For just over 17,000 people, hiking the Appalachian Trail has meant backpacking its entirety—a feat that requires between five and seven months for a thru-hike or several return visits during a lifetime. But walking 2,190 miles on the world’s longest hiking-only footpath is no easy feat—and one that is completed by only a quarter of those who attempt it.
For the rest of us, hiking the Appalachian Trail can come in the form of more digestible day hikes in one (or all) of its 14 states. And with trail segments that pass through eight national forests and six national park holdings, the Appalachian Trail will treat you some of the most stunning landscapes in the United States—no matter the distance you choose to tackle.
The 14-State Challenge
You may not have the time, job security, fitness level, or motivation to attempt thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, but even the most inexperienced hiker can come to play in the 14-State Challenge. The idea is simple and attainable: Visit a portion of the Appalachian Trail in each of its 14 states and document your journey along the way. You’ll be rewarded with a certificate to mark your achievements and incredible experiences on some of the trail’s most famous segments.
Sound enticing? Lace up your boots, pack up your food and equipment, and hit the Appalachian Trail for an unforgettable day hike in each state.
Georgia is home to the Appalachian Trail’s 79 southernmost miles, with secluded mountains and forests that are best hiked in mid-April and beyond. A particular highlight is the 4.3-mile stretch of trail that climbs to the summit of Blood Mountain, a 4,459-foot peak near Helen that offers incredible views of the North Georgia ridges.
North Carolina and Tennessee
You’ll find 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a breathtaking, blue-ridged expanse that attracts more annual visitors than any other national park. Beginning at this point, the trail traces the border of North Carolina and Tennessee for several hundred miles, offering fantastic opportunities to visit the 6,643-foot summit of Clingmans Dome and the historic stone fire tower atop Mt. Cammerer—both of which sit within the park borders.
More than a quarter of the Appalachian Trail can be found in Virginia alone, where 554 miles cross such notable landmarks as Shenandoah National Park. If you find yourself near Catawba, make the 4.4-mile climb to McAfee Knob to admire North Mountain, the Roanoke Valley, and what is said to be one of the most photographed vistas on the trail. If you’re hiking with kids, opt instead for the one-mile loop to Blackrock Summit, which offers similarly sweeping views from Mile 84.4 of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
West Virginia and Maryland
The “psychological halfway point” for thru-hikers awaits in the West Virginia town of Harpers Ferry, the historic site of John Brown’s raid in the lead-up to the Civil War. Due to its strategic position at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, day hikers on the Appalachian Trail can visit Harpers Ferry to kill three birds with one stone. Simply follow the trail through town, across the rivers, and into the headlands that overlook the gorge—you’ll be walking through Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia in the course of an afternoon.
With a 229-mile swath of the Appalachian Trail known for its stifling summer temperatures and flat rocky ridges, Pennsylvania has earned a bit of a troubled reputation among thru-hikers. But day hikers will rejoice in the ease and scenery of Table Rock, a 4.2-mile roundtrip ascent to a sandstone formation overlooking Clarks Valley. You’ll be within an easy drive of downtown Harrisburg—and in the perfect spot for a sun-splashed picnic lunch.
It may surprise you to learn that 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail cross through New Jersey, a state more commonly known for its sprawling urban cityscapes. But you’ll abandon those preconceived notions in High Point State Park, the highest point in the state at 1,803 feet. This portion of the Appalachian Trail provides beautiful views of the Kittatinny Valley, the Poconos, Pochuk and Wawayanda Mountains, and even a sliver of the Manhattan skyline on a clear day.
As it cuts through southern New York for a total of 90 miles, the Appalachian Trail makes one of its most unusual stops. Spend a day at Bear Mountain State Park on the banks of the Hudson River to find both the lowest point of elevation on the trail (124 feet) and the Trailside Museums & Zoo. This nearly century-old facility features exhibits on geology and Native American history, as well as several captive species of reptiles, amphibians, and fish to please your inner animal lover.
Introduce yourself to Connecticut’s 51 miles of the Appalachian Trail at Lion’s Head, a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike on the outskirts of Salisbury. From the lookout at the 1,738-foot peak, you’ll gaze upon Salisbury, Canaan, and Prospect below, as well as majestic Mt. Greylock and the Berkshires to the north.
As the Appalachian Trail traces 91 miles of Massachusetts’ western spine, it enters Mt. Greylock State Reservation, the state’s loftiest point at 3,491 feet and one that inspired the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and other American icons. Autumn is an especially colorful time to hike the Appalachian Trail in this park, from which you can see nearly 90 miles (and five states) on a clear day.
There’s no place for fall foliage quite like Vermont, a state that is home to 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail. It is even rumored that MacKaye first envisioned his idea for the trail near the summit of Stratton Mountain. So it should come as no surprise that the Green Mountains host some of the trail’s most splendid mountain and woodland vistas—and a grand introduction awaits on the 5.7-mile hike to the north ridge of Killington Peak.
It isn’t the number of miles (161) that makes New Hampshire’s portion of the Appalachian Trail so challenging – it’s the fact that the Granite State features more miles above the treeline than any other. Experienced day hikers can make the most of their efforts on the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the entire country. Beginning just north of Mt. Pierce, this 8.5-mile trail meets the Appalachian Trail to climb the rugged, 6,288-foot summit of Mt. Washington—the tallest peak in all of New England (with some of the most disagreeable weather in the world).
Famous among hikers for its unbridged stream crossings and wild terrain, Maine’s 282 miles of the Appalachian Trail have been dubbed the “most challenging, rugged, and remote” by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. But if you’re not eager to hike 17 roundtrip miles to the trail’s northern terminus on Mt. Katahdin, consider spending a day at Grafton Notch State Park in Maine’s western reaches. Make an ascent of Table Rock on the 2.4-mile loop, keep an eye open for peregrine falcons, and catch a glimpse of the legendary Mahoosuc Notch nearby—it’s rumored to be the most difficult mile of the entire Appalachian Trail.
Featured photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli
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