It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.

Robert Louis Stevenson

OUTDOORS: Appalachian Trail birthday worth celebrating

The Appalachian Trail traverses scenic ridgelines just north of Pearisburg in Giles County in Southwest Virginia. Credit: Frank Green/Times-Dispatch
By: Andy Thompson | Richmond Times-Dispatch
Published: August 17, 2012

In April 1948, Earl Shaffer stood at the base of Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia, weary in spirit and body. A forward-area radioman in the South Pacific, Shaffer saw much suffering and death during World War II, and thought maybe a very long hike would help assuage his personal anguish.

Shaffer wanted, he later wrote, “to hike the Army out of my system, both mentally and physically.” One hundred twenty-four days later — carrying his Army rucksack but no tent or stove — Shaffer reached Mount Katahdin in Maine, becoming the first through-hiker of the Appalachian Trail.

The AT was completed on August 14, 1937 — 75 years ago this week — but by the time Shaffer finished his now-legendary, 2,050-mile hike nine years later, it was a very different place. A hurricane in 1938 damaged huge swaths of the path in the Northeast; maintenance came to a virtual halt during WWII, causing much of the trail to fall into disrepair; and the decision to connect Skyline Drive with the Blue Ridge Parkway displaced about 120 miles of the trail.

So-called experts at the time considered a through-hike physically impossible, and Shaffer had to convince people he had actually done what he said. But once he did, his hike, and the others that immediately followed, helped raise public awareness of the trail.

In 1965, Shaffer also became the first person to complete the Appalachian Trail in both directions. His hike from Maine to Georgia, a distance of almost 3,500 km, took just 99 days. Incredibly, in 1998 at age 79, Shaffer made the hike one last time in 174 days and wrote another personal memoir about his Appalachian experience. Just four years later in 2002, liver cancer took the pioneer’s life.

Hardcore hikers and AT enthusiasts know the story of Earl Shaffer, but many more associate the name Benton MacKaye with America’s most famous footpath.

Writing in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, MacKaye proposed a pathway along the crest of the Appalachians, “from the highest peak in the North to the highest peak in the South. From Mount Washington to Mount Mitchell.”

Two years later, the first miles of trail built specifically for the AT were hacked out of the New York woods by volunteers. In 1925, MacKaye and others formed the Appalachian Trail Conference to help organize volunteers working on the trail.

It’s amazing, in retrospect, to imagine the effort required at the time — across 14 states and, at first, 2,025 miles — to make MacKaye’s dream a reality. But his dream wasn’t to create what we know today as the AT: a recreational footpath that offers opportunities for exercise and communion with the natural world.

MacKaye saw the AT as a way to establish communities of workers along its route that would include food and farm camps. The title of his journal piece proposing the trail was, “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” He saw the idea as offering more than recreation in a natural setting. He wanted those communities to serve as examples for all Americans of the alternatives to the increasing mechanization of modern labor and the commercialization of human endeavors, generally.

In that regard, MacKaye differed from the other man most associated with the creation of the Appalachian Trail. Myron Avery served as Potomac Appalachian Trail Club president from 1927 to 1940 and Appalachian Trail Conference chairman from 1931 to 1952, both volunteer positions, both crucial, especially in the early years, in coordinating and aiding volunteer efforts to complete the trail.

Avery spent so much time in the field flagging routes that, while he didn’t through-hike it like Shaffer, he’s considered the first person to walk every AT mile, a year before it was completed.

MacKaye and Avery eventually split over their difference in vision for the trail.

In 1935, MacKaye and others formed The Wilderness Society. His association with the trail was essentially over.

Two years later, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew finished the final two miles on Maine’s Sugarloaf Mountain.

Every time I hike a section of the AT, three things strike me: 1. the idea that, figuratively, I could look one way toward Georgia and the other toward Maine; 2. the sheer scope and magnitude of the effort it was to create it; 3. that people actually hike the whole thing.

Those three ideas are embodied in the men most associated with the trail’s creation and perpetuation. And it bears remembering, 75 years after the trail was first completed, that this simple path, whose existence we take for granted today, was once seen as a wild notion unlikely to be completed and never to be hiked.


The geology of the Appalachians dates back to more than 480 million years ago. A look at rocks exposed in today’s Appalachian Mountains reveals elongate belts of folded and thrust faulted marine sedimentary rocks, volcanic rocks and slivers of ancient ocean floor – strong evidence that these rocks were deformed during plate collision. The birth of the Appalachian ranges marks the first of several mountain building plate collisions that culminated in the construction of the supercontinent Pangaea with the Appalachians and neighboring Little Atlas (now in Morocco) near the center. These mountain ranges likely once reached elevations similar to those of the Alps and the Rocky Mountains before they were eroded.

The Maine section of the Appalachian Trail rolls 281 miles from the New Hampshire border up to Mount Katahdin. Along this extremely challenging section of the AT, the route passes over a series of rugged 4,000 foot mountains and then runs through gentle forest with lakes and streams. This stretch is considered the most difficult section of the entire Appalachian Trail where many backpackers average less than a mile an hour over many parts.

The New Hampshire section of the Appalachian Trail rolls 161 miles from the Vermont border across to the Maine border. Along this difficult stretch, there are 117 miles through the rugged White Mountains, including the massive ascent of Mount Washington. The elevations along the New Hampshire section of the AT range from 400 feet all the way up to 6,288 feet atop Mount Washington! While there are some low elevations, much of the trail is above the treeline where the weather changes rapidly.

The Vermont section of the Appalachian Trail runs about 150 miles from the Massachusetts border northeast to the New Hampshire border while passing through the Green Mountains. The southwestern section of the AT in Vermont runs from the Massachusetts border for about 100 miles northeast through the Green Mountains. This section follows the infamous Long Trail along the rugged crest of the Green Mountains. Near Killington Mountain and Stratton Mountain, the trail approaches the treeline. At Sherburne Pass, the route traverses high, rugged country of overgrown farm and woodlands heading to the Connecticut River.

The Massachusetts section of the Appalachian Trail rolls 90 miles through the Berkshire Mountains passing through forested hills and farmland valleys. Of course, there are still several peaks to keep it real, including Mount Everett and Mount Greylock. The summits and rock ledges along the route offer excellent vistas. While there are a few steep ascents foreshadowing the future climbs of the Green and White Mountains, most are short in duration.

The Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail is a short 52 miles through the northwestern corner of the state. The route meanders along the worn-down remnants of a much loftier mountain range and presents varied scenery. The elevations range from 260 feet up to 2,316 feet. The main features are the Housatonic River Valley and the Taconic Range. There are several stretches along scenic river banks.

The New York section of the Appalachian Trail runs 88 miles from Sterling Forest State Park in the south near New Jersey to Schaghticoke Mountain in the north near Connecticut. The elevation ranges from 124 feet up to 1,433 feet. Coming from the south, the route skirts around Greenwood Lake and runs northeast through Harriman State Park, Bear Mountain State Park, and Clarence Fahnestock State Park before reaching Schaghticoke Mountain. The route is mainly wooded and surprisingly secluded for being so close to big cities. The trail is mostly flat with a few short steep climbs.

The New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail briefly runs through 72 miles of northern NJ along the Kittatinny Range. This stretch of the AT is surprisingly rugged and remote. The elevation ranges from 350 feet to 1,685 feet along the route. This section of the AT is known for its bears, bogs, wetlands and the crossing of the scenic Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

The Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail passes through 229 miles of the southeastern corner of the state. The route follows the northernmost extension of the Blue Ridge and then crosses Cumberland Valley. Past Susquehanna, the trail follows the rim of the east range of the Alleghenies. While there are some relatively easy hiking stretches, part of this section through Pennsylvania is well-known for its boot-bustin rocks. North of the Susquehanna River there are long rocky ridges separated by gaps requiring strenuous climbs up and down. Mid-summer here can be quite hot and humid, and water can be challenging to find as well.

The Maryland section of the Appalachian Trail runs 41 miles through northwestern Maryland. The AT follows a north-south ridgeline of South Mountain. The route connects a string of state parks, including a ridge crest section of South Mountain State Park. It is a challenging section that typically requires 3 to 4 days to traverse. The elevation ranges from 230 feet up to 1,800 feet.   The best time of year to experience this section of the Appalachian Trail is from mid-April through mid-June.

The West Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail runs a brief 4 miles through the northeastern corner of the state. Most notable in this short section is the footbridge across the Potomac River and the passing through historic Harpers Ferry near the ATC HQ. The elevation on this section ranges from 265 feet up to 1,200 feet. The best time of year to experience this section of the Appalachian Trail is from mid-April through mid-June.

The Virginia section of the Appalachian Trail  rolls a massive 550 miles along the western edge of the state. About 25% of the entire AT lies within Virginia from the southern entry near Damascus to the northern exit near Snickers Gap, just south of Harpers Ferry. Along the way, much of the trail is in the Jefferson National Forest, George Washington National Forest and the Shenandoah National Park. The southern sections are beautiful in early summer with blooming rhododendron and azalea. The mid-section passes through mature forests and wilderness. The northern-section parallels Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. The elevations range from 265 feet up to 5,500 feet.

The Shenandoah section of the AT in Virginia is a 104 mile stretch through Shenandoah National Park. The trail is very well maintained and heavily travelled. Most of the climbs are a gentle 500 to 1,000 feet. Watch out for busy weekend traffic.

The Tennessee section of the Appalachian Trail is a stout 293 mile stretch with elevation ranging from 1,326 feet to 6,625 feet. It follows the border with North Carolina through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah National Forest. This is mainly ridgeline trail through thick forests. North of Roan High Knob, the route turns into the northeast corner of Tennessee in the Cherokee National Forest and through Laurel Fork Gorge on the way north to Damascus. Along the way, you will ascend some of the highest mountains along the AT with several above 6,000 feet especially in the Great Smokies, including Clingmans Dome at 6,625 feet

The North Carolina section of the Appalachian Trail runs 88 miles along the western border of the state. From the south, the trail enters North Carolina at Bly Gap and runs north to north of Roan High Knob at US19E. Starting with the Nantahala section in the south, there are numerous 4,000 to 5,000 foot peaks with awesome vistas. Moving north, the AT runs through the Yellow Creek – Wauchecha – Cheoah Mountain areas with steep elevation changes. Next, 70 miles of ridgeline trail runs through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The final stretch is in the Pisgah National Forest. The elevation ranges from 1,725 to 5,498 feet.  The best time of year to experience this section of the Appalachian Trail is from mid-May through October. Mid-May in North Carolina? Why not start earlier? Well, there have been many snow storms throughout April in North Carolina believe it or not.

The Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail is a short 75 miles through northern Georgia. The southern terminus, or starting point depending on your point of view, of the Appalachian Trail (AT) is located atop remote Springer Mountain, near FS42. The route offers excellent wilderness hiking with road crossings about one-days hike apart. The lower elevations ridges from 3,000 to 4,000 feet in elevation make this stretch a great introduction to would be thru-hikers. Most hikers start in Amicalola State Park on SR52 and use a 8.5 mile approach trail. The blazed trail is easy to follow and there are 11 three-sided shelters in Georgia.

For additional material on the trail, check out the Thru-Hiker’s Handbook,

A Season on the Appalachian Trail by Lynn Setzer and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.