APPALACHIAN TRAIL - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


Georgia to Maine, USA

Distance: 3,476 km

Grade: Easy to Strenuous

Time: 5-7 months

They call it the ‘long, green tunnel’, a never-ending canopy of green that envelops you, disorientates you, that even can prevent you from seeing where you are. The Appalachian Trail (AT), given its shape by half a billion years of geology, begins - or ends, as most prefer to hike it south to north - at Springer Mountain in Georgia and ends almost 3,500 km northeast at Mount Katahdin in the New England state of Maine. It is one of the celebrated ‘Triple Crowns’ of American long distance hikes, along with the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. And it is by far the most revered. Millions walk at least a section of it every year, and each year around 2,000 people set out to conquer it in a ‘thru-hike’. Nine out of ten don’t make it.

The trail was first born in the mind of Benton MacKaye, the great American forester and conservationist who first thought of it, he said, while sitting in a tree on Vermont’s Stratton Mountain. MacKaye had long dreamt of creating a practical refuge for America’s urban populations, and was inspired by the success of Vermont’s Long Trail, built over 20 years from 1910 to 1930 by Vermont’s Green Mountain Club. MacKaye then wrote a paper on the proposed new trail in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. His idea was quick to evolve, and it has since become America’s most-trodden footpath.

Springer Mountain, an area of Georgia that has never been forested because of its boulder-strewn soil, is, in many ways, an ideal place for the trail to officially begin. But it can be a heartbreaking start for the novice who will likely sign in at the visitor centre at Amicalola Falls - only to be told the official Springer Mountain starting point is almost 13 km away on a gradual ascent. One Appalachian myth says you can arrive here with nothing on your back, and by the time you’ve walked your first few kilometres you will have managed to fully equip yourself with everything you need by just picking through all the abandoned gear you’ll be stepping over. Well, it’s not quite that bad …

The Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937. It passes through fourteen states, has an accumulated gain/loss of an astonishing 464,500 ft (there are some flat areas on the trail, but they are few and far between), receives 3 million visitors a year, and follows, as the name suggests, the Appalachian Mountains, a system of mountains that includes their surrounding hills and a region of dissected plateau that runs from the Canadian province/island of Newfoundland southwest all the way to Central Alabama. It is filled with a bounty of deciduous trees: yellow buckeye, sugar maple, American beech, white ash, yellow birch, red maple and hickory, with an understorey of flowering dogwoods, witch-hazel and bloodroot. There’s a purpose-built shelter - the so-called ‘lean-tos’ - every eight miles on average, which means it’s feasible to hike the AT without carrying a tent. The shelters are free, too, and the fact you don’t require a tent means you’re carrying less weight, a blessing on a trail that is often heavily rock-strewn. Which brings to mind another thru-hiker joke: that if you happen to lose the trail, don’t despair. Just look for the rocks and you’ll be fine.

And it is a ‘trail of statistics’, unlike any other. In any given year over 6,000 volunteers from more than 30 Appalachian Trail clubs will give up over 200,000 hours repairing trails and maintaining shelters; if you’re soaking wet with a 32-lb pack you’ll burn 450 calories in an hour; toilets cannot be dug closer than 200 ft from the trail and must be at least six inches deep; it’ll take you 285,700 steps to travel 125 miles; and the trail crosses a road on average every four miles.

It’s impossible to provide a detailed route description for a trail this long. It scales the summit of Georgia’s Blood Mountain (4,461 ft), passes through the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee, and traverses the West Virginia/Virginia border before arriving at its half-way point at historic Harper’s Ferry. It runs below the ridgeline of Maryland’s South Mountain, a northern extension of the Blue Ridge range, threads the needle through the Delaware Water Gap on the Pennsylvania/New Jersey border, and crosses New York’s Hudson River. In Connecticut it follows the ridges above the Housatonic River, passes through Massachusetts’ Berkshire County and the Green Mountains of Vermont, and climbs 17 of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-footers. Finally, it enters Maine, fording dozens of icy rivers and streams, goes headlong through Maine’s ‘Hundred-Mile Wilderness’ - the trail’s wildest traverse - and ends at Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park.



Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli

But what makes this trail so extraordinary isn’t the pathway or the views - it is the people you meet along the way. The AT teaches you how to be vulnerable, how to ask for assistance from strangers when you need it, and to share experiences with people you do not know. Coming here in winter will draw you away from all the things you consider are comfortable. Sections might only be completed thanks to the intervention and grace of strangers. You’ll likely hitchhike at some point to get from the trail to a town in order to buy supplies. ‘Hostel owners’ are the trail’s angels, sharing their homes with hikers and asking for little in return.

There are little vignettes along the AT that you’ll never forget. The ‘rollercoaster’ is a 14.5-mile section in Virginia with a highly compacted series of ‘ups and downs’ over about eleven adjacent hills for a total elevation gain of 5,000 ft. The Webster Cliff Trail in New Hampshire will sap your energy as you climb over two strenuous miles for the privilege of standing atop a line of forbidding cliffs that look more like fortress walls, overlooking the hamlet of Crawford Notch. And then there’s arguably the trail’s finest ridge walk - 14 miles along Tennessee’s remote Iron Mountain on narrow, graded paths and old logging roads.

But whether it’s the wilderness you conquer, the tribulations you endure, or the angels you meet along the way with their all-you-can-eat dinners, the Appalachian Trail has the capacity to change lives. It is so much more than just a walk in the woods. To use it is to connect with nature, and with each other.

It is a journey.