The History of Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Remote for detachment
narrow for chosen company
winding for leisure
lonely for contemplation
leads not merely north and south
but upward to the body, mind and soul of man
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 Mt 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.
The Northern Terminus
Benton MacKaye and The Idea of the Appalachian Trail
Who could have ever thought of this and make it work? In a1921 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 a declining of America.
MacKaye's original concept was a path between the two high points of the East, Mt Mitchell in North Carolina to Mt 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!
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 Mt 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.
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 falls to the duty of the National Park Service.
"Hike Your Own Hike"
Ways to Hike the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail is ripe with characters, prophets, 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.
- The Section Hike: Section hikers hike the trail in, you guessed it, sections. There is no time limit nor order to hike.
- The Thru-Hike: A thru-hiker walks the entire trail in ONE continuous journey.
- 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
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.
The Southern Terminus
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.
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 connection 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 Mt 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 Mt 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.
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 are a myriad of resources available about the Appalachian Trail, many of which are 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.
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.
Questions & Answers
© 2012 Dan Human