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If you’re a serious hiker, you’ve probably heard about the Appalachian Trail, the Holy Grail of long distance hiking that winds along the East Coast. Starting in Georgia, the trail continues all the way to Northern Maine and covers wild and untamed wilderness areas as well as park-like settings. Along the way, you’ll encounter wildlife and nature, other hikers and an occasional shelter or hostel. People tackle this trail for many reasons, including self-empowerment, a love of nature and even a yearning for spiritual enlightenment.
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What is the Appalachian Trail?
The trail begins at Springer Mountain, GA, just north of Atlanta, and it cuts through fourteen states until it ends at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine. The path is mountainous in Georgia and the Carolinas, but it drops below 3,000 feet between Virginia and Massachusetts. Temperatures along most of the trail range in the eighties and nineties during hiking season. Starting at Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, however, the trail enters a cooler, sub-alpine region.
In North Carolina, the trail crosses the river at the Nantahala River Gorge and continues into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Virginia has a longer segment of the trail than any other state, and there are some beautiful views from the trail. Some parts of the trail in Pennsylvania are littered with small rocks caused by erosion, making hiking difficult. Maine is covered with evergreen forests, and it has some alpine regions with elevations over 4,000 feet.
Those who complete the entire route are called thru-hikers, and the majority of them begin the hike in Georgia in late March or Early April and travel north. It can cost $5,000 or more to make the trek, including start-up gear, replacement gear, food and lodging. The towns along the way are small and have a limited selection of items, so hikers often set up mail drops in advance to replenish their supplies.
There are around 250 shelters and primitive camping spots along the trail. There are also hostels where you can get a shower and a bed for the night. Lodges are available, but they’re more expensive and might tempt you off the trail for longer than you planned. There are even donation-based hostels for hikers who are on a tight budget or have run out of cash.
More than four million people hike the trail each year, some for a day and others for weeks. Almost 2,000 brave souls attempt to hike the entire 2,168-mile trail in one season, facing climbs of up to 6,643 feet. It generally takes from five to seven months to hike the entire trail and only about 25 percent of those who attempt this feat end up making it to the end.
This incredible trail couldn’t be managed by just one group or agency, and that’s why there are so many involved in keeping it in shape. The U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy and thousands of volunteers work together to keep this national treasure open for hikers and campers. Thirty-one trail clubs help maintain the trail and plan activities along it. They’re also a resource for finding the right gear and places to resupply along the trail.
The trail has add-ons like the Eastern Continental Trail that extends to Alabama and Florida, covering the southern Appalachian Mountains. In the north, you can continue from Maine into Canada, Newfoundland and across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Greenland. The Canadian part of the trail is made up of the logging and secondary roads of the Trans Canada Trail, and it’s a mountainous climb.
The international part of the trail continues on the western side of Newfoundland in the town of Crow Head on the island of Twillingate. Greenland is the newest member of the IAT with a route on the Nuussuaq Peninsula. These additions make up the International Appalachian Trail (IAT), and the northern end includes a train ride and a jaunt aboard a ferry. An initiative is now underway to include Scotland, Britain, Ireland, Spain and Morocco as part of a worldwide International Appalachian Trail.
How Was the Appalachian Trail Created?
It all started 250 million years ago, in the Paleozoic Era. The Appalachian-Caledonian Mountain Range sprawled across what is now North America, Greenland, Europe and Africa. When the continental plates spread out and the Atlantic Ocean was formed, the mountains were split into ranges on different continents.
In 1921, a regional planner named Benton MacKaye wrote, "An AppalachianTrail: A Project in Regional Planning." It was an ambitious plan to link farms and wilderness camps into a trail reaching from Maine to Georgia. MacKaye was responsible for the beginnings of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), a group dedicated to managing and conserving the trail. Others took up the cause as well, and by 1937 a footpath had been created from Maine to Georgia.
The National Park Service began planning for shelters to be erected along the trail, and the route was permanently marked. In 1978 the government began to acquire enough land to preserve the corridor as part of the national park system. The last stretch of land was acquired in 2014, and now the Appalachian Trail is a federally protected wilderness area that links with six national parks.
In 2015, a new .2-mile section of the trail opened in Bear Mountain, New York after volunteers worked for nine months to complete it. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference’s long distance trails crew devoted over 3,000 hours to relocating the trail to a safer area after the original stretch became badly eroded. Volunteers used natural stones to create a stairway that would withstand the elements and wear better than the original stretch of trail.
Why Do People Love Hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Hiking on the Appalachian Trail has become a popular outdoor experience for many adventurers. For those who hike for a day, enjoying the beauty of nature is one of the major rewards. There are inspiring vistas, streams, an incredible array of plants and the opportunity to see animals in their natural setting. The more developed parts of the trail are perfect for a day-hike through the woods.
For many, hiking and camping along the trail presents a challenge. Hiking in the wilderness areas and setting up a primitive camp takes skill and determination. It can be a satisfying experience to cover the miles each day and make camp from scratch in the evening, cooking dinner over a fire. The thru-hikers take this challenge to the extreme, trying to cover the entire 2,168-mile trail. Most don’t finish, but they take away a sense of fulfillment for what they achieved along the way.
There are many people who consider communing with nature to be a spiritual experience. Leaving civilization and large groups of people to spend meditative time alone or with a few others is a way for them to become more centered and serene. In the quiet of the forest, they’re able to contemplate the things in life that are most important to them. The simplicity of spending time enjoying nature is their way of achieving a calm mind and joyful outlook on life.
Are There Dangers Along the Trail?
There are wild animals along the trail, including bears, wild boars and snakes. The amount of danger from animals is small, though, as long as you follow basic trail safety guidelines. Making noise as you enter heavily wooded areas and hanging your food safely from a tree in a bear bag are two ways to avoid meeting up with woodland residents. So many people travel this trail that the chances are slim your group will face danger from wild animals.
There’s also the issue of being prepared for the trail. There are many resources to help you find the right equipment and clothing to take when tackling the Appalachian Trail. If you’re hiking in the cold months, you’ll need layers of warm clothing and enough warm bedding to avoid hypothermia. In the hotter months, you’ll need ventilated clothing that will keep you cool. And with more exposed skin, checking for ticks each evening to prevent Lyme disease is a high priority.
There are other dangers that have to do with the hike itself. It’s extremely important to stay hydrated since hiking depletes water through sweat. Dehydration is one of the hazards to guard against, and so is physical exhaustion. Before hiking for several days or weeks, it’s important to get some practice taking long-distance walks. Otherwise, a pulled muscle or sprain could derail the trip.
Mental fatigue is another problem to watch out for. There’s a fine line between pushing your limits by facing the elements and overextending yourself. The hike should be as much about enjoying the journey as reaching the destination. It helps to keep your spirits up if you go into the adventure with a positive frame of mind. Like anything in life, there will be ups and downs along the trail. Expecting this and taking it in stride will go a long way toward preventing burnout on the trail.
Are You Ready to Try It?
The beauty of hiking the Appalachian Trail is that you can choose the location and duration that suits you best. A day hike in North Carolina through the Nantahala River Gorge can be exciting and rewarding. If primitive camping is your thing, there are plenty of wilderness areas to spend a few days or weeks exploring. The trail winds through six national parks, so you can even choose to structure your trip to end in one of them.
Now you know where the Appalachian Trail is located and that it consists of vast stretches of forests, mountains, valleys and wilderness areas. Each person has a different idea of how to experience nature. The ultimate challenge is the months-long attempt to tackle the entire trail. You could decide to start small and work your way up to longer treks. One way or another, this is a great opportunity to challenge yourself, enjoy the outdoors and take advantage of an incredible opportunity to see natural surroundings untamed by man.