A Taste of the AT

Day-Hiking the Best of America's Trail
  |  Gorp.com

It's no surprise that with 2,150 miles of footpath—stretching all the way from Georgia to Maine—hikers can find any kind of walk they desire on the famed Appalachian Trail. On America's oldest continuous interstate hiking trail, either the uninitiated or the hard-core hiker can choose from a riverside stroll on a level floodplain, a heart-pumping ascent up a steep, rocky, windswept mountain, a glorious traverse of a ridge above tree line, or a cool and shady ramble deep in the forest. Here are some of the best hikes, with key info to get you on the trail.

Housatonic Riverwalk, Kent, CT
Difficulty: easy
Route: River Rd., North Kent, to River Rd., Cornwall Bridge
Distance: 4.8 mi.
Elevation +/-: 300 ft. all the way
Duration: 2.5 hours
Camping: Stewart Hollow Brook Shelter and Campsite or Stony Brook Campsite
The Housatonic "river walk" is virtually unique on the AT. Probably the longest essentially flat section anywhere between Georgia and Maine, the route affords excellent opportunities to enjoy the river's music and abundant avian life, including Canada geese, ducks, and herons. If you have just come down from the hills to the south or north, your load-weary knees will find welcome relief on the broad path (an old farming road), and hamstrings, too, will welcome the stretch that comes with a lengthened stride.

Sheffield to Monterey, MA
Difficulty: moderate
Route: Kellogg Rd. & Boardman St., Sheffield, over East & Warner Mountains to MA Rt. 23, Monterey
Distance: 7.1 mi.
Elevation +/-: 696 to 1,890 to 1,024 ft.
Duration: 4.25 hours
Camping: Tom Leonard Lean-to and Campsite

A delightful section, seldom used. Anticipate a lazy lunch high on a rocky ledge with an inspiring view down the Housatonic Valley. From the river, at 600 feet, the AT aims for East Mountain, peaks at 1800 feet, then crosses Warner Mountain. Gradually declining to the bog that feeds Lake Buel, the walk ends at MA Route 23 in Monterey. A net gain of only 400 feet, but the relative elevations are deceptive. Geologically speaking, from the young, sandy soil in the silted Housatonic Valley to the ancient marble outcroppings in the hills, this hike journeys through time itself.

Mt. Moosilauke, NH
Difficulty: strenuous
Route: Glencliff (NH Rt. 25) over Mt. Moosilauke to Kinsman Notch (NH Rt.112)
Distance: 9.5 mi.
Elevation +/-: 900 to 4,802 to 1,870 ft.
Duration: 7 to 8 hours
Camping: Jeffers Brook Shelter, Beaver Brook Shelter

Moosilauke is the first peak that breaks tree line on the northbound AT. Spectacular 360-degree views include the dramatic Presidential Range farther north. Alpine flora is beautiful but fragile here. Be prepared for strong winds and chilliness; leave the peak if storms threaten. The ascent from Glencliff rises 3,728 feet, but over a gradual 5.7 miles, which is not half as bad as the steep descent into Kinsman Notch where hikers are compensated by lovely cascades. One-car alternative: From summit, return to South Peak, descend Carriage Road to Moosilauke Lodge (Dartmouth Outing Club, reservations required). Follow Hurricane Trail to AT and NH Route 25 the next day.
Fox Gap to Delaware Water Gap, PA
Difficulty: easy
Route: Fox Gap (PA Route 191, near Stroudsburg) to Mt. Minsi to Lake Lenape, near Delaware Water Gap village, off I-80
Distance: 7 miles
Elevation +/-: 1,220 to 1,480 to 300 ft.
Duration: 4 hours
Camping: Kirkridge Shelter

On Kittatinny Mountain the footing is standard-Pennsylvania rough, and water can be scarce. But the climb/descent is modest with views as the reward, especially at Lunch Rocks, 1.4 miles into the hike. Kittatinny Ridge has robust batches of blue forget-me-nots in May and blossoming rhododendron, June to July. Explore side trails to more viewpoints, especially Lookout Rock at 5.5 mi. After the wooded summit of Mt. Minsi, the AT drops 1,100 feet on switchbacks, providing fine vistas over the Delaware Water Gap. At peaceful Lake Lenape, lily pads abound. Look for blue and green herons fishing.

Crampton Gap, Maryland to Harpers Ferry, WV
Difficulty: moderate
Route: Crampton Gap (Gapland Rd.) to Weverton Cliffs, along the C&O Canal, to Harpers Ferry
Distance: 10.2 mi. total; 9.8 mi. on AT
Access trail: C&O Canal Towpath, 0.4 mi.
Elevation +/-: 900 to 1,232 to 300 ft.
Duration: 6 hours

It's not surprising that this section of the AT ranks high on the popularity scale. Beginning at the Civil War Correspondent's Memorial, meandering through secluded forest atop the ridge, and culminating (after a dramatic descent to the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath) at a National Historic Park, this is a hike that has it all. Park at the canal or walk over the majestic Potomac River (and the Mason-Dixon Line) on Byron footbridge, ending in Harpers Ferry. Northerner or Southerner, Union or Confederate, if you like historic sites and a good walk, this one's for you.

Bear Mountain and Harriman State Parks / East, NY
Difficulty: strenuous
Route: Arden Valley Rd. (Tiorati Circle), over Black Mt., to Bear Mt. Distance: 12.7 mi. (12.5 mi. on AT)
Access trail: Ramapo-Dunderberg Trail, 0.2 mi.
Elevation +/-: 1,196 to 700 to 1,305 to 178 ft.
Duration: 9.5 hours
Camping: Brien or West Mountain shelters

Ambitious? Do this hike in a long day. Camping? Try Brien or West Mountain shelters. Either way, this AT section is a gem. In the Hudson Highlands, enjoy mountain views, a lake, fields and swamps, hemlock, and hardwood forests. Best view: Black Mountain, at 5.5. On a clear day, the Hudson Valley is spectacular, and you might even be able to see the Big Apple, about 50 miles away. End with some luxury at Bear Mountain Inn. At the Hudson River suspension bridge, the AT reaches its lowest point—178 feet.
Newfound Gap (Great Smoky Mountains National Park: US 441, 16 mi. from Gatlinburg, TN, 18 mi. from Cherokee, NC ) to Charlie's Bunion
Difficulty: easy
Route: Newfound Gap to Icewater Spring to Charlie's Bunion and back
Distance: 7.8 mi.
Elevation +/-: 5,045 to 5,400 to 5,045 ft.
Duration: 4.5 hours
Camping: Icewater Spring Shelter (reservations required)

At Newfound Gap in 1940, FDR dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From here, head north and after an energetic climb in spruce-fir forest, the trail flattens, becoming grassy under yellow birch and spruce. Enjoy a fine southerly view of Oconaluftee Valley and of North Carolina's mountains. Reach Charlie's Bunion, a large knob, at about 4.0 mi. The side trail to the edge of the knob can be treacherous. Naturalist Horace Kephart named the Bunion after Smokies mountainer Charlie Conner and his sore foot. The rock, Anakeesta formation slate, contains iron and reddens from oxidation. After lunch, head back to Newfound Gap.

Yellow Creek Gap to Fontana Dam, NC
Difficulty: moderate
Route: Yellow Creek to Cable Gap Shelter to US 28 to Fontana Dam (south end of Fontana Lake)
Distance: 7.8 mi.
Elevation +/-: 2,980 to 3,786 to 1,800 ft.
Duration: 6 to 7 hours
Camping: Cable Cove Shelter, Fontana Dam Shelter (registered long- distance hikers only); designated campsites

Get a workout crossing the Yellow Creek Mountains that parallel the spine of the northern Smokies. Bring a wildflower or tree book because variety abounds here: evergreens and deciduous trees, tall and short, flowering in spring and ablaze in autumn. The hike mixes hidden valleys, boulder hopping (watch blazes carefully), open ridge tops, and broad vistas. The big reward? Views over Fontana Lake, created in the valley of the Little Tennessee River by a huge TVA dam. At hike's end, walk across the dam, if you like engineering marvels.

McAfee Knob Loop, VA
Difficulty: strenuous
Route: VA 311 to McAfee Knob, Devil's Kitchen, Catawba Mt., and back
Distance: 7.2 mi.
Elevation +/-: 2,000 to 3,200 to 2,000 ft.
Duration: 4.5 hours
Camping: Boy Scout Shelter; Catawba Mt. Shelter; designated campsites

Cameras or sketchbooks are a must at McAfee Knob, visited by 5,000 hikers every year. Rock overhangs, projecting like wings of a giant bird, leave you floating on air. But exercise caution, because a fall here is fatal. The 1,200-foot climb is steep in places, with numerous switchbacks, boulders, and narrow bridges. You'll earn the pleasures up top via inspiring views over Catawba and Roanoke valleys. Rhododendron, dogwood, dwarf iris, buttercups, lady's-slipper, and other flowering plants make spring through summer here colorful. Fall foliage attracts the crowds. Hike off peak, if possible. The "knob" is a cliff several hundred feet wide, good for quiet picnics, but not for noisy scampering about. Carry on 0.1 mi. to a hellish descent into Devil's Kitchen, amidst 20-to-30-foot-high sandstone pillars. Then head back to the start, with another glimpse into the void from McAfee Knob.

Published: 26 Jun 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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