APPALACHIAN TRAIL – SUMMARY

The Appalachian Trail is a 2164 mile footpath that runs along the Appalachian Mountains from Maine to Georgia. The trail’s northern terminus is in Central Maine in Baxter State Park at Mt. Katahdin. The southern terminus is in North Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest at Springer Mountain. The Appalachian Trail (or AT as it is often called) crosses 14 states, 8 national forests, 6 units of the national park system, and 60 state park, forest, or game lands. It was the first footpath to be designated by Congress as a National Scenic Trail in 1968. It is now federally protected under the administrative jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of the Interior, but is primarily maintained and managed by the Appalachian Trail Conference. The ATC is a private and nonprofit organization which was formed on March 3, 1925 by Benton MacKaye and a small group of private citizens and public leaders. Their mission is to coordinate the numerous federal, state, and local agencies to manage the A.T. and its adjacent lands.

Thru-Hikers at Max's Patch in North CarolinaThe Appalachian Trail is marked for travel in both directions. The marks are white-paint blazes two inches wide and six inches high on trees (or poles) and rocks. Above timberline, a series of rock cairns identifies the route. In some areas, diamond-shaped A.T. metal markers are found. Two blazes, one above the other, signal an obscure turn, route change, incoming side trail, or other situation that requires hiker alertness.

More than 200 three-sided shelters are located along the Appalachian Trail. Most shelters (or lean-to’s) are spaced about 7-14 miles apart. They are occupied on a first-come first-serve basis, but some areas like the Great Smoky and Shenandoah National Park and White Mountain National Forest have special regulations. Check our links to the left for more details.

A thru-hike (or walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in a single year) is a major challenge. The ATC reports that annually about 1500-2000 people start from the northern or southern terminus. Only about 300 finish each year. If you’re seriously considering a thru-hike, one of the first decisions you must make is to go north or southbound.

Northbound hikers need to be aware that freezing rain and snow can fall in the Georgia mountains until early April, and even later in the Smokies. If you want to avoid crowds, snow, and lots of cold, rainy days, you should plan on starting in the second half of April or early May. This might put you on a tight schedule, however, since Baxter State Park in Maine closes October 15. Overcrowding has become a problem on the southern end of the Trail in late winter. Popular start dates are March 1, March 15, April 1 and any weekend in between. It is not uncommon to see twenty or more thru-hikers at Springer Mountain during these times. Shelters fill up early in the day, and sometimes all designated campsites are taken.

For southbound hikers, the Maine Appalachian Trail Club and Baxter State Park recommend a start date of July 1. Before that time, The view to Mt Washington from Lakes of the Clouds Hutyou’ll face a number of obstacles: ferocious bugs, lingering snow at higher elevations, blowdowns, high water at stream crossings, wet and muddy trail. The footpath is also more fragile and sustains more damage when you hike under these conditions. A southbound hike will allow more solitude, but will “breaking you in” on the most rugged part of the Trail. A Maine-to-Georgia hike also requires you to traverse the 100-Mile Wilderness (the longest section of the Trail between resupply points) on the first leg of your trek. In many ways it’s a tougher hike than a northbound thru-hike. Fewer than 300 people have completed the A.T. southbound.


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