AT 101: What To Know About The Appalachian Trail

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Caleb’s Peak in Kent, Connecticut. The white blaze signifies the Appalachian Trail. Photo by Timothy Malcolm

Okay. You’ve heard of the Appalachian Trail, but you’re not sure:

  • Where exactly it is.
  • Where exactly it goes.
  • What its purpose is.
  • If it’s still a thing.

Let’s work backwards. Yes, it’s still a thing, and now more than ever. Its purpose, originally when it was idealized by Benton Mackaye in 1921, was to connect urban dwellers to the rest of the country via a 2,200-mile walking path along the eastern portion of America. MacKaye envisioned a future where city folk got to breathe some fresh air and better understand the life of the farmer and homesteader. In many ways, the trail has served its purpose well.

So where does it go and where is it, exactly? It starts just below Springer Mountain in northern Georgia, then threads north through forests, woodlands, and upon high peaks and near small towns. It runs up the Blue Ridge Mountains, into and out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park, then through the highlands of Maryland and Pennsylvania, before descending to valleys and smaller summits that skirt the suburbs in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. It rises in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, ambles along the Green Mountains of Vermont, then twists into White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, all one great prelude for the final test: rough journeys through the deep wilderness of Maine and a final climb of Katahdin, the highest peak in the Pine Tree State.

The trail is the great Eastern American forest, the narrow pathway that separates the bustling coast from the descent to the Mississippi River. It’s also an absolute triumph of human ingenuity. Imagine standing on the trail in Kent, Connecticut, and realizing that on the very same path, a thousand miles away, is somebody else standing in Damascus, Virginia. An American world separates the hikers, but one constant ribbon will always connect them.

If you’re interested in being a part of it, you don’t have to walk the whole trail. So many day hikes, overnight hikes, and multi-day hikes can be accomplished first by driving to one access point on the trail. (That means a road trip!) Sometimes you can loop around to the access point, sometimes you have to go up and back, but the possibilities are many. And my job, as author of Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trail, is to tell you how you can do parts of the trail while also enjoying the culture, scenery, and hospitality of the areas in and around the trail.

So, if you’re at all interested, buy my book! It comes out May 7, but you can pre-order today.

Meanwhile, I’ll be writing about the trail here on this blog. I’ll discuss my many trips and hikes, give suggestions and recommendations, and talk a bit about how much hiking and road-tripping has inspired me.

While I still have you, here are some terms to know about the Appalachian Trail:

  • White blazes: When hiking, you’ll typically be following colored blazes painted on trees (sometimes you’ll follow colored markers nailed to trees). These act as a secondary compass (if you’re an experienced hiker you should have an actual compass). The Appalachian Trail is signified all the way up its 2,200 miles by single white blazes. Stay with them and you’re cool.
  • Blue blazes: If you hike enough, you’ll start seeing other blazes. Sometimes you’ll notice a turn off marked by blue blazes on trees. These blue blazes signify a spur trail, or a quick jaunt to something notable (a beautiful view, a landmark, a campground, a shelter)
  • Shelter: There are many of these on the Appalachian Trail, because overnight and multi-day hikers need places to rest. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (the major organization that preserves and manages the trail) claims there are more than 250 of them on the trail. You may hear the term “lean-to,” which is a shelter with an exposed side, but shelters come in many shapes and sizes.
  • Section hiker: Someone who is hiking the AT over many days, starting and ending her/his/their journey short of the full 2,200 miles.
  • Thru-hiker: Someone who is hiking the full AT over a period of about seven months, give or take. She/he/they doesn’t leave the trail, other than to rest before heading back on the trail.
  • NOBO: Most thru-hikers go northbound (NOBO) from Springer to Katahdin. They typically start in March/April with hopes of ending by October.
  • SOBO: Few thru-hikers go the opposite direction, southbound (SOBO) from Katahdin to Springer. Generally considered a tougher hike, it’s typically begun around June, ending by November/December.
  • Flip flop: A kind of hike strategy where a hiker breaks up the AT thru-hike into two, ending at a near-halfway point (often Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia), then coming back later (either that same year or beyond) to finish up the other half.
  • Trail magic: When a friendly person does a good deed for a thru- or section hiker on the trail. This could mean leaving food and drink at a designated spot, cooking for hikers, providing shelter or a ride, or just showing encouragement.
  • Hostel: A place to stay, typically for a low cost, that has relatively basic accommodations and is designed with hikers and outdoorsy folks in mind. A hostel may run shuttles to and from the trail so hikers can get to shelter safely.
  • Trail town: There are several villages, towns, and cities either near the trail or right on the trail, known informally as trail towns. The AT Conservancy recognizes many of them as “trail communities.” These locations are generally accommodating to hikers and may host AT-focused festivals, sometimes scheduled for times of the year when thru-hikers are expected to come through.

These are general terms. There are far more, but if you’re road tripping and checking in with the trail at random points, this is the 101 you’ll need to understand the AT. Happy hiking!

My first book, Drive & Hike: Appalachian Trailwill be released on May 7. Please pre-order the book today to get your copy upon release!

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