Footpath, Appalachian Mountains, U.S. Extending over 2,000 mi (3,200 km) from Mount Katahdin, Maine, to Springer Mountain, Georgia, along the crest of the mountains, the trail passes through 14 states, 8 national forests, and 2 national parks. Hikers and volunteers maintain the shelters and campsites. The trail's highest point is Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft [2,025 m]) in the Great Smoky Mountains. With its first section opened in 1923, the trail was completed in 1937 and became part of the National Trail System established by the U.S. Congress in 1968.
Learn more about Appalachian National Scenic Trail with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail or simply The A.T., is a marked hiking trail in the eastern United States, extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine. It is approximately long. The path is maintained by thirty trail clubs and multiple partnerships. The majority of the trail is in wilderness, although some portions do traverse towns and roads, and cross rivers.
The Appalachian Trail is famous for its many hikers, some of whom, called thru-hikers, attempt to hike it in its entirety in a single season. Earl Shaffer was the first to do so. Many books, memoirs, web sites and fan organizations are dedicated to this pursuit.
Along the way, the trail passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. An extension, the International Appalachian Trail, continues north into Canada and to the end of the range, where it enters the North Atlantic Ocean.
On October 7, 1923, the first section of the trail, from Bear Mountain west through Harriman State Park to Arden, New York, was opened. MacKaye then called for a two-day Appalachian Trail conference to be held in March 1925 in Washington, D.C. This resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Trail Conference organization, though little progress was made on the trail for several years.
At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, a retired judge named Arthur Perkins and his younger associate Myron Avery took up the cause. Avery, who soon took over the ATC, adopted the more practical goal of building a simple hiking trail. He and MacKaye clashed over the ATC's response to a major commercial development along the trail's path; MacKaye left the organization, while Avery was willing to simply reroute the trail.
Avery became the first to walk the trail end-to-end, though not as a thru-hike, in 1936. In August 1937, the trail was completed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine, and the ATC shifted its focus toward protecting the trail lands and mapping the trail for hikers. From 1938 to the end of World War II, the trail suffered a series of natural and man-made setbacks. At the end of the war, the damage to the trail was repaired.
In 1948, Earl Shaffer of York, Pennsylvania, brought a great deal of attention to the project by completing the first documented thru-hike. (In 1994, a story appeared in the Appalachian Trailway News describing a 121-day Maine to Georgia thru-hike in 1936 by six Boy Scouts from the Bronx. The story has been accepted by some individual members of ALDHA, though a great deal of doubt has also been expressed; this earlier thru-hike has never been verified or accepted by any responsible hiking organization or group; therefore, Shaffer's 1948 journey is still universally recognized as the first A.T. thru-hike. )
In the 1960s, the ATC made progress toward protecting the trail from development, thanks to many sympathetic politicians and officials. The National Trails System Act of 1968 paved the way for a series of National Scenic Trails within the National Park and National Forest systems. Trail volunteers worked with the National Park Service to map a permanent route for the trail, and by 1971 a permanent route had been marked (though minor changes continue to this day). By the close of the 20th century, the Park Service had completed the purchase of all but a few miles of the trail's span.
The Appalachian Trail should not be confused with the International Appalachian Trail, a extension, running north from Maine into New Brunswick and Quebec, that is a separate trail, not an official extension of the Appalachian Trail. An extension of the International Appalachian Trail, to Newfoundland, is still under construction.
In 2008, the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama was connected to the southern terminum of the Appalachian Trail.
Other hazards include venomous snakes, including the Eastern timber rattlesnake and copperhead, which are common along the trail. Both snakes are generally found in drier, rockier sections of the trail; the copperhead's range extends north to around the New Jersey-New York state line, while rattlesnakes are commonly found along the trail in Connecticut and have been reported, although rarely, as far north as New Hampshire. Other large fauna include deer; elk, reintroduced in the Smoky Mountains; and moose, which live as far south as Massachusetts but are more commonly seen in Maine.
For most hikers, the most persistent pests along the trail are mice and bugs. Mice inhabit shelters and are a greater threat to hiker food than bears. The bugs are a persistent hazard, but are particularly bad in the northern stretches of the trail. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York have notoriously bad mosquitoes, but the worst section of the trail for bugs is in the lowlands of Maine. The northern hardwood and boreal forest of Maine is perfect for mosquitoes and tiny, pesky black flies to breed. Numerous lakes, rivers, and streams provide the perfect habitat for biting insects to breed and hatch, especially in late spring and early summer.
There is a drastic change between the lowland and subalpine, evergreen forest, as well as another, higher break, at treeline, above which only hardy alpine plants grow. The sub-alpine region is far more prevalent along the trail than true alpine conditions. While it mainly exists in the north, a few mountains in the south have subalpine environments. These include the Great Smoky Mountains, where sub-alpine environments only begin around in elevation, the Unaka and Roan Ranges on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, where sub-alpine growth descends below , and Mount Rogers and the Grayson Highlands in Virginia, where there is some alpine growth above . Some high mountains in the south are also balds, due to fires or grazing in recent centuries, or perhaps due to thin, sandy soils. Several balds are sprouting trees, and on some, the National Forest service actually mows the grasses periodically in order to keep the bald open. Mostly in the mid summer to late fall.
In Maine, the trail extends in to even harsher environments, and sub-alpine and alpine growth descends to lower elevations. Alpine growth in the state ranges from around in the Mahoosuc Range to below in parts of the 100-Mile Wilderness, where nearly every area higher than is evergreen forest. These forests include more species of evergreen, as well. In addition to the white pine, spruce and hemlock prevalent further south, Maine has many cedar trees along the trail. Near the northern terminus, there are even some tamarack, a coniferous, pine-needled deciduous tree, which provides displays of yellow in the late fall after the birches and maples have gone bare. The hemlocks in Maine are also notable, as the woolly adelgid, which has ravaged populations further south, has not come into the state yet, and may be unable to make it so far north due to the cold climate.
Maine also has several alpine regions. In addition to several areas of the Mahoosuc range, the Baldpates, and Old Blue in southern Maine have alpine characteristics despite elevations below . Saddleback Mountain and Mount Bigelow, further north, each only extend a bit above , but have long alpine areas, with no tree growth on the summits and unobstructed views on clear days. From Mount Bigelow, the trail extends for with only a small area of alpine growth around on the summit of White Cap Mountain. Mount Katahdin, the second largest alpine environment in the eastern United States, has several square miles of alpine area on the flat "table land" summit as well as the cliffs and aretes leading up to it. Treeline on Katahdin is only around . This elevation in Massachusetts would barely be a sub-alpine region, and, south of Virginia, consists of lowland forest. This illustrates the drastic change in climate over .
In past years, some sections of the trail also used metal diamond markers with the AT logo, few of which survive.
Shelters are generally maintained by local volunteers. Almost all shelters have one or more pre-hung food hangers (generally consisting of a short nylon cord with an upside-down tuna can suspended halfway down its length) where hikers can hang their food bags to keep them out of the reach of rodents. In hiker lingo, these are sometimes called "mouse trapezes.
In addition to official shelters, many persons offer their homes, places of business, or inns to accommodate AT hikers. One example is the Little Lyford Pond camps maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Inns are more common in sections of the trail that coincide with national parks, most notably Virginia's Shenandoah National Park.
The trail crosses many roads, thus providing ample opportunity for hikers to hitchhike into town for food and other supplies. Many trail towns are accustomed to hikers passing through, and thus many have hotels and hiker-oriented accommodations. Some of the most well-known trail towns are Monson, Maine; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Damascus, Virginia; Hot Springs, North Carolina; Erwin, Tennessee; Duncannon, Pennsylvania; Port Clinton, Pennsylvania; and Hanover, New Hampshire. In the areas of the trail closer to trail towns, many hikers have experienced what is sometimes called "trail magic," or assistance from strangers through kind actions, gifts, and other forms of encouragement. Trail magic is sometimes done anonymously. In other instances, persons have provided food and cooked for hikers at a campsite.
Many animals live around the trail, with bears, snakes, and wild boars posing the greatest threat to human safety. Several rodent- and bug-borne illnesses are also a potential hazard. Ticks are carriers for Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis and other diseases, and are in higher abundance in northern states. Being thoroughly covered and wearing DEET can greatly reduce the chances of getting infected.
In scattered instances, foxes, raccoons, and other small animals may bite hikers, posing risk of rabies and other diseases. There has been one reported case (in 1993) of hantavirus (HPS), a rare but dangerous rodent-borne disease affecting the lungs. The afflicted hiker recovered and hiked the trail the following year.
Drinking untreated surface water can cause diarrhea. Springs are less risky. The various methods of water treatment are filtering, chemical disinfectants, a portable ultraviolet light device, and boiling.
Hiking season of the trail generally starts in mid to late spring, when conditions are much more favorable in the South. However, this time may also be characterized by extreme heat, sometimes in excess of . Under such conditions, hydration is imperative. Light clothing and sunscreens are a must at high elevations and areas without foliage, even in relatively cool weather.
Further north and at higher elevations, the weather can be intensely cold, characterized by low temperatures, strong winds, hail or snow storms and reduced visibility. Prolonged rain, though not typically life-threatening, can undermine stamina and ruin supplies. Typical electrical storm precautions should be followed.
Violent crime, including murder, has occurred on the trail in a few instances. Most have been crimes by non-hikers who crossed paths relatively randomly with the AT hiker-victims.
In May 1996, two women were abducted, bound and murdered near the trail in Shenandoah National Park. The primary suspect was later discovered harassing a female biker in the vicinity but charges against him were dropped, and the case remains unsolved. The 1996 Williams/Winans murders are the 8th an 9th murders on the trail since the first reported homicide in Georgia in 1974. These include the notorious Ramsey/Mountford murder in 1981. On May 6, 2008, two fisherman from Virginia were shot, but survived near the trail in Giles County, Virginia, by the man behind the Ramsey/Mountford murders, Randall Lee Smith, who had recently met them not far from the 1981 murder site. Smith died four days later in jail of unknown causes. The Roanoke Times reported that an autopsy attributed Smith's death to acute pulmonary thromboembolism, probably caused by injuries suffered by Smith when he crashed the pickup truck that he stole from one of the men he shot near the trail.
The current unofficial speed record for through-hiking the AT was set by trail runner Andrew Thompson in 2005, at 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes. Thompson made the trip southbound, from late June to early August.
Thru-hikers are classified into many informal groups. "Purists" are hikers who stick to the official AT trail except for side trips to shelters and camp sites. "Blue Blazers" cut miles from the full route by taking side trails marked by blue blazes. The generally pejorative name "Yellow Blazers," a reference to yellow road stripes, is given to those who hitchhike to move down the trail. There are also those who hike the trail in sections known as "sectioners" as opposed to those who hike the whole trail as one course.
Most thru-hikers walk northward from Georgia to Maine, and generally start out in early spring and follow the warm weather as it moves north. These "north-bounders" are also called NOBO (NOrthBOund) or GAME (Georgia(GA)-to-Maine(ME)), while those heading in the opposite direction are termed "south-bounders" (also SOBO or MEGA).
Part of hiker subculture includes making colorful entries in logbooks at trail shelters, signed using trail names.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy gives the name "2000 Miler" to anyone who completes the entire Trail. The ATC's recognition policy for "2000 Milers" gives equal recognition to thru-hikers and section-hikers, operates on the honor system, and recognizes blue-blazed trails or officially required roadwalks as substitutes for the official, white-blazed route during an emergency such as a flood, forest fire, or impending storm on an exposed, high-elevation stretch.
Most of the trail is also open to local use.
In the course of its journey, the trail follows the ridgeline of the Appalachian Mountains, crossing many of its highest peaks, and running, with only a few exceptions, almost continuously through wilderness. The trail used to traverse many hundreds of miles of private property; currently 99% of the trail is on Public land.
Georgia has 75 miles (120 km) of the trail, including the southern terminus at Springer Mountain at an elevation of 3,280 feet (992 m). At 4,461 feet (1360 m), Blood Mountain is the highest point on the trail in Georgia. The AT and approach trail are managed and maintained by the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club. See also: Georgia Peaks on the Appalachian Trail.
North Carolina has 88 miles (142 km) of the trail, not including more than 200 miles (325 km) along the Tennessee Border. Altitude ranges from 1,725 to 5,498 feet (525 m to 1676 m).
Tennessee has 293 miles (472 km) of the trail, including more than 200 miles (325 km) along or near the North Carolina Border. The section that runs just below the summit of Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the highest point on the trail at 6,625 feet (2019 m).
Virginia has 550 miles (885 km) of the trail, including about 20 miles (32 km) along the West Virginia border. Some consider this to be the wettest, most challenging part of the hike for northbound hikers because of the spring thaw. On average, it rains 20 out of 30 days during the spring. Substantial portions closely parallel the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Shenandoah National Park. Parts of the trail near the Blue Ridge Parkway are often considered the best for beginner hikers. The trail goes within one half mile of the highest point in Virginia, Mt. Rogers, and is a short side-hike from the AT.
West Virginia has 4 miles (6 km) of the trail, not including about 20 miles (32 km) along the Virginia border. Here the trail passes through the town of Harpers Ferry, headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Harpers Ferry is considered the "psychological midpoint" of the AT.
Maryland has 41 miles (66 km) of the trail, with elevations ranging from 230 to 1,880 feet (70–570 m). This section, great for three- or four-day trips, is easy by AT standards, and is a good place for hikers to find out if they are ready for more rugged parts of the trail. Hikers are required to stay at designated shelters and campsites.
Pennsylvania has 229 miles (369 km) of the trail. The trail extends from the Pennsylvania - Maryland line at Pen Mar, a tiny town straddling the state line, to the Delaware Water Gap, at the Pennsylvania - New Jersey border. The Susquehanna River is generally considered the dividing line between the northern and southern sections of the Pennsylvania AT.
New Jersey is home to 72 miles (116 km) of the trail. The trail enters New Jersey from the south on a pedestrian walkway along the Interstate 80 bridge over the Delaware River, ascends from the Delaware Water Gap to the top of Kittatinny Ridge in Worthington State Forest, passes Sunfish Pond (right), continues through Stokes State Forest and eventually reaches High Point State Park, highest peak in New Jersey (a side trail is required to reach the actual peak). It then turns in a southeastern direction along the New York border for about 30 miles (48 km), passing over long sections of boardwalk bridges over marshy land, then entering Wawayanda State Park and then the Abraham Hewitt State Forest just before entering New York near Greenwood Lake.
Black bear activity along the trail in New Jersey increased rapidly starting in 2001. Hence, metal bear-proof trash boxes are in place at all New Jersey shelters.
New York's 88 miles (142 km) of trail contain very little elevation change compared to other states. From south to north, the trail summits many small mountains under 1,400 feet (430 m) in elevation, its highest point in New York being Prospect Rock at 1,433 feet (438 m), and only 3,000 feet (800 m) from the border with New Jersey. The trail continues north, climbing near Fitzgerald Falls, passing through Sterling Forest, and then entering Harriman State Park and Bear Mountain State Park. It crosses the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge, the lowest point on the entire Appalachian Trail at 124 feet (38 m). It then passes through Fahnestock State Park, and continues northeast until it enters Connecticut via the Pawling Nature Reserve. The section of the trail that passes through Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks is the oldest section of the trail, completed in 1923.
The state line is also the western boundary of a 480 acre (190 ha) Connecticut reservation inhabited by 11 Schaghticoke Indians. Inside it, the AT roughly parallels its northern boundary, crossing back outside it after 2,000 feet (640 m).
Massachusetts has 90 miles (145 km) of trail. The entire section of trail is in western Massachusetts' Berkshire County. It summits the highest peak in the Southern Berkshires, Mount Everett (2,602 ft., 793 m), then descends to the Housatonic River Valley and skirts the town of Great Barrington. The trail passes through the towns of Dalton and Cheshire, and summits the highest point in the state at 3,491 feet (1,064 m), Mount Greylock. It then quickly descends to the valley within 2 miles (3 km) of North Adams and Williamstown, before ascending again to the Vermont state line. The trail throughout Massachusetts is maintained by the Berkshire Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Vermont has 150 miles (241 km) of the trail. Upon entering Vermont, the trail coincides with the southernmost sections of the generally north/south-oriented Long Trail (which is subject to a request by its maintainers to protect it in its most vulnerable part of the year by forgoing spring hiking). It follows the ridge of the southern Green Mountains, summitting such notable peaks as Stratton Mountain, Glastenbury Mountain and Killington Peak. After parting ways with the Long Trail at Maine Junction, the AT turns in a more eastward direction, crossing the White River, passing through Norwich, and entering Hanover, New Hampshire, as it crosses the Connecticut River. The Green Mountain Club maintains the AT from the Massachusetts state border to Route 12. The Dartmouth Outing Club maintains the trail from Route 12 to the New Hampshire state line.
New Hampshire has 161 miles (259 km) of the trail. The New Hampshire AT is nearly all within the White Mountain National Forest. For northbound thru-hikers, it is the beginning of the main challenges that go beyond enduring distance and time: in New Hampshire and Maine, rough or steep ground are more frequent and alpine conditions are found near summits and along ridges. The trail reaches more than half of the four-thousand footers of New Hampshire, including Mount Washington, the highest point of the AT north of Tennessee. The Dartmouth Outing Club maintains the AT from the Vermont border past Mount Moosilauke to Kinsman Notch, with the AMC maintaining the remaining miles through the state.
The 281 miles (452 km) of the trail in Maine are particularly difficult. More moose are seen by hikers in this state than any other on the trail. The northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail is on Mount Katahdin's Baxter Peak in Baxter State Park.
The western section includes a mile-long (1.6 km) stretch of boulders at Mahoosuc Notch, often called the trail's hardest mile. Also, although there are dozens of river and stream fords on the Maine section of the trail, the Kennebec River is the only one on the trail that requires a boat crossing. The most isolated portion in the state (and arguably on the entire trail) is known as the "100-Mile Wilderness." This section heads east-northeast from the town of Monson and ends outside Baxter State Park just south of Abol Bridge.
Scores of books about the trail have been published by thru-hikers and others:
Unofficial sites and hiking guides