|Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine, the terminus of the ATor the start, if you're heading south (Jeremy Woodhouse/Photodisc/Getty)|
Conservationist Benton Mackaye, who envisioned and campaigned for the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the 1920s, recognized that "the ability to cope with nature directly—unshielded by the weakening wall of civilization—is one of the admitted needs of modern times." More than 80 years later, the AT pulls the imagination of millions stuck in the daily grind of the crowded eastern seaboard, and beyond. The trail beckons us to get away. Spend a day, a week, or a season on the trail. Or gear up and try to take on the entire 2,178-mile route over a six-month stretch, from Maine to Georgia (or vice versa) and become one of the trail’s famed thru-hikers.
Navigating the trail is relatively straightforward. You’re either heading north or south, and the trail itself is marked with two-inch by six-inch white painted blaze markers (with double-blazes marking junctions, turns, or other areas of note, and blue blazes marking side trails to shelters, water, and overlooks).
The terrain and climates spanning the AT, however, are as varied as the regions it covers. From Georgia, the trail travels north/northeast to Maine, passing red clay and rhododendron in the south, all the way to the granite and krumholtz at high altitude in the north. Unlike the great hiking trails in the western United States, the AT cuts a line just west of most major urban centers on the eastern sea board, sometimes within 50 miles of large cities. It may not be the remote backcountry experience found in the Rockies, but the rolling green mountains connecting hundreds of small towns along the way is an experience not found elsewhere.
More than 90 percent of the thru-hikers start in Georgia and travel north to Maine, affectionately referred to as NOBOs (North bounders). They typically start in February or March in order to get to Maine’s Baxter State Park before it closes in October—meaning they start in winter and thus weather cold and snow early on in the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. However, hikers will get to enjoy the northern section during the late summer (meaning phenomenal swimming and no black flies once they make it to Maine).
The other group of one-way thru-hikers (called SOBOs) start in Maine and head south, usually starting in May or June, since Baxter State Park opens according to weather, and is usually closed until the start of summer. This route offers less crowds—and less camaraderie; depending on your personality, this can be a pro or a con. Most SOBOs shoot to finish in November, before the next winter hits.
Alternatively, there are many possible flip-flop options, which mean hiking the trail in one season but not all in the same direction. There are dozens of documented flip-flop routes, each with certain advantages. Georgia’s Springer Mountain, West Virginia’s Harpers Ferry, and Maine’s Baxter State Park are the most common start or end points of a section, but literally any road that crosses the trail is fair game. For seasoned thru-hikers, there’s only one rule: You must walk every mile of the trail; the direction is not important. The advantages of flip-flopping? You can hit the states during their optimal weather, plus you can start on easier terrain and get into trail shape by the time you reach the more difficult terrain.
Most hikers thru-hike the entire AT in five to six months, which allows time for off days to rest or check out towns along the trail, or off-trail outings like rafting or visiting nearby cities such as New York City or Boston. Known as zero days, or days without walking on the trail, they let you restock, catch up with the world beyond the woods, and generally regroup. Really fast hikers can tackle the entire route in four months or less.
Whether you take on the challenge of a thru-hike (complete with folkloric allures like Trail Magic and naked hiking days), or you merely want a bite-sized taste in the state closest to your own backyard, the AT is undoubtedly one of the country’s prized destinations. If intimidated, just start with one hike.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication