The Appalachian Trail, often referred to as the A.T., is an iconic long-distance hiking trail which runs for approximately 2,200 miles between Springer Mountain, Georgia and Mount Katahdin, Maine in the American East. There are few hiking trails in the world that are more iconic, and the Appalachian Trail thru hike - completing the entire route in one season - is attempted by around 3000 people each year, though the number who hike a small part each year runs well into the millions.
Though the Appalachian Trail record is a remarkable 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes (run by Karel Sabbe in 2018), most people take between five and seven months. After all, what’s the rush? The scenery is wonderfully diverse, as you’d expect from a trail which passes through 14 states, and the community element of the A.T. is famously strong. As Bill Bryson wrote in A Walk in the Woods, his landmark book on walking the Appalachian Trail, "You become an informal clump, a loose and sympathetic affiliation of people from different age groups and walks of life but all experiencing the same weather, same discomforts, same landscapes, same eccentric impulse to hike to Maine."
In this guide to the Appalachian Trail, we’re going to look at how to hike the A.T. and delve into the details: from the route to the history and culture of the trail.
Appalachian Trail Distance | How Long is the Appalachian Trail?
How long is the Appalachian Trail? It’s the natural first question to ask before you commit to doing the entire thru hike. Well, the answer is that the Appalachian Trail route comes in around the 2,200 mile mark (3,500km). The length of the trail actually changes each year due to path relocations, but it tends to be a little bit under 2,200 - not that that’ll make much difference. We imagine if you’re prepared to do a 2,181-mile trek, you’re also prepared to do a 2,200-mile trek.
As we mentioned in the introduction, most people take five-seven months, with the average being around the six month mark. Now let’s look at the details of the Appalachian Trail route.
Appalachian Trail Route | 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine
The route of the Appalachian Trail weaves, winds, rises and falls through the east of America and the Appalachian Mountain Range. The states that the route passes through are, in order: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and finally, Maine. There are various ways to hike the Appalachian Trail. The most common is northbound, from Georgia to Maine.
Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Northbound
The official Appalachian Trail start point is Springer Mountain in Georgia, if you’re going to follow the traditional route and head north to Maine. You may sometimes see northern thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail described as NOBO hikers - which is simply a fun, quick way of saying they’re northern bound.
From Georgia, you'll start from Springer Mountain and head 79 miles north, peaking at Blood Mountain at 4,461ft. You'll next pass through North Carolina for 96 miles, taking on demanding climbs and reaching over 6,500ft through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (which you’ll require a permit to visit). Eventually, you’ll come to the state border with Tennessee at Doe Knob.
From here, you're going to spend the next 300-odd miles crossing back and forth between the two states until you get to Virginia. Watch out for brown bears in the Smokies, where you’ll likely be spending around a stunning week of your hike.
Virginia is the state with the longest section of the Appalachian Trail. There are over 550 miles in the state (a quarter of the trail), so it'll take you around a month to get through it. It is home to McAfee Knob though - one of the most iconic spots on the entire trail, as well as the scenic Shenandoah National Park.
You'll then get back to checking off state lines when you cross over into West Virginia... and then leave again four miles later! Harpers Ferry town is the symbolic midway point of the Appalachian Trail, so get your motivation reignited, regain some strength, and head onwards - it’s over into Maryland next.
Near the capital of Washington DC, the 41-mile Maryland section of the A.T. is particularly popular. You get folk taking on the “Maryland challenge” - trying to complete the route in one day - and those who choose to hike the trail over a weekend from the city, as well as the thru hikers. The terrain is rolling and the views of the famous Potomac River from Weverton Cliffs are just stunning.
Make your way through other trail highlights including the Annapolis Rocks, and you'll get to Pennsylvania, a state many Appalachian Trail thru hikers dread. The 229 miles of Pennsylvania are rocky. Real rocky. In particular, the northern part of the state. Eventually you'll reach the 72-miles of New Jersey, passing some beautiful lakes, and reach New York State.
Here, you've got 90 miles ahead. You'll get to some of the big trail landmarks and take on some of the best hikes in New York State, like the tight Lemon Squeezer rocks and the summit of Bear Mountain, then Bear Mountain suspension bridge, crossing the Hudson River.
The 51-miles of Connecticut will take you to the Massachusetts border. In Massachusetts you've got 91 miles, and that includes stunning views as you ascend Mount Race. You'll also go up Mount Everett, which, if you say it quickly enough, can fool people into thinking you've been up Mount Everest, and then it's 150 miles of stunning Vermont on the Long Trail, which views like that from Camel Hump below.
This section includes Stratton Mountain, Killington Peak and just a whole lot of beauty. It's a real highlight, and the greenery and forests of New Hampshire offer similar beauty for 160 miles.
Make it to the end of that stage, and you've hit the border of Maine, and got your final 282 miles ahead of you, from Mount Success to Katahdin - the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Completing any one section of the A.T. is impressive. Completing it all? Well, that's a life changing experience.
When to Hike the Appalachian Trail Northbound?
Most people start in March or April, hiking in winter conditions during the beginning and progressing - at time through snow - until the Spring hits. You'll have good temperatures in New England and cold in New Hampshire and Maine.
Appalachian Trail Thru Hike Alternatives
As well as hiking the Appalachian Trail northbound, or NOBO, there are several other options. Here are a couple of the most popular, including flip-flop hiking the route (we'll explain what that means below), and going southbound, or SOBO:
Flip-Flop Thru Hiking the Appalachian Trail
First and foremost, no, flip-flop hiking does not mean that you should hike the Appalachian Trail in flip-flops. Bad things will happen if you do that. Flip-flop hiking simply means that instead of hiking the entire trail from the southern starting point in Georgia to Maine in the north, or vice versa, you pick a point in the middle, and hike the trail from there, and then return to finish the other trail section, or sections, afterwards.
The benefits of picking a flip-flop route are that you can get milder weather throughout, finish the trail over a longer period of time should you like, and start on more accessible terrain and work your way into the trail. Due to these reasons, this is becoming one of the most popular ways to hike the Appalachian Trail - and it helps to preserve the route too by avoiding overcrowding.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy have some great resources on hiking the trail, not least on flip-flop routes. One of the most popular options for flip-flop thru hikers is to start in Harpers Ferry, in mid-April or May and head north to Katahdin, then return to Harpers Ferry and head south to Springer.
When to Hike the Appalachian Trail Flip-Flop?
If you're going for the most popular flip-flop thru hike route, starting in Harpers Ferry, you'll start in mid-April to mid-May. This way you'll have the longest window of mild weather possible on the A.T. You'll reach Katahdin in August, then return to Harpers Ferry near Labor Day, and finish your thru hike by heading south to reach Springer Mountain around November. A great option!
Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Southbound
Take the route from Georgia to Maine and flip it on its head! That said, this is considered to be the tough route. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy "recommend starting in Maine only if you have considerable experience backpacking on the A.T. in Maine or New Hampshire or similarly challenging terrain." You begin with the hardest part of the trail first - literally climbing up Katahdin, possibly the toughest ascent on the Appalachian Trail on day one.
When to Hike the Appalachian Trail Southbound?
You actually can’t hike the A.T. south earlier than June officially, because the Appalachian Trail Conservancy don't allow people to register thru hikes until June 1 - the Katahdin trails often don't open till this date - and you don’t really want to go later, because waiting until July would mean adding another month of winter hiking onto your trek.
Hiking the trail southbound thus means a whole lot of high water, mud and irritating insects along the way. Then, by the time winter hits, you’ll be in the high mountains of the south too. So, basically, if you’re planning on being a SOBO hiker… good luck!
Appalachian Trail Shelters | Where to Stay While Hiking the A.T.
You’ll find that there are three main options when it comes to sleeping on the Appalachian Trail. You can wild camp, you can stay in a shelter, of which there are many, or you can fork out and treat yourself to a comfy mattress in a trail town.
There are an abundance of campsites and shelters (usually three-sided, wooden structures built and maintained by volunteers). In order to keep costs down, it’s a good idea to make use of them. How much you spend on the Appalachian Trail completely depends on your eating and sleeping preferences, but it can be anywhere from hundreds to a few thousand each month, so you're probably going to be looking to save a bit of cash wherever you can.
It's also worth noting, even if you're a millionaire, often a shelter or tent will be your only option. The shelters usually fill up pretty quickly in bad weather, as they don’t tend to be huge - but they will normally have campsites nearby or directly around them. Of course, one of the important things to remember is to leave no trace when camping on the A.T. (or, you know, anywhere else for that matter).
Appalachian Trail History | How Old is the Route?
The full name of the Appalachian Trail is actually the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, though that’s an awful big mouthful, hence the nickname A.T.
The idea for the trail came from Benton MacKaye, a forester who dreamed of connecting points along the Appalachian Mountain, from Mount Washington in New Hampshire to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. His idea was eventually published in the New York Evening Post, and by 1923, the first section, which ran from Bear Mountain west to Arden, New York was opened.
Later, a retired judge named Arthur Perkins and an associate, Myron Avery, became champions of the trail, and got various states involved. After Perkins died, Avery became the first person to walk (not thru hike) the full, although uncompleted trail, in 1936. The trail wasn't completed until 14 August 1937, in Maine, when the final link was added to what was then, a 2054-mile trail.
Earl Shaffer was the first person to walk the A.T. in one continuous thru hike, doing so over 124 days, from 4 April 1948 onwards. Having served during World War II, Shaffer said that he wanted to "walk the army out of [his] system.” That said, upon completion, Shaffer also said "I almost wished that the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length."
Appalachian Trail Conservancy | Who Maintains the Trail?
The mission of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy's is to protect, manage, and advocate for the A.T. When registering a thru hike (not essential but a great way to help avoid congestion on the trail), these are the people that you register with. The ATC work with National Park Services, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies and a whole lot of trail-maintaining clubs and volunteers in order to protect the Appalachian Trail.
3 of the Best Books About the Appalachian Trail
So, you’ve reached the finale of our great guide to the Appalachian Trail but still fancy more reading? Wow, sounds like you really are committed to this after all. Maybe you might just go on to join the legendary club of 2000-milers that have finished a thru hike on the route.
Naturally for such a popular, and long-distance route, a lot has been written about the A.T. Here are just a few selections of great books set on the trail. They’ll give you an idea of what it’s really like to hike the Appalachian Trail - beyond the facts, stats and details.
- A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson - This is the quintessential, and most famous Appalachian Trail book (must to the annoyance of those who like to point out that Mr. Bryson didn’t even trek the full A.T. but a mere 800-off miles). It's beautifully written, and captures not only the terrain and feel of “trail magic” but the people you meet on the way. | Bookshop.org
- The Unlikely Thru-hiker: An Appalachian Trail Journey, Derick Lugo - A hilarious story of an inexperienced hiker who steps out of his comfort zone and does something that is truly extraordinary. There are many incredibly serious (to the point of dull) takes on the Appalachian Trail book. This... is not one of them. A fantastic read which is humorous and entertaining throughout. | Wordery.com
- Becoming Odyssa, Jennifer Phar Davis - A classic story, told very well. After graduating from college, Jennifer Phar Davis isn’t sure what she wants to do, so, naturally, she decides to hike the A.T. This book documents the tough moments, the beautiful moments, the people of the trail, and the personal transformation. “The scenic vistas of North Carolina and Tennessee make you feel like you're looking at a work of art,” she writes, “but crossing through the rural countryside of southwest Virginia and caressing the tall grass with your fingertips, you feel like you're part of the painting." | Bookshop.org
Inspired? Well, the Appalachian Trail isn't the only long-distance hiking route out there. Browse our Big Adventures collection now!
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