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The History of Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Dan Human shares what he has learned from several thousand miles of backpacking, hiking and paddling.

The famous plaque on Springer Mountain in Georgia.

The famous plaque on Springer Mountain in Georgia.

Remote for detachment

narrow for chosen company

winding for leisure

lonely for contemplation

the trail

leads not merely north and south

but upward to the body, mind and soul of man

— Harold Allen

The Appalachian Trail: A Footpath in History

Every step along the Appalachian Trail is a step in history. It is as much a pathway of the cultural history of the United States as it is a footpath through the wilderness. The A.T. stretches about 2,170 miles between Mount Katahdin in Maine and Springer Mountain in Georgia and serves as a symbol of escape from inauthentic city life.

In 1998, I had the chance to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, and it remains one of the proudest and most profound accomplishments in my life. It was a four-and-a-half-month journey of simplicity of purpose and a soul-centering event.

But how did this trail start? Who runs it? What is a thru-hiker? How do you begin hiking? I'll answer these questions as we explore the history of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Mount Katahdin in Maine is the Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

Mount Katahdin in Maine is the Northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail winds through 14 states.

The Appalachian Trail winds through 14 states.

The original Washington Monument built in 1827 stands along the Appalachian Trail in Maryland.  The AT encounters many historical structures along its route.

The original Washington Monument built in 1827 stands along the Appalachian Trail in Maryland. The AT encounters many historical structures along its route.

Benton MacKaye and The Idea of the Appalachian Trail

Who could have ever thought of this and make it work? In a 1921 article entitled "An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning," Benton MacKaye envisioned a continuous footpath that stretched along the Appalachian Mountains and offered solace from the cities.

In the aftermath of the First World War, MacKaye didn't like the path that America was on. He disliked the urbanization of landscape and the rapid industrialism which became the focus of American culture. The Appalachian Trail was one of the many utopian projects that people proposed to cure what they saw as American decline.

MacKaye's original concept was a path between the two high points of the East, Mount Mitchell in North Carolina to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. As the project took hold, and the first Trail Conference was established in 1925, the trail concept expanded from Maine to Georgia.

So is the Appalachian Trail a good escape? According to the National Park Service, 2/3 of the U.S. population lives within a 1-day drive of the trail. Good planning Mr. MacKaye!



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Shelters like this lean-to are spaced about a day's walk apart along the trail.  Shelters are usually crowded, but there is always room for one more.  More than 250 shelters are dotted along the length of the trail.

Shelters like this lean-to are spaced about a day's walk apart along the trail. Shelters are usually crowded, but there is always room for one more. More than 250 shelters are dotted along the length of the trail.

Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery - Appalachian Trail pioneers.

Benton MacKaye and Myron Avery - Appalachian Trail pioneers.

The First 2000-Miler Myron Avery

in 1936 Myron Avery, a lawyer by trade, become the first to hike all 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail. He did so as a leader of several teams that hacked out and defined the trail's route. Of course in those days, the trail ended at Mount Oglethorpe. Springer didn't become the Southern terminus until 1958.

Those formative times were interesting, to say the least, working with federal and state parks, and adjoining the AT to other existing trails.

Most of the Appalachian Trail is marked with metal signs like this near roads and trailheads.

Most of the Appalachian Trail is marked with metal signs like this near roads and trailheads.

Who is in Charge?

The Appalachian Trail is only possible through a conglomeration of non-profits, government, trail clubs, and hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer work along the mountain chain. The Appalachian Trail Conference (after 2005, known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) is the coordinating agency making this possible.

In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act and the Appalachian Trail became a charter member. The uncompleted Pacific Crest Trail received its designation that year too. This act gave financial support and protection to the AT and many other long-distance trails to come. Currently, there are eleven National Scenic Trails and nineteen National Historic Trails. As a National Scenic Trail, the protection and overall coordination of the AT are the responsibility of the National Park Service.

Nature and culture intertwine along the Appalachian Trail; this tree devours an old sign.

Nature and culture intertwine along the Appalachian Trail; this tree devours an old sign.

Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains.

Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains.

Hike Your Own Hike

— Thru-hiker adage

Ways to Hike the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is ripe with characters, prophets, and perhaps even wayward governors. With so many people and with a trail as large as the AT, there are many ways to hike. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that as many as 3 million people per year hike some portion of the AT annually. Of that 3 million, only about 1,800 people attempt to thru-hike the trail each year.

Different Types of Hikes:

  • Day Hike
  • Short term backpacking
  • End-to-End Options

Anyone who walks every inch of the Appalachian Trail is a 2,000-miler. It doesn't matter if they set a running record of 47 days like Jennifer Farr Davis or take decades to finish the trail in short sections.

  1. The Section Hike: Section hikers hike the trail in, you guessed it, sections. There is no time limit nor order to hike.
  2. The Thru-Hike: A thru-hiker walks the entire trail in ONE continuous journey.
  3. The Flip Flop: A flip-flopper on the AT, hikes the trail in one year; however, they may not hike the trail in order. Usually this is done to beat the cold icy weather on the northern end of the trail. For example: a hiker hikes from Georgia to New Jersey, then boards a bus to Maine, and hikes Southbound from Katahdin to New Jersey.

2010 Thru-hiker Data

Thru-hiker data for 2010 - source of data Appalachian Trail Conservancy

 Number StartingNumber Ending% Finish

Northbounders

1,460

426

29%

Southbounders

256

45

17%

Flip Floppers

N/A

40

N/A

So What are My Chances?

Each year, many people, young and old dream of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Generally, most of these people are in the midst of a life-changing event: graduating college, retiring, exiting military, and divorce to name a few. Some have an unnerving wanderlust and others hike because they have no options.

So what is the chance that you will succeed? Not good—check out the chart to the right. But, even if you are hiking from Georgia and you only make it to the North Carolina line, it will stand as a memory that affects you forever.


My triumphant finish on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  Yes, I am wearing a kilt.

My triumphant finish on Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Yes, I am wearing a kilt.

ME>GA vs GA>ME

For those of you that skipped your mathematics logic classes you may not recognize the greater than ">" symbol, but never fear—along the AT it is a directional arrow. Quite simply on the AT, you are either a Northbounder (GA>ME) or a Southbounder (ME>GA).

Characteristics of a Northbound thru-hike:

  • Earlier start, many starting in March.
  • Shelters and hostels will be crowded (especially at the beginning)
  • Much more of a social experience.
  • The Southern portion of the trail is easier, so you can ease yourself into hiking shape.
  • You get to finish on Katahdin, which is an awesome mountain.
  • There is a timetable though, to beat the snow to Katahdin - usually October 15th.

Characteristics of a Southbound thru-hike:

  • Later start, usually around June 1st, to allow the snow and ice to clear the Northern mountains.
  • Much less crowded, but solitary
  • You hit Maine during black fly season—ouch!
  • Maine and New Hampshire are the hardest states to hike.
  • You miss all the trail festivals like Trail Days
  • Some facilities, like hostels and campgrounds, close down by the time Southbounders reach the South.
  • Springer is kind of...blah, not nearly as much of a majestic finish as is Katahdin.
  • Only 10% of all 2,000-milers have thru-hiked the trail Southbound.

As for me, I went Southbound, mainly because it worked better with my school schedule. Plus, I am not one for crowds and parties. That being said, being a Southbounder, especially when you are in the front of the pack, can be a very solitary existence.


Earl Shaffer's "Walking with Spring"

Earl Shaffer: The First Thru-Hiker

Earl Shaffer was the first person documented to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail back in 1948. He thru-hiked the trail again in 1965 and once more at the age of 79 in 1998 on the 50th anniversary of thru-hiking.

Oddly enough, I met Earl while on my thru-hike in 1998; it was one of the highlights of my journey.

An encounter with Earl:

It was an extremely hot night in early August when I pulled in to the Wawayanda Shelter around 8 PM and chatted with other hikers staying there. I quickly used my stove to boil some ramen noodles before taking to slumber on the hard shelter floor. Then I saw a man plodding assuredly along the trail.

The senior citizen clad in dickies work pants, a flannel shirt, and signature pith helmet carried an old army ruck sack; he could only be one person: Earl Shaffer. He stopped by the lean-to and chatted with us and he seemed amused that I was a Southbounder—one of the few he met.

In true Earl fashion, with a half-hour or so of daylight left, he kept walking. As darkness overtook him, he would move off the trail, eat his hard boiled eggs, and cover himself with his simple tarp for the night.

I felt like snapping a picture of him, a hiking celebrity, but I kept the camera in my pouch. All of us deserve solitude and privacy, even the celebrities amongst us.

Don't worry about going the wrong way on the Appalachian Trail - it is pretty well marked.

Don't worry about going the wrong way on the Appalachian Trail - it is pretty well marked.

Connection Trails to the Appalachian Trail

From the Appalachian Trail one can access many other trails that lead across the United States and even to other countries. I realized this when I met a man that was commanded by God to walk to the four corners of the United States. He was pretty cool, but I was glad he was heading North and I was heading South.

There are many connections and blue-blazed side trails to the Appalachian Trail, here are a few of the more prominent ones:

  • International Appalachian Trail

The IAT starts at Mount Katahdin in Maine and winds 690 miles through Canada ending at the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec. There is a movement to further extend the trail through Europe and North Africa.

  • Long Trail

The original US long trail runs 272 miles through the state of Vermont. The Long Trail and Appalachian Trail share the same walkway for about 100 miles in Southern Vermont.

  • Benton MacKaye Trail

Named for the father of the Appalachian Trail, the BMT stretches from Mount Springer in Georgia 300 miles to Davenport Gap in North Carolina. As this trail intersects the AT, it is quite possible to do long loop hikes.

  • American Discovery Trail

The ADT is a multiple use hiking and biking trail which spans 6,800 miles from East to West Coast.

  • Long Path

Starting at the George Washington Bridge, the Long Path intersects the Appalachian Trail at Harriman State Park and runs about 347 miles to the bank of the Mohawk River.

Follow the white blazes through the rhododendron ...

Follow the white blazes through the rhododendron ...

The Best Trail Guide

So How Do I Start?

The first step in any backpacking trip, whether going out for the weekend or for a multi-month journey, is to research the trail you are hiking on. There is a myriad of resources available about the Appalachian Trail, many of which are available from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

If you are planning a long-distance venture or thru-hike, you'll need information on resupply points, hostels, and outfitters. Luckily, someone has already put this together for you. The standard for many years was Dan "Wingfoot" Bruce's book The Thru-Hiker's Handbook; however, that series of books ended in 2010.

The new standard handbook is from "Awol," The A.T. Guide; it is available in Northbound and Southbound editions. As far as regional state-by-state guide books, they are available too but most long-distance hikers don't carry them. These handbooks for the Appalachian Trail are updated annually and are very accurate.

The biggest thing, especially with thru-hiking, is to read all you can before you go, and please go backpacking a few times before hitting Springer. You, and the people around you, will have a better time if it isn't your first time out in the woods.

So if you have the chance to spend some time on the Appalachian Trail this year, remember its history and the millions of footsteps that helped define this cultural icon.

Yes, there are wild ponies along the Appalachian Trail.  These equines are in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

Yes, there are wild ponies along the Appalachian Trail. These equines are in Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.

Bill Bryson's Hilarious Acccount

Appalachian Trail Resources

  • Appalachian Trail Conservancy - Home
    The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s mission is 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 Appalachian Trail Thru Hike in Pictures
    Outbound Dan Human recounts his more than two thousand-mile backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail. Memories of the southbound thru hike are shared through a collection of pictures.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Dan Human

Comments

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on February 19, 2015:

I totally missed this comment atlantichorizons, but appreciate you taking the time to read my article. It is perhaps the proudest accomplishment in my life and one that I am still reflecting upon.

Kristen from Wilmington, NC on December 26, 2014:

The Appalachian Region is beautiful. This article was interesting and insightful. I think I would have to do it in sections. You should definitely be proud!

Vivian Sudhir from Madurai, India on June 22, 2014:

Always loved the outdoors, great article.

Phyllis Doyle Burns from High desert of Nevada. on April 18, 2014:

Excellent article, Dan. I enjoyed reading it.

TurtleDog on March 19, 2014:

Great post on a topic a lot of people dream of thru hiking but never get to do it. Congrats not only on a good article but on your completion of the trial, kilt and all :-) Voted up and awesome

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on November 21, 2013:

Thanks Suzettenaples, hiking the AT is one of my proudest achievements. Before I hiked the trail (in the days before wide use of the internet) I didn't know a whole lot about the history of the trail. But to think that with each of the 5 million steps a thru-hiker takes, there were thousands of volunteers that made it possible and that is truly amazing.

Don't worry about hiking in the allotted time, there are section hikers that spend their lives hiking short sections of the trail one year at a time. I guess that is a good hobby to have.

Thanks for reading!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on November 20, 2013:

I guess we all have to go to civilization some time LaThing - it sounds like a nice route though. Yeah, Maine winters are rather infamous, but I'm from Buffalo so I have no choice but to love winter.

I've climbed all over the NY Adirondacks, and the New Hampshire White Mountains in winter, so I have to move on to Maine. This winter I won't make it, but maybe next year. Baxter has very strict regulations about climbing in winter, so it takes a while to get the permit.

LaThing from From a World Within, USA on November 20, 2013:

I lived in a little town called Fort Kent, among other places. It felt like I was at the end of the world, LOL..... surrounding was beautiful. So, to get to civilization I had to drive by the Baxter State park......Beautiful!

I hope you do get to climb Katahdin again and we get to read about it! :)

But in winter!? Oh boy! I have never seen winters like the ones in northern Maine! Maybe, Fall wound be a better option :)

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on November 20, 2013:

Of all the states I've hiked in, Maine has some of the best scenery and the best solitude out there. You were lucky to live in such a place for sure. One of my future goals is to climb Katahdin again, but this time in winter - should be a fun trek.

Thanks for reading LaThing!

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on November 20, 2013:

Congratulations on hiking the entire Appalachian trail - that is quite an achievement. I only know one other person that has done that and I don't know if it was going northbound or southbound. This is so interesting and informative. I didn't know the history behind the trial or who actually founded it. I don't know if I could do the whole trail in the allotted time - it might take me longer. LOL Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience in this area.

LaThing from From a World Within, USA on November 20, 2013:

Beautiful hub, enjoyed every bit of it! I have lived in Maine and visited mt. katadin. This hub is a great reminder. And for you, what an achievement!! Hiking the whole Appalachian trail, WOW! Congrats :)

Thanks for sharing.....

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on July 12, 2012:

Even though I took 4 and half months to do it ten years ago, I think if I did it again, I could do it it under 3 months. Still, embarking on such a long-term venture is difficult in keeping pace with our other obligations in society.

Long journeys are best done when one's life is in transition, when you are immersed in a liminal state.

Thanks for the return read and for the tweet CC!

Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on July 12, 2012:

I had to come back to this and just admire the fact that you've done the whole trail. It is indeed quite an accomplishment. You also truly have found your writer's niche. Good for you - that is really awesome. Four and a half months you say? Hmm...if I didn't have a mortgage and/or if I could save up enough money. Then there are the mishaps I'm so good at getting into...well, even if I never do the trail in its entirety, I'll be able to vicariously live it through people like you and look at the amazing pictures. Ha!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 22, 2012:

Hi buckleupdorothy, I'm glad you found this useful and hope that you are able to make the journey someday. Thanks for commenting and sharing!

buckleupdorothy from Istanbul, Turkey on March 22, 2012:

Fantastic article, very informative and useful for those of us who're interested in making the journey ourselves. Voted up and shared!

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 21, 2012:

I think all of us want to do something out of the ordinary like hike the Appalachian Trail, something which goes against the restrictive standards of our society. The AT offers an alternative and I think that is why we find it so attractive. I hope you get to hike it, even if in section, you'll have a great time.

Thanks for reading Deborah!

Deborah Neyens from Iowa on March 21, 2012:

Great, comprehensive hub. I've always wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. Maybe not the whole thing at once, but at least in sections.

Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 19, 2012:

The Trail is pretty easy to find Marcy, if you ever feel like hiking a portion. Just head toward the Appalachians and look for white blazes.