The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths on earth, measuring about 2,180 miles in length from its start in northern New England, crossing over 14 states and ending in Georgia. Hiking this trail can be an adventure of a lifetime, with the opportunity to get away from the chaos of modern life as well as the comforts of home. An estimated 3 million hikers walk at least a portion of the trail each year, including day hikers who access it at one of hundreds of different points, as well as “thru-hikers” who walk the entire trail in one long journey, and “section-hikers,” who piece the trail together over time. The trail offers a wide diversity of terrain, but this guide can help you plan your route according to your own skills and interests.
The northern New England section of the trail, running between central Maine and western New Hampshire, not only offers some of the most rugged hiking conditions, but also includes some of the most spectacular scenery throughout the trail. The 280+ miles of trail in Maine are particularly challenging, with the one-mile stretch of boulders in the western section at Mahoosuc Notch often referred to as the hardest mile. (Side note: Maine is also where you’re most likely to spot moose.) The most isolated portion runs east-northeast from the town of Monson and ends just outside Baxter State Park, known as the “Hundred-Mile Wilderness.” It is arguably the wildest section of the trail – while exceedingly pleasing to the eye, it can be brutal on the body. If you plan to hike here, be sure to be well prepared for the challenging conditions, including lightning strikes, hypothermia, dangerous river fords and falls, which cause the most serious risk to hikers.
The White Mountain portion of the trail in New Hampshire runs above the timberline, with some of the finest views at 6,288 feet from the summit of Mount Washington. Above the tree line is also where you’ll find some of the toughest weather conditions, including weather that can change in the blink of an eye and snowfall that occurs throughout the year. Even at the height of summer, you’ll need to be sure you’ve got warm clothing in your pack.
The southern New England section travels between eastern Vermont and the New York-Connecticut border. This portion of the trail is less strenuous than the northern section while still offering a moderately challenging hike with beautiful vistas. Much of it runs along glacier-scraped mountains, including the Berkshires, Green Mountains and picturesque New England river valleys. In Vermont, you’ll summit notable peaks like Stratton Mountain, Killington Peak and Glastenbury Mountain. As this part of the trail is within easy driving distance of major cities like New York City and Boston, you’re likely to run into a lot more day hikers here as well.
The nearly 90 miles of trail through New York offer very little elevation change compared to what you’ll find in other states, although they still traverse rugged terrain, including small cliffs and nearly vertical ledges. The highest point here peaks at 1,433 feet near the border of New Jersey at Prospect Rock.
Between eastern New York and central Maryland, the hike is moderate, with a few rocky, more strenuous sections. It runs between the glacial hills of the Hudson Highlands and the northern peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, following rocky ridges through wild countryside, often overlooking busy valleys. From the Kittatinny Range in New Jersey to Connecticut, the trail is much less secluded, with even the Manhattan skyline coming into view at points.
About 230 miles of trail run through Pennsylvania, following ridges of mountains east of the Alleghenies to the Susquehanna River. This long section of trail is known for being particularly brutal on the feet. In the northern section, it passes through St. Anthony’s Wilderness, the second-largest roadless area in the state and home to a number of coal mining ghost towns. In the southern section, you’ll find gentler, easier grades, while the Cumberland Valley part of the trail offers a change of scenery, crossing farms as well as highways.
Maryland is home to just 40 miles of the trail, following the backbone of South Mountain. It’s known as one of the best sections for a shorter, 3- to 4-day trek, with pretty views as well as easy access from a number of towns and highways. There are just 4 miles of trail that cross through the state of West Virginia, over the Shenandoah River and right through the town of Harpers Ferry.
Harpers Ferry is a great place to start or end your hike as it’s served by Amtrak and commuter trains that go into Washington, D.C. The historic town in the northern corner of the Shenandoah Valley is also a great place to spend a little time, as it’s home to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, which offers the chance to step back into the past, wander picturesque streets and visit battlefields, exhibits and museums.
It doesn’t cost a thing to walk the trail, and it’s open for all to enjoy. It does, however, pass through a number of state and national parks as well as forests and public lands in which you may need to pay a fee, obtain a permit or obtain reservations to stay overnight in campsites or shelters. Keep this in mind when planning your epic hike, and be sure to choose your clothing and equipment carefully. Adequate food, water and shelter are essential for success, and you’ll want to bring along a basic first-aid kit for treating blisters, muscle aches and possible sprains or scrapes. Plan carefully for all possible scenarios — weather and otherwise — and you’re sure to have the hike of a lifetime!