There’s something about the Appalachian Trail - or, A.T., as it’s known by enthusiasts - that draws people to it, from day-hikers, to section-hikers who spend days, weeks, or even months traversing its sections’ ups and downs, to “thru-hikers” who hike the entire trail, from start to finish.
“The A.T. is a place that balances me; it grounds me,” says section-hiker Maureen Cacioppo of St. Petersburg, Florida, who has hiked sections of the A.T. in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine over the course of about 14 years. “I can reconnect with myself and Mother Nature.”
When Benton MacKaye revealed his proposal for “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” in October 1921 and established the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in 1925, he probably imagined just that - a place where people could get away from their daily surroundings and immerse themselves in nature.
Over the course of the following decade or so, conservancy leadership and volunteer clubs worked side-by-side, and in August 1937, the (roughly) 2,190-mile-long, footpath was complete from Maine to Georgia, passing through 14 states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The A.T. is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which operates with a mission to “preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come,” an estimated 3 million people each year lace up their shoes, leave the comforts of their homes and hit the A.T.
"In the 80 years since the Appalachian Trail first offered a continuous hike from Maine to Georgia, millions of individuals have been inspired by both the unique experience the Trail provides and the legacy of volunteer commitment that is the heart and soul of the A.T." said Ron Tipton, President & CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. "The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is proud to honor the visions of Benton MacKaye, Myron Avery and our 31 trail clubs that contribute more than 260,000 hours of volunteer time annually to ensure the Trail's vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage are preserved for future generations to enjoy.”
With hundreds of access points along its route, the A.T. is within a few hours’ drive for millions of Americans, which is terrific for day-hikers.
“I like to get outside whenever possible and I have a great hiking buddy in my six year old rescued Chocolate Lab, Ellie,” said day-hiker Kim Beatty of Alexandria, Virginia. “In just over an hour’s drive, we can be on a hike at Sky Meadows State Park in Delapane, Virginia. There’s a section of the A.T. that you can pick up and it’s out-of-the-way and pretty empty, just the way we like it.”
While day-hikers make up most of the 3 million who enjoy the A.T. annually, more than 3,000 people attempt to thru-hike the trail annually; about 25% succeed. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, most thru-hikers walk north, starting in Georgia in the spring and finishing in Maine in fall, taking an average of six months.
Donna Logan of Salem, Virginia thru-hiked the trail 10 years ago, when she was in her late-50s.
“I love the solitude of hiking alone in the woods, but also the bonds that are instantly formed as you get to a shelter at night, and have to squeeze in to a group of hikers you may or may not know, to sleep shoulder to shoulder with each other,” said now-69-year-old Donna (trail name Signage). “But you have walked the same miles that day, and those shared experiences bond you together in ways I have not found anywhere else.”
When asked what drew Donna to thru-hike the A.T., she explained, “I am not sure I can explain it but it never leaves me. We call it ‘White blaze fever’ and I have had it for years. It is the way the Trail makes you feel when you are on it.
“It becomes an entity such as a person you are in love with and you can’t seem to get it off of your mind,” Donna continues. “It becomes an obsession that is only satisfied when you put that pack on your back and take off for a day or six months to really feel the world around you.”
“You can’t rush on the A.T.,” adds section-hiker Maureen Cacioppo (trail name Mojo). “There’s a beautiful flow to long-distance hiking. You find your own rhythm; I don’t find that rhythm anywhere else in my life quite like I do on the trail.”
For inspiration to embark on your own A.T. journey, browse through the photo gallery above, which includes iconic spots along the trail, as well as some hidden gems.
A.T. Fun Facts from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy:
Thousands of volunteers donate about 270,000 hours of their time to the A.T. annually.
Virginia has the most miles of the A.T. at about 550.
West Virginia has the least miles of the A.T at about four.
Maryland and West Virginia are considered the easiest states to hike.
Maine and New Hampshire are considered the hardest states to hike.
The total elevation gain of hiking the entire A.T. is equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times.
Hikers usually adopt “trail names” while hiking the A.T. They are often descriptive or humorous, such as “Eternal Optimist,” “Thunder Chicken” and “Crumb-snatcher.”
Foods high in calories and low in water weight such as Snickers and Ramen Noodles are popular with backpackers.
A.T. backpackers can burn up to 6,000 calories a day on the trail.
Animals that may be spotted along the A.T. include black bears, moose, porcupines, snakes, woodpeckers and salamanders.