What is the Appalachian Trail?

The Appalachian trail is 2190(ish) miles long and crosses through 14 states – Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland,Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. It is divided into 4 sections: the Southern Mountains, the Virginia Highlands, the Mid-Atlantic Lowlands, and New England. I say ‘ish’ because, as with all long distance trails, the exact distance varies from year to year because of re-routing, environmental factors and other stuff which affects the trail – and it is estimated that about 99% of the entire trail has been either relocated or rebuilt since its completion as a continuous footpath in 1937

The AT was first proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a former forester and newspaper editor. He hoped the trail would be a way for people to escape city life and reconnect with wilderness. It was thought that people would hike south but the first and second people to hike the trail went north and everyone else followed suit, resulting in around 90% of people attempting the trail each year going northbound and only a few people attempting a southbound hike. Like most trails only about one quarter of people attempting a thru hike will succeed.

How does it compare to other trails?

I don’t like to compare trails, trying to say if one is harder than the other. All trails are different and bring with them their own unique set of difficulties. But there are some basic stats that can highlight some of the more factual differences.

Appalachian Trail (AT)
Established: 1937
Distance: 2,199.7 miles
Elevation gain: 478,274 feet
Elevation loss: 474,837.5 feet
Grade: 433.3 feet per mile

Pacific Crest Trail (PCT)
Established: 1968
Distance: 2,652.6 miles
Elevation gain: 461,668.3 feet
Elevation loss: 460,335.7 feet
Grade: 347.6 feet per mile

Te Araroa (TA)
Established: 2011
Distance: 1,889.3 miles
Elevation gain: 289,117.8 feet
Elevation loss: 289,599.4 feet
Grade: 306.3 feet per mile

While there is a very similar amount of up and down on the PCT and the AT – on both trails you will climb the equivalent of Mt Everest 16 times, the AT is nearly 500 miles shorter that the PCT so this means that the climbs will be steeper, climbing nearly 100ft per mile extra.
On paper it looks as though the TA should be ‘easier’ than the PCT, but walking those distances is never easy.

State by state

Georgia

79 Miles
High point: 4461′

Unlike the PCT, when after 1700 miles you are still in California, you finish your first state after only 79 miles. I am certain that this will be beneficial mentally as you have so many more milestones to tick off.

March and April are some of the busiest times with people starting the trail so I am hoping that a May start will mean I avoid some of the crowds. I can see from the ATC (Appalachian Train Conservancy) website that between March 1st and April 10th there are between 30 and 50 people starting the trail each day – and that’s only the people who have taken the time to register.

North Carolina

95.7 miles
(plus 224.7 miles following the Tennessee / North Carolina border)
High point: 5498′

Home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the most visited national park in the United States, so aside from the billions of people I have high hopes for this area. It is the only area of the AT that requires a permit.

I really wanted Smokey the Bear to have some association with this park but it turns out that he was established in New Mexico somewhere, but I am certain that I will be able to pick up an awesome patch to add to my national park patch collection.

Tennessee

94 miles
High point: 6625′

Also home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, because the trail follows the border of Tennessee and North Carolina for quite a long time.

One of the big differences between the PCT and the AT is the number of shelters. There are over 250 shelters on the AT and some people even manage to hike the whole trial without carrying a tent. It averages as there being a shelter every 8 miles, but of course they aren’t evenly spaced out every 8 miles so you have to be prepared to hike more than 30 miles between shelters.

Shelters can be good but they can also be gross and outbreaks of norovirus have been known in past years. I worry about how clean they are going to be coming into it late in the season and I will probably camp whenever possible.

Virginia

554 miles
High point: 5500′

The longest state! This is going to feel long after checking off three states so quickly. And it is the home of Shenandoah National Park and McAfee Knob, where everyone wants to get that picture standing on a precariously overhanging rock.

West Virginia

4 miles
High point: 1200′

The trail barely skims West Virginia, but the all important, unofficial, almost-halfway point is here. From what I can see, it isn’t quite half way but the Appalachian Trail Conservancy HQ is here and it marks a significant psychological halfway point on the trail.

Maryland

41 miles
High point: 1880′

As you leave Maryland and head into Pennsylvania you cross the Mason-Dixon Line. Of interest to me simply because my surname is Mason! A little research tells me that it was originally used in a resolution of a dispute between borders, and it later became known as the border between the north and the south. After that it served as a demarcation line for the legality of slavery – legal in the South, illegal in the North. The term Dixie, which is a term used to describe the southern states also came from the Mason-Dixon Line.

Pennsylvania

229 miles.
High point: 2080′

The half way point is in Pennsylvania (or PA as the locals call it). A tradition has developed over the years where hikers will take on the challenge to eat a half gallon tub (~2 litres) of ice cream. That’s the equivalent of eating 4 tubs of Ben and Jerrys.

At first I though I could do that no problem, then I realised that I struggle to get through just one tub of Ben and Jerrys, so realistically I would say there is no chance of me eating half a gallon of ice cream.

New Jersey

72 miles
High point: 1685′

You are most likely to see a Black Bear in New Jersey as it has the highest population density of both Black Bears and Humans in the US. Between 1971 and 2010 it was illegal to hunt a bear so their population boomed.

You may think bears are the most worrying thing on the trail but that’s not so. You are more likely to get ‘attacked’ by a tick (ticks are gross), and ticks carry Lyme disease which I really don’t want to get. Detected early enough Lyme disease can me treated with antibiotics, but left untreated it can cause symptoms similar to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and you’ve then got it for life.

New York

90 miles
High point: 1433′

I couldn’t find any really interesting facts about New York state – other than having to negotiate the lemon squeezer, a narrow gap between the rocks which I hope I’ll be skinny enough to fit through by the time I reach here – so I decided to look at some of the notable names in the history of the AT.

The ATC estimates that around half of thru hikers are in their 20s, around 29% are women – an increase from 15% between the 1930s-1980s – around 19 thousand people have hiked all the miles of the AT – only 50 of those people are over 70, with the oldest person aged 82.

In 1948, Earl V. Shaffer became the first to report a thru-hike. He chose to start in Georgia so he could, as he said, “walk north with spring.” In 1965, he hiked again – this time from Maine to Georgia. On his third thru-hike, 50 years after his first, he became the oldest thru-hiker at age 79, until he was beaten by the 82 year old!

I’ve not put this out into the world yet but I’m just going to sneak it in here. I’ve already hiked the PCT in both directions, how about I just go ahead and hike the others in both directions too…

The most badass woman in all of hiking history has to be Emma Gatewood, better known as Grandma Gatewood. A mother of 11 children and grandmother of 23, she was 67 when she first hiked the Trail in 1955. In 1957, she completed her second thru-hike at age 69. In 1964, she became the first person to complete the AT three times when she finished a section-hike. She wore Kids tennis shoes, carried an army blanket, a raincoat, and a plastic shower curtain in a homemade denim bag slung over one shoulder. She would later say “For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find.”

Bad. Ass.

Connecticut

51 miles
High point: 2316′

My first thought when I saw that Connecticut was ‘only’ 51 miles was – I bet there are some people who try and hike that in one day, and sure enough a little Google time told me that the Connecticut challenge is a thing. It is unlikely to be a challenge I will try.

A common resupply town is Salisbury, and with Salisbury being my hometown in England and having visited Salisbury in South Australia, I may not be able to pass this opportunity up.

Massachusetts

91 miles
High point: 3491′

In 2017, speed hiker Joe ‘Stringbean’ McConaughy set a new Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the AT, beating all round badass Heather “Anish” Anderson’s self-supported record, and the supported record, with a time of 45 days, 12 hours, 15 minutes.

This means with an average pace of 50 miles per day he would have reached Massachusetts (1,507 miles) in just 30 days.

Madness.

Vermont

150 miles
High point: 4010′

I think, by the time I get here, the green tunnel will have turned into the the red and orange and yellow tunnel, and I am really looking forward to seeing those New England Autumn colours. Unlike the PCT the AT actually summits a lot of peaks, which will be nice (on the way down).

New Hampshire

161 miles
High point: 6288′

This is the state where you can find Mt Lafayette. Anyone familiar with my hike on the Te Araroa in New Zealand will know that we spent a long time approaching the town of Hamilton, which lead to many hours learning the lyrics to ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from the popular Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, Hamilton. (Which I still haven’t seen so if anyone wants to take me…)

I only know a handful of the songs but one of them – Guns and Ships – repeats the word Lafayette a lot – He’s constantly confusin’ confoundin’ the British henchmen, Everyone give it up for America’s favourite fighting Frenchman…Lafayette! – So of course that is what will be going through my head the whole way.

The song is insanely fast but at least I will have a couple of thousand miles to practice it!

Maine

282 miles
High point: 5267′

Home to the 100 mile wilderness, which I understand may sound intimidating for some, but 100 miles of wilderness without resupply doesn’t sound that far anymore!

Saving the hardest part until last – and this is probably the only reason that I am glad I am going northbound – the climb of Mt Katahdin is said to be the hardest climb of the whole trail. I am not a fan of climbing, and I know I still won’t be a fan of climbing by the time I have got here, but I love being at the top!


My first plan was to just rock up without much research or planning. I know there are way more towns than on the PCT so resupply won’t be difficult and water is readily available meaning I won’t have to carry more than a litre for the most part, but it turns out that I like to make a plan and I like to make a really good looking spreadsheet!


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