Looking to hike for a week or two on America’s oldest multi-state trail? Here are a few section hikes to consider.
I’m often asked “What’s your favorite section of the AT?” or a slight variation, “If I wanted to do a section of the AT, what would you recommend?”
After dispensing with the usual disclaimers (hiking experience levels, how long you plan to be out, etc.), I have to say these are my top five sections from the twenty-eight I hiked to complete the trail. You’ll notice that they are all in the 70 to 120-mile range, which reflects how much time we had to be on the trail. Over the years, we discovered that planning on ten mile days gave us plenty of time to enjoy the hike (one hour lunch breaks were common, as was stopping at noteworthy viewpoints). Your pace may be faster or slower.
One more note: Don’t read anything into the order. It’s random. You’ll find fuller descriptions of each section (including trail profile maps) in my book Appalachian Odyssey. In fact, each trip has its own chapter.
Nantahala Gorge, NC to Davenport Gap, TN
South to North
Big mountain hiking right along the spine of the Great Smoky Mountains — what’s not to like? You’ll want to be in shape for this one. There are a lot of ascents and descents along the route. We went in late fall to avoid the crowds, which worked out spectacularly. Plan your trip well in advance. NOTE: To qualify for an AT Thru-Hiker Permit, you must begin and end your hike at least 50 miles outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park and only travel on the AT in the park. (This section starts 30 miles outside the boundary, so you need to obtain a backcountry permit.) See regulations here.
Shenandoah National Park, VA
South to North
If you’re looking for solitude, you’re not apt to find much along the Shenandoah ridge. The AT parallels Skyline Drive for the length of this hike. But if you’re looking for easy places to get on and off the trail, fine views and even a couple of full-fledged campgrounds along the way, where you can eat a burger and take a shower, this is a great choice. It’s probably one of the best places to get a flavor for long-distance hiking because of the options for getting on and off the trail.
East Stroudsburg to Port Clinton, PA
North to South
I’ll put it right out there. The Pennsylvania section of the AT has a horrible reputation because it’s rocky. But it’s hard to figure a mountain trail existing without them. Maybe it’s because I grew up scrambling over granite in New England, but I don’t find it that bad. Nonetheless, the AT in PA offers long stretches along ridge tops with often exceptional views. Highlights in this section include the view from The Pinnacle and the opportunity to take a side trip to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the first sanctuary in the world dedicated to protecting birds of prey.
Want to extend your hike? If you continue south to Duncannon, it’s another 67.1 miles along Pennsylvania ridge tops.
Caledonia State Park, PA to Harpers Ferry, WV
North to South
Another great hike for getting your trail routine down, I refer to this trip as “a hike through history.” A lot of Civil War fighting took place in the area the trail traverses, including South Mountain. You’ll also cross the Mason-Dixon line and hike into Harpers Ferry, a restored town with plenty of history of its own, via the C&O National Historic Trail. As an added bonus, once you’re done with your hike, you can cross “Maryland” off your list of AT states left to do.
Monson to Baxter State Park, ME
South to North
It’s called “The Hundred Mile Wilderness” for a reason. This is NOT the place to get your long-distance hiking routine down. If you find that you need something, you’re unlikely to be able to get it. If you’re carrying too much stuff, there are few responsible ways to get rid of it. And, there’s hardly any cell service. You’re far better off doing this hike after you have your chops down. That being said, it’s a beautiful stretch of lake- and stream-filled woodland punctuated by peaks rising above. In fact, it’s such a great experience, I’ve done it five times (just another advantage of living in Maine). If you decide to do it and you want to include hiking to the summit of Katahdin (the northern terminus of the AT), you’ll need a free permit. Note: The black flies are ruthless from late May until August.
Long Trail, VT
Up and down the Green Mountains you go! The southern half of the oldest long-distance hiking trail in North America is also the Appalachian Trail. It’s beautiful and fun.
High Point State Park, NJ to Fox Gap, PA
A nice ridge top hike through northwest New Jersey. Who knew?
Bland, VA to Damascus, VA
The Mount Rogers National Recreation Area is the gemstone of the hike. The trail ascends through high mountain meadows (complete with wild ponies). With elevations over 5,000’, including Virginia’s highest peak, it’s stunning.
Anywhere in New Hampshire
Truth be told, hiking in New Hampshire’s White Mountains probably deserves a much higher ranking on my list, but many sections can get crowded. Hiking across the rugged Presidential Range takes advance planning, especially if you are thinking about utilizing one or more of the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, located above tree line. Be prepared for extended travel above treeline where weather conditions are unpredictable and there aren’t many options for finding easy cover. I prefer visiting “The Whites” on weekdays, when possible.