National Scenic Trails - Appalachian Trail

Fall Hikes
By Dan Smith
  |  Gorp.com

You've probably heard the Appalachian Trail called the "long green tunnel." The first time I completed the Appalachian Trail was during a series of section hikes lasting from 1977 to 1980. Most of them took place in spring and summer, when the trail was indeed a tunnel of greenery, punctuated now and again by brilliant wildflowers and the occasional foray above treeline. As I hiked, I found myself repeatedly thinking, "this section of trail would be beautiful in the Fall when the leaves are changing colors." By the time the hike was over, I had decided to try to see every part of the AT when the fall foliage was at its peak.

Two challenges: The peak of the foliage change takes place at any given site over a very limited one- to two-week period. And my work schedule as a college professor keeps me housebound for most of the fall, so I could only get away for a week or so at a time. The solution, obviously, was to hike a different section of trail each year and to complete the trail over a long period of time. Sixteen years, to be exact.

Finding Fall Foliage

While some section hikers try to hike the AT over a period of years going in one direction, picking up in one year where they left off the last, a series of fall hikes is best approached piecemeal. This is because the peak foliage is unpredictable from year to year. Each year I would wait until reports on the news noted where foliage was at or near peak, and then I would select an area that I had not previously hiked. I started what I called my "Fall Foliage Hikes" in 1980 near Bennington, Vermont and ended in 1995 in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My longest hike was 212 miles, my shortest, 54. Each hike took place sometime between mid-September and mid-October and lasted between 3 to 12 days.

Some planning tips: The northernmost and southernmost sections of trail tend to have an earlier peak foliage than the middle states. Foliage along the Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont AT turns early (usually in September) because of both latitude and elevation. Along the North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia AT, fall also comes early—by early October—because of the trail's higher elevation. By contrast, lower elevations in the middle states make the Appalachian Trail from southern New England through Virginia ideal for hiking in mid-October. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the AT gains and loses elevation, sometimes more than 2,000 feet at a time. So while it may be fall on the hilltops, there may still be a lot of green in the valleys below.

Hiking How-to's for Fall

While weather conditions are generally excellent, the old adage, "anything that can happen will" applies to fall hiking. In thinking of clothing you need to be prepared for a potentially wide range of temperatures. Indian summer can arrive unannounced and send temperatures soaring into the 90's. But winter, too, is around the corner, and snow is possible, especially at high elevations. I slogged through several inches of snow in the Mahoosuc Range in Western Maine on October 1. On another hike, the entire Presidential Range was covered by four to six inches of snow in late September.

Trails are far less crowded in the fall than in the summer. But hikers should keep in mind that on weekends during peak foliage season, shelters and campsites can be full. Also, motels and B&Bs located near trails, especially in New England, tend to significantly raise their rates and to book up to weeks or even months in advance for Columbus Day weekend.

Highlights

Fall weather can be ideal hiking weather, and on most hikes I enjoyed pleasantly warm days and long cool nights along the trail. There was no humidity and no bugs to torment me. The trail was not at all crowded, at least during weekdays when just about the only other people around were thru hikers either finishing the last stages of their journeys in northern New England or southbounders racing to beat winter in southern Virginia or North Carolina.

Another benefit to section hiking was that it gave me the opportunity to visit communities near the trail. At the start of each of my 15 hikes, I had to drive to the trailhead; then, at the end of the hike, I had to arrange to retrieve my car. As a result, I got to visit many small communities located along the trail, to visit with local people and to have the types of encounters that are less frequent when one is thru hiking and rarely has the opportunity to stray far beyond the trail corridor.

Over the decade and a half that it took to complete the entire trail, I also had the opportunity to observe changes in hiking styles and in equipment. I saw nylon ponchos replaced by Gore-Tex rain suits, Optimus and Svea stoves replaced by Whisperlites, pup tents replaced by high-tech freestanding models, external packs give way to internal frame designs, wool shirts replaced by polypros, wooden hiking sticks traded in for trekking poles.

The Appalachian Trail itself has also changed significantly. Miles of road walking and long stretches that crossed private land, especially in the central states, were replaced by a permanent protected footway. The old dirt floor lean to's dating back to the 1940's were replaced by the larger, cleaner, brighter structures of today.

The most obvious reward of my 15-year project was getting to see the entire Appalachian Trail while the fall colors were at their peak. It's impossible to pick a favorite place: The White Mountains of New Hampshire stand out, of course, as do the Green Mountains of Vermont. But in fall, even the trail's more modest passages through the middle Atlantic states shine with color and come into their own. The slides that I took are among my most prized hiking mementos—a wonderful reminder of the beauty that I saw.


Dan Smith is an avid long distance hiker with more than 40,000 miles of backpacking experience. Over the past 20 years he has thru hiked the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide National Scenic Trails as well as footpaths in Europe, Britain, East Africa, and Nepal. He has completed the Appalachian Trail five times.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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