The renowned Appalachian Trail stretches for 2,200 miles along an entire mountain range, across 14 states in the Eastern USA.
The Appalachian Trail (often referred to as simply the "AT") is one of the most famous long-distance hiking trails in the world, and certainly the most well known in the United States. This impressive footpath begins in the Southeast, in the state of Georgia, and finishes in the Northeast in Maine, following the spine of the Appalachian mountain range. Though anyone can hike sections of the AT at will, the ultimate achievement is to thru-hike the 2,200 miles from end to end in one journey.
Such a feat requires 5-7 months on the trail, not to mention prior months of planning that must be done. For the hundreds of people who complete the thru-hike every year, however, the payoff is well worth the work.
Hikers of the entire AT get to experience all of the best mountain scenery that the eastern U.S. has to offer. The trail summits many of the tallest mountains in the eastern part of the continent, including 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome on the Tennessee-North Carolina border and the wind-whipped summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire at 6,288 feet.
Though not as tall nor as steep as the mountains of the American West, the slopes and summits of the Appalachians are uniquely varied, with everything from dense temperate forest to barren alpine tundra. The hiking is notoriously difficult in some stretches, with endless roots and rocks to contend with, and anywhere along the trail can be subject to mud and miserable weather. In the eastern U.S., it can rain for days on end at any time of year.
Consequently, a thru-hike of the AT is a truly monumental accomplishment. The majority of people who backpack on this trail do not hike the entirety of the AT in one go, but instead choose one of its many distinct sections to do as day hikes or multi-day trips. Some people make it a goal to “section hike” the entire AT, covering all its miles over the course of multiple trips.
Backpackers on the Appalachian Trail carry all their own gear and camp backcountry style. There are shelters positioned incrementally along the trail, but space within the shelters is first come, first served only. While it is possible to hike the entire AT and save weight by staying only in shelters, such a strategy is risky because you may not be able to get to a shelter by nightfall or during bad weather, and even when you arrive it may be full. Most hikers carry enough gear to be fully self-sufficient.
No specific permit or registration is required to hike the AT or to camp along it, with the exception of camping permits required in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park. Camping and campfire regulations may vary by location and season along the trail as well. Planning for such particulars is part of the complicated logistics for a long hike on the AT. Other considerations include what to pack, what time of year to go, resupply points, and transportation to and from the trail.
The majority of thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail begin at Springer Mountain in Georgia (the southern terminus) in March or April and finish at Mount Katahdin in Maine (the northern terminus) in August or September. This schedule maximizes warm weather. Some start in the north, however. Others elect to start somewhere in the middle, finish at one end, then travel back to hike the other half. This strategy allows for easier terrain, and frequent resupplies early in the trip, and thinner crowds along the trail.