Walking the Appalachian Trail
Stretching over 14 states in the US , over 2000 miles in length and with many thousands of metres of climbing, the Appalachian Trail is a world renowned route which deserves a place on all long distance walkers’ bucket lists. Writing for Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine, veteran thru-hiker Keith Foskett sings the praises of the Appalachian Trail.
Long distance thru-hiking has exploded in the last couple of years. Books and films such as ‘Wild’ and ‘A Walk in the Woods’ have fuelled a passion for long, stateside walks. Aspiring thru-hikers often aim first for the Appalachian Trail. It’s the most popular of the long American hikes, and justifiably so. To my mind it makes the perfect first long distance trek for three reasons.
Firstly, other people to share the occasional hardship with. In 2014, 2,500 prospective thru-hikers set out north from Springer Mountain, and the numbers are rising – especially with all that attention from Hollywood. However, it doesn’t seem that busy except perhaps at the shelters in the evening. On the trail everyone is spread out, and although you do bump into people over the months, these are people who share the same purpose as you. If you want more solitude, consider heading south instead of north. In 2014, those that chose this option totalled just 242.
Second, the shelters. These simple, three sided wooden buildings offer no electricity, water or heating but do provide protection from the elements. You’re pretty much guaranteed to pass one per day, often many more. When everything you own is wet (not uncommon on the AT), you have the chance to dry it out in a shelter and share temporary moans and groans with like minded others. And as Sam had pointed out, shared moments of both triumph and adversity really do make the hike.
Finally, every few days there are small towns and villages to re-supply, grab a shower, and eat fresh food. This also means you can carry less food, and therefore less weight. In theory you can’t even get lost, as the ‘white blazes’ – dollar bill sized white markings painted on trees and rocks – lead you all the way. All these things serve to smooth out the rough edges of a walk that lasts months.
How Hard Is It?
If a 2,000-mile walk seems daunting, it’s honestly not as bad as it sounds in the flesh. Physical conditioning comes with time, and training beforehand. The appeal of ‘thru hiking’ is that almost anyone can do it. Despite fears of such a huge endeavour at the outset, most of us can manage to walk twenty miles a day over the course of a few months.
Then again, it doesn’t pay to underestimate the walk – it will play tricks with your mind and probably change your life! By the time you finish, you’ll have climbed the equivalent of Mount Everest sixteen times. What hits hard on the AT is the gradients. Long hikes further west in the States – the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails – reach far loftier heights. But there are switchbacks on these western trails, which don’t feature so prominently on the AT. On the AT you are expected to go straight up and over! The final AT hardship is well known: it’s the weather. Stories abound of the last month spent walking in continuous rain. I was lucky – I only got seriously wet 7 times and reached Mount Katahdin wondering what all the fuss was about. Chances are you will get soaked far more than me.
The AT now connects many of the historic towns that were established as settlers made America their home. In the early days, expeditions fanned west into the Appalachian woods, and settlements sprung up. Nowadays, small homesteads still offer clues to past inhabitants who grew tobacco, wheat and other crops, as part rent on the land. Following Brown Mountain Creek reveals emaciated timbers and tumbling stone walls. From Hot Springs, with its red fronted brick buildings, to the white picket fences fronting clapboard houses of Damascus, there are gentle reminders aplenty of times past. The town of Harpers Ferry, considered the half way point, is speckled with remnants from the Civil War. This is untamed America. You’ll find very few perfectly trimmed lawns, concrete malls or skyscrapers out here.
All long distance hikers need these quiet places to recoup before heading out on the next stage, but we don’t come for civilisation, we come for the wilderness. Following a chain of mountains north for 2,178 miles, from Springer Mountain to Mount Katadhin, the walker passes through fourteen states: Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Over time you come to see crossing each state line as an indication of forward progress.
The landscape felt surprisingly familiar at times. At first, in Georgia through to the Virginias, it was reminiscent of home on the South Downs. The woods shared the same trees, dotted with open meadows splattered with flowers I could name. After a month or two it felt like middle England and then Wales. North into Vermont and above, the scenes were strikingly like Scotland – grey rock soaring skywards before plunging into pine forested lowlands, speckled with bottomless peaty lakes. Save the tough odd hiccup like the White Mountains in New Hampshire, I found the further north I ventured, the tougher the terrain and weather became.
The Green Tunnel
For much of the journey north, vast woods cloak these hills. Over many months, the greens of spring slowly creep up the mountain slopes until the folds and creases of the Appalachian woods escape the grip of winter. Some people find the woods can be overbearing and claustrophobic at times, but I loved the ‘green tunnel’. Under the canopy, there was firewood and protection from wind and rain. The creeks offered up water and birds sang as we traversed north along our ribbon of trail. On the other hand, this much tree cover meant breaking out onto a ‘bald’ was a treat to savour. Probably cleared for livestock originally, these green, rounded summits provided an escape from the confinement of the trees. Suddenly we had perspective on our surroundings, sunlight on our faces, and a woodland panorama stretching away in every direction. Never before had open space meant so much to me. It felt like coming up for air.
Hiking a long distance trail may demand time and financial commitment, but experiencing this amount of time in the wilderness is not about giving up a few months of your life, it’s about taking a few months to live. If you’re looking for your first really wild long distance hike, put the Appalachian Trail at the top of your list.
- Getting There
The visitor centre at Amicalola Falls State Park is where most hikers register their AT hike, and start their journey. An eight mile approach trail from here leads to the start of the AT, at Springer Mountain. Atlanta, Georgia, is the nearest international airport with regular arrivals from most countries. The MARTA (Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) bus provides services to the Greyhound Station, eleven miles away, where two services per day will take you Gainsville, about ninety minutes north. Gainsville is an hour away from Amicalola with public transportation and plenty of lodging opportunities.
Currently, Great Britain passport holders can stay up to ninety days in America under the visa waiver programme. To stay longer, and to have enough time for an AT thru-hike, you will need to apply for a B1/B2 Visa from your closest American Embassy, which covers stays up to six months. Be aware that both the Visa Waiver Programme, and the B2 Visa, does not necessarily guarantee you entry. You will need to put forward your case at Immigration Control to obtain entry to the USA.
- North Bound or South Bound?
Figures vary each year but the majority of hikers, 85% on average, start at Springer Mountain and head north bound. The excitement and anticipation to take on the AT means you can start earlier, and as most choose this option, it’s a far more social hike going north. However, it can get crowded. Around 2500 participants squeezed into a six week gap in early spring is too much company for some who decide to head south bound, making for a far quieter hike and the advantage of heading, generally, towards warmer climes further south.
- When to Go
A few hardy souls may start as early as February for a North bound hike but most wait for the weather to improve. Generally this is early April but March to late April sees the most numbers. Even in this window the Smoky Mountains are famed for throwing a little late snow around. Heading south from Maine, again, is a waiting game for the snows to clear but the window here is early June to mid-July.
- The Appalachian Trail Conservancy raises funds and awareness for the trail, as well as maintaining it. A great resource which should be your first stop.
- White Blaze is the best AT forum on the web if you can’t find any answers anywhere else. Loads of like-minded individuals ready to help you out.
- Guthooks Smartphone Hiking Guides cover most of the big hikes in America.
Keith Foskett for Outdoor Enthusiast Magazine
Outdoor Enthusiast is the UK’s leading outdoor pursuit’s magazine. Published bi-monthly Outdoor Enthusiast will inspire and motivate you to explore new parts of the world and try new activities. Our gear editors are qualified mountain leaders giving you informative and unbiased reviews in each issue.