The Appalachian Trail is in our own backyard and is free of crowds … Lace up your hiking boots and get out there this Spring!
EVERY MARCH, a batch of newcomers arrive in Fannin County on a mission. Armed with hiking poles, tents, dry-food supplies, fire starters, first aid kits and more carefully packed to conserve space in a still-large backpack, they embark on the first steps of a 2,200-mile journey north. Beginning at Springer Mountain or sampling 8.5 miles to the mountain from Amicalola Falls State Park, the goal is to arrive at the peak of Mount Katahdin in Maine before snowfall and winter arrive in New England.
This 5- to 6-month trek is the Appalachian Trail, of which 76 miles are found in North Georgia’s Mountains. Since the trail opened in 1936, only a little over 20,000 people have walked the entire length in its 85-year history. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy keeps a record of those who complete the hike, noting only 1 in 4 who set off on the rocky route will actually finish it.
Still, there are an estimated 3 million people each year who walk just a portion of the trail, and considering we live where it begins, perhaps this is the year you tackle a share of this trail that only 14 of 50 states have in their own backyard.
HISTORY OF AN ICON
The AT, as it is affectionately referred to, was initially imagined in the mountains of New Hampshire. New England-bred Benton MacKaye, a conservationist and forester trained at Harvard, was hiking the White Mountains in 1900 and was inspired by the trail clubs and urged them to link their trails together. By 1921 he had his proposal for the Appalachian Trail that began as a trail from Mount Washington, New Hampshire, to Mount Mitchell, North Carolina.
His plan included creating sheltered areas for hikers, agricultural settlements to serve as food camps, and opportunities for rural living in a utopian development. Organizing the Appalachian Trail Conference in 1925, participants saw it more as a hiking route rather than full rural development. A compromise led to the creation of preservation areas and campgrounds.
Although MacKaye is considered the founder of the trail, it stalled until 1937 when Appalachian Mountain Club member Arthur Perkins, a retired Connecticut judge, took over and enlisted support from Washington D.C. with the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club working on paths in Virginia and West Virginia.
Soon, trail groups in 14 states volunteered to forge new trails and by August, the trail from Georgia to Maine was established. Just over 30 years later, the trail became protected under the federal government as part of the National Trails System Act.
A WALKING PIONEER
The very first person to walk the entirety of the AT was a veteran of World War II. Trying to shake the memories of war, Earl Shaffer decided to walk. And walk. And walk. And walk. He “wanted to get the war out of my system.”
Just 29 in 1948, Shaffer set off on his hike with a journal, recording his efforts and proving the trail could be walked as a single journey. Much like travel accounts of modern-day, including Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Shaffer’s account included the loneliness of walking the trail alone for months. He would sing, write poetry and talk to himself as he walked up to 16 miles each day.
Mount Mitchell, which reaches 6,684 feet and is the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The trail’s beginning at Springer Mountain is just a mere 3,780 feet and the end, Mount Katahdin, is 5,269 feet.
Hikers claim the trail’s best viewpoints include Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, which stands 6, 643 feet tall and provides 360degree views of the Great Smokies.
His journal became Walking With Spring, and he created poems about the trail, including Song of the Trail. And with that, he inspired others to set off on their own journeys, each with their own reasons for walking nearly 2,000 miles straight.
Famed travel writer Bill Bryson even attempted the trail, resulting in one of his most famous works, A Walk in the Woods. Bryson learned first-hand just how difficult hiking the entire trail could be. In Virginia, the view of Jefferson National Forest is best viewed from McAfee Knob.
Shaffer returned to the trail at the age of 79 and hiked it again, becoming the oldest person to do so when he completed it in 1998. Shaffer has since passed away but his journal and “smelly” boots from his first trek are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Pennsylvania is notoriously filled with scrambles over boulders but the Blue Mountain Ridgeline can be enjoyed from these rocks at the Pinnacle.
HIGHS AND LOWS
With 2,000 miles there are highs and lows, pun intended. The trail’s highest peak is Pennsylvania is one of the worstareas on the trail with nearly 150 miles spent staring at your feet to find footing in the rocks and stretches of boulder fields. Hikers (this one included) can attest to the exhaustion of climbing a pile of boulders to see a sea of miles more ahead.
Virginia is no picnic, either. Those beautiful Shenandoah Mountains may look picturesque by car along scenic drives. When walkers encounter the 13.5 miles known as the “Roller Coaster,” they discover 10 high climbs and deep descents like one does on a coaster, with legs doing all of the work.
And, as is often the case, the greatest reward comes after the hardest battles. Mount Katahdin’s 5-mile climb to reach the peak and the end of the trail is another scramble. And when you reach the top and exhale, smile for a selfie, and feel the sense of
No matter, to all who complete the trail, the extra 5 miles may hurt a little but the reward of completing a trek so few can make takes away the pain.
North Georgia is home to some of the Appalachian Trail’s must-stop sites: Blood Mountain battlefield, the Folk Pottery Museum in Sautee Nacoochee, Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap in Blairsville for supplies, and Len Foote Hike Inn in Dawsonville, which truly can only be accessed by hiking 5 miles.
You don’t need to hike the entire AT to enjoy its spoils. Break down the 76 miles with different portions of the trail, such as:
• Springer Mountain. Try a challenging 2-mile roundtrip hike to see the southernmost portion of the trail.
• Spring Mountain Loop. Using the AT and Benton MacKaye Trail, loop on this hike just under 5 miles and pay tribute to the trail’s founder.
• Three Forks to Springer Mountain. From the valley to the mountain, this 8.5mile trail provides a variety of terrains.
• Three Forks to Hawk Mountain. This out-and-back trail totals 9 miles, visiting the Hawk Mountain Shelter. You can stop and visit the Hickory Flatts Cemetery en route.
• Woody Gap to Gooch Mountain. This out-and-back trail is just over 10 miles and climbs to the shelter at Gooch Mountain with an overlook of Ramrock Mountain.
• Three Forks to Long Creek Falls. This short hike under 2 miles will give you waterfall views.
• Woody Gap to Jarrard Gap. You’ll need more time for this near 12-mile roundtrip hike that takes in views from Big Cedar Mountain at Preachers Rock.
• Loop Trail at Lake Winfield Scott. For a more relaxing route at about 5.5 miles, follow the Jarrard Trail in a loop that includes the lake and parts of Blood Mountain.
• Blood Mountain. Follow the Byron Reece Trail for a 4.5-mile hike to the top of Blood Mountain, where the views await. You can also hike from Vogel State Park for a longer route that will take you 8.5 miles.
• Unicoi Gap to Tray Mountain. Climb two summits on this 10-mile hike that takes on Rocky and Tray Mountains.
For more information to plan your spring hike, visit appalachiantrail.org.