The A.T.

In October 1921, a forester and conservationist named Benton MacKaye, who taught at Harvard and worked for the U.S. Forest Service, wrote a seminal article in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. Titled An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning, the piece kicked off a decades-long project to create the world’s premier extended hiking trail.

Taking inspiration from the Long Trail in Vermont, MacKaye envisioned a path that traversed the ridge of the major mountain chain of the eastern United States, spanning from Maine to Georgia. In 1937, a patchwork system, hewn by volunteers across the country, finally connected, creating the Appalachian Trail.

Today, the A.T. covers 2,198 miles of diverse terrain and is still considered the standard for long-distance trekking.

The Appalachian Trail logo
Benton MacKaye - photo from Appalachian Trail Conservancy

The trail’s southern terminus is Springer Mountain, a crag in the northern reaches of Georgia. Including Georgia, the A.T. passes through 14 states, terminating at Maine’s iconic Katahdin.

So-called thru-hikers complete the trail in one go. Many begin in Georgia because the warmer south allows for an earlier beginning date. North-bounders can follow mild weather as it heads toward higher latitudes. Maine’s winters are notoriously rough, so finishing the journey there in the summer makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, some thru-hikers choose to reverse the itinerary.

Starting in Georgia, one walks for 76 miles before reaching North Carolina. There the trail winds solely in the state for 95 miles, though it shares 200 miles of track with Tennessee along the border. In the Volunteer State, the A.T. reaches its zenith at Clingmans Dome inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This fantastically named mountain rises 6,625 feet above sea level. In addition to the shared section, Tennessee adds 88 miles on its own, before crossing into Virginia. This state features a whopping 550 miles, the most of any, and about one-quarter of the entire system, including a stint through Shenandoah National Park.

The path of the A.T. - graphic by Plutor
A trail map (click for a much larger image)

Next is West Virginia, which contains the shortest amount of trail, just 4 miles, though one stretch on the border between the two Virginias adds another 20. Though brief, the trail in West Virginia passes through Harpers Ferry, an important point on the walk. There rests the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, one of the groups that oversees the trail. Additionally, this point is considered the “psychological midpoint,” though the physical halfway point is 75 miles away in Pennsylvania. Before reaching that spot, however, the walker must pass through Maryland and its 41 miles of trace.

Though Pennsylvania is not renowned for its high peaks, the section through the Keystone State is notorious, often called “Rocksylvania” or “where boots go to die.” Nearly 230 miles of unforgiving boulders line the trail until one reaches New Jersey. The Garden State boasts 72 miles, while New York adds 88. The Empire State, known for the Adirondacks upstate, actually contains the lowest spot on the trail: 124 feet above sea level at Bear Mountain State Park. Into Connecticut’s 52 miles, the trail begins to ascend again in earnest. Massachusetts tacks on 90 miles, including the first sub-alpine climate since Virginia. In Vermont, the hiker reaches the Green Mountains and 150 miles of A.T.

The final two states combine for arguably the toughest section. New Hampshire features 161 miles of challenging climbing, including the gorgeous Presidential Range. At the border with Maine, the thru-hiker has 281 miles to go. This span includes what many believe to be the hardest mile, a strenuous stretch of boulders at Mahoosuc Notch. Then comes the infamous Hundred Mile Wilderness, a passage without contact with the outside world that leads to the finale at Katahdin.

The end - photo by Kyle Stout

For fans of High Points, the A.T., being a mountain-themed endeavor, naturally visits a good number of state apexes. Though a few of these are technically reached by short connector spurs, the trail could knock off six High Points:

Tennessee – Clingmans Dome – 6,643 feet
Virginia – Mt. Rodgers – 5,729 feet
New Jersey – High Point – 1,803 feet
Massachusetts – Mt. Greylock – 3,489 feet
New Hampshire – Mt. Washington – 6,288 feet
Maine – Katahdin – 5,268 feet

Additionally, one could toss Connecticut in the mix, as the shoulder of Mt. Frissell is just two miles from the Appalachian Trail.

The Grayson Highlands near Virginia's High Point, Mt. Rogers - photo by Kyle Stout

Though much of the trail is well-worn from the countless visitors across the decades, the A.T. sports a famous navigation system. In the past, metal diamonds or copper markers adorned with the official logo marked the way, but, today, one can follow a string of white blazes to stay on target. These slabs of paint are 2 inches by 6 inches. Few things stir excitement for a hiker like seeing the blazes at a trailhead and the brown informational signs. Functional and fitting for the physical realities of the trees that host them, the blazes please the innate love of geometry we humans possess.

Maintaining these blazes, signs, and a slew of shelters along the way, in addition to keeping the trail itself in working order, are dozens of groups. Officially a National Scenic Trail under the purview of the National Park Service (99% of the trail is now public property), the A.T. Conservancy raises money and provides aid for dozens of local trail chapters, who work to upkeep portions of the trail.

The A.T. blaze - photo from Backpacker Magazine

The ATC estimates that just 19% to 27% of people who begin northbound thru-hikes successfully complete the trail. The figure is slightly higher – 27% to 30% – for those going south.

The first person to claim to complete the trial was Earl Shaffer, who went north in 1948. Fifty years later, he completed the A.T. at age 80, becoming the oldest person to thru-hike. The first woman to thru-hike was Peace Pilgrim in 1952. The first woman to solo the trail in one season was the famous Grandma Gatewood, who achieved the thru twice more, including once at age 75.

Many people require five or six months to finish, with the average completion time at around 165 days. Some people are much faster. In 2017, Joe McConaughy completed a northbound trek in 45 days, 12 hours, and 15 minutes. The fastest known time belongs to Karel Sabbe, who ran the trail in 41 days, 7 hours, and 39 minutes in 2018. This figure makes McConaughy’s time seem much more impressive, as Sabbe was supported by a crew during his trip. Only adding four days to the fastest time in an unsupported record is quite the feat.

In 2021, 83-year-old M.J. Eberhart broke the record for the oldest hiker. On the other end of the spectrum, in 2020, Juniper Netteburg completed the trail at just four years old, thought to be the youngest person to walk the A.T. under her own power.

The southern start - photo by Lilli Interdonato

The Appalachian Trail highlights some of the finest scenery in the world. The variety from the forests of the south to the rocks of the Mid-Atlantic to the alpine regions of New England provides a cornucopia of delight for the lover of geology, flora, and fauna. This trail is a paragon of what the public can manifest by working together.

Together with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, the A.T. is part of the Triple Crown of Hiking. The raw height of the much older Appalachians pales in comparison to the Sierra Nevada or Rockies, leading many to believe the thru-hike accomplishment must be a relative walk in the very long park. However, the A.T. brings terrain power. According to the ATC, a thru-hiker will gain and lose over 464,00 feet of elevation on the Appalachian Trail, the equivalent of climbing the full footage of Mt. Everest 16 times. This figure is close to the estimate for the Pacific Crest Trail, despite being more than 400 miles shorter than its western counterpart!

Completing this trail would be a fantastic accomplishment for those who enjoy the mountains. Of course, one doesn’t need to walk 2,200 miles to enjoy the A.T. Section-hikers and day-trippers can sample the beauty at whatever pace and distance they desire!

McAfee Knob in Virginia - photo from ATC
New Hampshire's Mt. Washington - photo by Greg Kretschmar
The Knife Edge, near the summit of Katahdin - photo by Kyle Stout
Crossing the Potomac River at Harpers Ferry - photo by Zeete
Great Falls of the Housatonic River in Connecticut - photo by Morrowlong
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