distance hiker, although she is a long way from completing the whole AT. She works for Appalachian Outdoors in Pennsylvania- they sell everything a hiker could possibly need, from tents to gas stoves to Life Is Good clothing.