Hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the hardest — and best — things I’ve ever done. Here’s how you can do it too.
The Appalachian Trail runs nearly 2,200 miles along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Along this path, the Appalachian Trail — or AT, as it’s often called — passes through 14 states, numerous state parks, national forests, and three national parks. Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail means traversing tunnels of trees, rocky ridgelines, open summits and rolling balds. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but experiencing the east coast from Georgia to Maine on foot is something I’ll never forget.
Pros and Cons of Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Is hiking the Appalachian Trail worth it?
Thru-hiking the entire AT is a lofty goal, but well worth the preparation needed to complete this physical and mental challenge. Considered one of the best thru-hikes in the USA, each year thousands of hopefuls flock to the AT to follow the white blazes end to end in one long push. In 2015, I took just over five months to hike the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine. Most hikers heading north start in early spring and finish in late summer. Hikers starting in Maine and heading south typically start in early summer and finish in late fall.
Tips for hiking the Appalachian Trail
Section hikes along the Appalachian Trail can be accessed from thousands of trailheads and road crossings. This interactive Appalachian Trail map from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is a good place to start for planning. For the most part, camping along the AT is ridiculously easy. While you’ll need a permit or a small fee for backcountry travel through several sections, most camping along the AT is free. The Appalachian Trail is known for its on-trail, three-sided shelters located every 8-10 miles along the entire length of the trail. Shelters are listed in Appalachian Trail guidebooks and also found on various map sets. Shelters are usually located in conjunction with established tent sites, so stealth camping isn’t necessary. It’s better to stay at an established site to have less of an impact on the ecosystem.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Sections
The Appalachian Trail can be roughly divided into four sections. The first section includes the southern states: Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. From there, the 550 miles through Virginia gets its own section. The Mid-Atlantic comes next, with the trail passing through West Virginia, Hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Last comes New England, which includes Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. While some people will divide the AT differently, this is how I categorized the sections when planning my thru-hike.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail southern states
Northbound thru-hikers will hit the southern states during the cold months of early spring. Just because you’re hiking through Georgia and North Carolina, don’t expect to be warm. We had snow, sleet, hail, and freezing rain for pretty much every open vista and bald. The southern states are characterized by sweeping views from iconic balds, steep climbs through deciduous forests and rhododendron tunnels. If you aren’t thru-hiking, aim for these states in late spring. Check out Great Smoky Mountain National Park as it winds along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Virginia: traversing the largest state section through the Triple Crown
At over 500 trail miles, Virginia is the longest state on the AT featuring everything from long ridge climbs to iconic rock formations and overlooks. This state was a bit of a mind game for me. It’s common for thru-hikers to characterize their progress by crossing state lines. And when the state is over 500 miles long? That’s a long way to hike without a state crossing. The rumor is that Virginia is flat. Not even close. The climbs are long, but the views through the trees of the below valleys are rewarding.
Don’t miss McAfee Knob, the most photographed spot on the entire Appalachian Trail. Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs are right in the same area, and are some of the must-see spots on the AT through here. There three must-see spots are better known as the Triple Crown of Virginia. Wild ponies are known to approach hikers in Grayson Highlands State Park and try to chew backpack straps.
Mid-Atlantic: terrain is varied with rocks, boulders and features
This is the fastest hiking on the Appalachian Trail. The trail through the Mid-Atlantic stays low in elevation.You’ll find flat sections of well-graded trail through southern Pennsylvania. Northern Pennsylvania is legendary for rocky terrain. I wore through the outsoles on my shoes in just 100 miles of non-stop walking on rocks of all shapes and sizes — from pebble fields to softball-size ankle rollers. Expect miles of boulders you have to clamber up and over. It was exhausting.
New Jersey is surprisingly delightful with low, long ridge walks overlooking ponds and forests. Most thru-hikers hit this section in the dead of summer, and it can be really hot and muggy. This section is home to the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. Hikers can get their photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
New England: southern Maine will test your endurance
The toughest — and most rewarding — hiking on the Appalachian Trail is found in New England. New Hampshire is a fan favorite amongst thru-hikers, and it has always been one of my favorite parts of the AT. I’m from New Hampshire, so I might be a little biased, but still. Time above treeline increases exponentially and the hiking here is rugged but beautiful.
Once you’re out of the challenging New Hampshire terrain, southern Maine doesn’t give you a break. We were slowed down to around one mile per hour for much of southern Maine — a tough pill to swallow after hiking nearly 2,000 miles. The rest of the miles in Maine are dominated by the 100-Mile Wilderness. Northbound hikers gain their first glimpse of Mt. Katahdin thanks to sweeping views after traversing a lush forest. Once out of the 100-Mile Wilderness, it’s a cruiser day in Baxter State Park followed by the triumphant summit of Katahdin.
Day and Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail
You don’t have to hike the entire 2,000-plus miles to experience the Appalachian Trail. Here are a few of my favorite sections that are worth the outings, logistically easy to access and have some of the best views on the trail.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains strike fear into the hearts of new thru-hikers. The good news is that this section of the Appalachian Trail really isn’t that bad. The Appalachian Trail runs just over 70 miles through this national park. It’s perfect for a week-long backpacking trip end to end. The Smokies are easily accessed at different gaps, with shuttles and hitches easy to come by. The weather can be unpredictable and cold in early spring, thanks to the trail staying between 4,000 and 6,000 feet in elevation. Permits are required, and reservations for shelters are also required.
McAfee Knob is one of Virginia’s crown jewels
McAfee Knob in Virginia can be done as a day hike or overnight for anyone looking to experience a night on one of the section hikes of the Appalachian Trail. McAfee Knob can be reached from a well-maintained parking lot near Catawba and is a pretty mellow 4.5-mile trek to the iconic overview. Looking to tackle an overnight? Hike a few more miles to the nearest shelter, stay the night and hike out the next morning.
Mt. Katahdin in Maine — the AT’s longest climb
Located in Baxter State Park, Mt. Katahdin is the longest climb on the Appalachian Trail. Katahdin is also famous for being the northern terminus of the trail. The peak is challenging and sections can feel exposed. Prepare and make sure your whole group is in good hiking shape. The best times to hike in Baxter State Park are mid-summer to early fall. The peak technically closes each fall. Stay up to date with conditions here.
Franconia Ridge in NH might be my favorite day hike
The expanse of the White Mountain National Forest spreads as far as the eye can see. Stopping in the AMC Huts is a must-do for any hiker in the area. Franconia Ridge is one of the premiere day hikes in the entire country, which means it can be crowded on a nice summer day. The steep climb to the ridge is rewarded with a long ridge walk with 360-degree views, reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Rings. Don’t want to fight the crowds along the ridge? The Franconia Notch area has plenty of trail options as alternates. Really, you can’t go wrong in the White Mountains at all, on or off the Appalachian Trail.
Preparing for the Appalachian Trail
A few of the most common questions about hiking the Appalachian Trail answered:
How much does it cost to hike the Appalachian Trail?
The cost of the Appalachian Trail requires a bit of planning, since I spent around $6,000, including $1,500 on backpacking gear. The rest went to on-trail expenses. I was lucky and didn’t have to pay bills at home while I was gone. I made sure I had enough in the bank to pay for food resupplies, gear repairs and replacements and lodging during town stops.
Can a beginner hike the Appalachian Trail?
Beginners will find section hikes and days hikes the best option for hiking the Appalachian Trail. McAfee Knob in Virginia offers scenic overlooks after a short 4.5-mile trail. You can’t go wrong with this introduction to the AT. Springer Mountain in Georgia is one of the original sections of the AT, and a solid introduction to multi-day backpacking trips. The warm weather in spring is also helpful. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also a gorgeous section with plenty of camping and other hikers in case something happens. Popularity also means some planning is involved ahead of time. Reservations are required to secure shelters or campsites. Yes, the weather is notorious here but the payoff is huge.
What’s the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail?
New England delivers some of the most challenging terrain on the Appalachian Trail. Southern Maine is relentless with features leaving hikers to slow way down in pace through the White Mountain National Forest. Maine is mentally exhausting as the last section of the trail, when many people are ready to cross the finish line. Planning which time of year you’ll attempt Maine helps to avoid black flies and gnats. The last 10 miles of the AT at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park is also famous for its elevation gain. Climbing from 1,088 feet to 5,268 feet over five miles requires climbing over boulders, scrambling near sheer faces and crossing a plateau notorious for wind. At the very end of the trek, it’s easy to see why many rate it as one of the top physical and mental challenges over the entire trail.
How many miles a day should you walk on the Appalachian Trail?
People hike around 8-10 per day on the Appalachian Trail, depending on your hiking pace. I spent a little longer than five months hiking the Appalachian Trail, a total of 2,189 miles from the south in Georgia to final terminus in Maine. Planning your stops for the night are important. The AT features on-trail, three-sided shelters located every 8-10 miles along its entirety. Some are shorter, such as five miles, or longer up to 15 miles. Gauging your ability to make the length from one shelter to the next will help decide the length of your hikes per day. For example, more challenging sections might require an earlier end to the day.
What do you eat on the Appalachian Trail?
What you eat on the Appalachian Trail depends on your packing skills, especially if you’re self supported, and your desire to hike out of the way to reach neighboring towns. Food resupplies are fortunately easy. Hikers on the AT can expect to reach a town at least every week, and often more frequently depending on the pace. The trail often crosses roads that lead into towns such as Hot Springs in North Carolina and Damascus in Virginia. I highly recommend stopping for fish and cheese that you can then keep as boosts while on the trail. Don’t miss a stop in the town of Hot Springs, North Carolina, for ice cream. It’s the pick me up you didn’t even know you needed.
Where do you sleep on the Appalachian Trail?
Camping and wooden trail shelters are found along the length of the Appalachian Trail keep hikers out of the elements. This Appalachian Trail campsites map shows where you can plan the stops along the way. A shelter is located along the trail every 8.5 miles. You might have to travel up to 0.5 miles off the trail. Shelters are also designed to sleep around eight people, which can be sleeping on the floor or in bunks. Shelters also usually provide a fire pit, picnic table and nearby water source.
Do you have to register to hike the Appalachian Trail?
Entrance fees and permits are required through sections of the Appalachian Trail moving through some state and national parks. Permits are required with a fee for camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s helpful to look at laws and regulations on the AT before setting out. Register for the thru-hike or on section hikes with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
If you’re ready to check out sections of the Appalachian Trail but don’t want to spend time planning out all the tricky logistics, consider hiring a hiking guide for a week, ten days, a month or the entire length of the trail. If you just need a little help getting started, a 10-day Appalachian Trail Preparation Course will get you started, then you’ll be set to take on the remainder of the thru-hike on your own.