The Appalachian Trail is a distinctively American creation that has become something of an American pilgrimage for people of all ages and all walks of life. Primarily built by volunteers in the 1920s and 1930s, it was the brainchild of Benton MacKay, a conservationist who envisioned a place where people in the Eastern cities could get away from their increasingly hectic, urbanized, mechanized, industrialized, and dirty towns. Today, two to three million people a year visit the Appalachian Trail, which offers approximately 2,180 miles of the most beautiful views from the east coast. "It's actually within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population," says Laurie Potteiger, Information Services Manager at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Take a look at our guide to Appalachian Trail hikes for some active inspiration.
Not just a place for solitude, the Appalachian Trail hikes also offer a great opportunity for bonding. "If you go out on the trail with your family or friends, you strip away all the distractions, all the electronic media, and you are just there in the forest...This makes it easier to either forge friendships or enhance them" Potteiger says.
Strictly a footpath - horses, bikes, and all terrain vehicles are not allowed on this protected land. Its challenging terrain traverses through eight different ecosystems including wild areas, pastoral landscapes, and farmlands. It also goes through swamps and bogs. "It is famous for having rocks and roots and a lot of elevation change," says Potteiger. The vistas are breathtaking.
As wild as these areas are, the Appalachian Trail is well maintained by more than 6,000 volunteers. These volunteers continue the legacy of the volunteers that built the trail by making sure vegetation is clipped and trees that have fallen are cleared.
Although the trail is challenging, people of all abilities can hike its entire length with proper preparation. Some people even spend weeks or months preparing for their first overnight hike on the Appalachian Trail. "You have to be self sufficient in the backcountry. There are no commercially guided services available," Potteiger explains. Although the Appalachian Trail is crossed by many roads, it only passes through a small number of communities, so there are not many opportunities to find lodging or supplies.
A system of shelters is available on a first come, first serve basis, but there are usually not enough spaces to accommodate everyone that needs one. "There are about 250 shelters along the trail's length... I don't know of any other long distance trail that has as extensive a network," Potteiger says. These shelters are located at natural water sources such as springs and creeks, but it is recommended that people bring a charcoal filter to treat the water, as the purity of a natural water source can never be guaranteed. A tent should also be packed in case one of the shelters is not available.
The easiest way for someone to connect from an airport to the Appalachian Trail is to start in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. "Virginia for most folks sounds far away, you know the mountain state and all that, but actually we are only 60 miles from DC and actually accessible by public transportation" Potteiger says. One of the most historic towns in all of America, Harpers Ferry is more than a thousand miles from either end of the trail and is linked to Washington DC by both Amtrak and the commuter line to Union Station. It is also less than an hour's drive if someone prefers to rent a car.
Not only is Harpers Ferry the "spiritual" or "psychological" halfway point of the trail, it is also home to the trail's headquarters, a popular spot to visit. "It’s technically not the halfway point but close enough to the middle...It is thrilling to go to a trail head and you look in one direction and you see white blazes leading all the way to Maine and if you go the other direction, they lead all the way to Georgia," says Potteiger. White blazes, rectangles that are two inches wide and six inches tall, have been painted on trees and other visible areas to mark the trail.
Some people just want to touch the Appalachian Trail in each of the 14 states and others have the goal of walking its entire length. Of course, there are also hikers that are happy to just experience a small section of this super-trail. Anyone that completes the Appalachian Trail in one uninterrupted journey is called a thru-hiker. Section hikers complete the trail in sections over a period of years. "The few hikers who walk the entire length of the trail, an average of a six month journey, are a part of the lore and drama of the Appalachian Trail," Potteiger says.
Best-selling author Bill Bryson wrote about his experience hiking part of the Appalachian Trail in his book titled "A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail." Not necessarily a "how to” book, "A Walk in the Woods" makes for a great read for anyone interested in the Appalachian Trail.
For more information on the trail, including guide books and maps for each of the trail's sections, visit the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's website.
Header Photo: Big Cedar Mountain Overlook, Georgia © Appalachian Trail Conservancy
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Have you done any Appalachian Trail hikes? Are you more of a thru-hiker or section hiker? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Marsha S. Morgenstern
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About the author: MarshaMarsha Solock Morgenstern
A former Floridian, Marsha Solock Morgenstern moved to the Pittsburgh area in 2006. She enjoys the changing seasons, the friendly community, and the arts and culture Pittsburgh has to offer. In addition to freelance writing, Marsha teaches Academic Writing full-time for the University of Phoenix.