Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but experiencing the east coast from Georgia to Maine on foot, was something I’ll never forget.
Pros and cons
A brief overview of the Appalachian Trail
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—traverses under tunnels of trees, along rocky ridgelines, over open summits and rolling balds, through 14 states, numerous state parks and National Forests, and three National Parks.
Each year, thousands of thru-hiker hopefuls flock to the AT, hoping to follow the white blazes end to end in one long push. 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.
Hikers on the AT can expect to reach a town at least every week, and often more frequently than that. This means that food resupplies are easy, with the trail often crossing roads that lead into towns, and sometimes even through towns like Hot Springs, North Carolina, or Damascus, Virginia.
Thru-hiking the entire AT is a lofty goal. In 2015, I took just over five months to hike the 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine, and spent around $6,000. I spent $1,500 on backpacking gear, and the rest went to on-trail expenses. I was lucky, and didn’t have to pay bills at home while I was gone, so I just had to make sure I had enough in the bank to pay for food resupplies, gear repairs and replacements, and lodging during town stops.
Accessibility and camping along the Appalachian Trail
The AT can be accessed from thousands of trailheads and road crossings. This interactive map from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is a good place to start. 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 AT is known for its on-trail three-sided shelters, located every 8-10 miles along the entire length of the trail. These shelters are listed in 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.
Highlights of the Appalachian Trail
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, 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.
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, and be sure to stop in the tiny town of Hot Springs for ice cream.
At over 500 trail miles, Virginia is the longest state on the AT, and has everything from long ridge climbs to iconic rock formations and overlooks. This state was a bit of a mind game for me, as 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, but that’s not even close to being true. 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. These three spots are better known as the Triple Crown of Virginia.
Grayson Highlands State Park is home to wild ponies who will happily approach hikers and try to chew backpack straps.
This is the fastest hiking on the AT. The trail through the Mid-Atlantic stays low in elevation, with 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 nonstop walking on rocks of all shapes and sizes—from pebble fields to softball-size ankle rollers, all the way to 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, and hikers can get their photo taken at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
The toughest — and most rewarding — hiking on the AT takes place in New England. New Hampshire is a fan favorite amongst thru-hikers, and 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 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 hiking around one mile per hour for much of Southern Maine, which is 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, with sweeping views, lush forest, and northbound hikers’ first glimpse of Mt. Katahdin. Once out of the 100-Mile Wilderness, it’s a cruiser day in Baxter State Park, followed by the triumphant summit of Katahdin.
Day hiking and section hiking
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 “Smokies” strike fear into the hearts of new thru-hikers, but they aren’t that bad. The AT runs just over 70 miles through this National Park, and is 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, Virginia
This can be done as a day hike or overnight for anyone looking to experience a night on the AT. McAfee Knob can be reached from a well-maintained parking lot near Catawba and is a pretty mellow 4.5-mile trail 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, Maine
Located in Baxter State Park, Katahdin is the longest climb on the Appalachian Trail, and is also the famous northern terminus of the entire trail. The peak is challenging and sections can feel exposed, so be prepared 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, New Hampshire
The expanse of the White Mountain National Forest spreads as far as the eye can see, and 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.