It’s commonly referred to as the “A.T.,” and it’s a monster of a trail. The Appalachian Trail is the longest continuous hiking-only footpath in the world. It traverses over 2,000 miles of wilderness from Georgia to Maine. It covers far more than the Appalachian Mountain range; in fact, it passes through fourteen different states, including ten of the thirteen original American colonies. Most hikers from the eastern U.S. have hiked on at least a small section of the A.T., but (and this should surprise no one) few have completed the whole thing.
The Origin Story
The Appalachian Trail was dreamed up by a gentleman named Benton Mckaye, who supposedly thought up the idea while sitting in a tree in Vermont’s Green Mountains. An avid outdoorsman and naturalist, Benton dreamed up an agrarian community connected by the Appalachian Trail and a handful of shared values. He envisioned a community marked by off-grid living and self-sufficiency, American trademarks that were already becoming rare in the 1920’s. He wrote a formal proposal for the trail which was published in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in October 1921.
Though Benton Mckaye didn’t end up seeing the idea through to completion, his erstwhile friend, Myron Avery, would become the head of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and bulldoze his way through the bureaucracy and red tape necessary to actually get the A.T. cleared from Georgia to Maine. The result wasn’t the utopian community Mckaye dreamed of, but it was a 2,000-mile-long hiking trail that would end up bringing thousands of people into the wilderness.
Ups and Downs Along the Way
The trail has a lot of ups and downs. Literally. Though the highest peak on the A.T. is a modest 6,643 feet above sea level (at Clingman’s Dome in the Smokies, a very popular segment of the trail for locals), the constant ups and downs along the trail’s length add up to more than 300,000 feet in elevation gain.
The history of the trail has had plenty of ups and downs, as well. Although Myron Avery would forge the initial trail’s route, it hasn’t always been possible to through-hike the entire route. At different periods of time, sections of the trail were closed to make way for vehicular parkways. Eventually, the AT was rerouted to provide a through-hiking path once again.
Thru-Hiking the A.T.
Completing the entire trail from start to finish (or from finish to start, if you take the north-to-south route) is a relatively recent phenomenon. During the trail’s early years, it was enjoyed in sections by people local to areas through which the trail passed. The first individual to through-hike the entire trail was a WWII veteran named Earl Shaffer, who completed the trail in 1937. He said he wanted a hike long enough to “walk the Army out of my system,” and the A.T. fit the bill. After Schaffer, thousands would go on to through-hike the A.T.
In modern days, about 3,000 people start with the intention of through-hiking the A.T. each year, but only about 1/4 of those hikers finish the trail. Most end up dropping out due to injury, fatigue, or unfavorable weather conditions. Many people complete the A.T. by section hiking–completing one section at a time, with breaks in between.
The A.T. isn’t just for elite endurance hikers. People of all ages and abilities have completed it over the years, some with stunning stories to tell:
- The current record-holder for A.T. hiking speed is Karel Sabbe from Belgium. He hiked the entire A.T. in 41 days, but he had a support team to provide supplies along the way. The fastest unsupported hiker, Joe McConaughy, completed the trail in just 45 days. Most through-hikers finish the trail in five or six months.
- Most through-hikers pick up a “trail name” somewhere along the way–or choose one for themselves at the start of their odyssey, preferring to leave their real name back at home.
- Thousands of “trail angels” volunteer to help maintain the A.T., maintain shelters along the way, and provide support for through-hikers as they traverse the Trail each year.
- Multiple books have been written about thru-hiking the A.T. The most famous (and funny) is Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, which was also made into a major motion picture in 2015.
- The youngest individual ever to complete the A.T. was five-year-old Harvey Sutton, who completed the trail with his family. His trial name was “Little Man.”
Thinking about hitting a section of the A.T. during your Smoky Mountain vacation? Clingman’s Dome is a great place to visit, and you’ll be able to brag that you hiked the highest peak on the entire trail. Other easier sections of the trail are also accessible in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
*Thru-Hiking – the act of hiking an established long-distance trail from end-to-end continuously.