While every section of the trail is wonderful, these sections really standout from the rest.
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park
States: Tennessee and North Carolina
Miles: 166 – 239
This is the first of two national parks that The Appalachian Trail traverses through, the other being The Shenandoah National Park. The roughly 75 miles of the park takes a route that starts for northbound hikers at Fontana Dam, and ends before Interstate 40. Some of the top sights include the Shuckstack Fire Tower, Clingman’s Dome, Charlies Bunion, and Mount Cammerer Lookout Tower.
The Park however is much more than only these destinations, the GSMNP is home to beautiful forests, trails that hug the edge of mountains, and wonderful wildflowers. When I traversed the park during my thru hike there was a Spring Beauty super bloom with easily billions of these small white and purplish flowers lining the trail. This went on for over ten miles straight and there were plenty more stretches with these flowers.
If you don’t have time to traverse the entire park there are many day and section hiking options. A popular starting point for hikes is out of Newfound Gap. This is located most closely to the tourist town of Gatlinburg. Those who are staying overnight in the backcountry should note that a permit is required and reserving at a specific shelter is necessary unless thru hiking, which requires a separate backcountry permit. Smokey permits can be found here.
The Roan Highlands
States: Tennessee and North Carolina
Miles: 381 - 395
This section of the trail is popular for its high elevation and grassy balds. The mountains top out over 6000 feet of elevation and are completely unobstructed by trees. The area is picturesque like something of that out of Lord of the Rings. A popular place to start hikes for this section is Carver Gap which will put you at 5506 feet of elevation making the climbs less intense. If you’re looking for more elevation, in your day consider starting at US RT 19 which would be at the other end of the highlands and an elevation of only 2861 feet.
A great time to visit this section is in early summer when the rhododendron is in blossom. Information from the US Forestry Service can be found here.
The Grayson Highlands
Miles: 495 – 511
Similar to The Roan Highlands, The Grayson Highlands consist of high elevation mountains with grassy and rocky balds. The main difference is that in The Grayson Highlands, wild ponies and ox roam the area. This section is a thru hiker favorite along the trail and also a common day or section hike area for others. The ponies are very friendly and are very photogenic. They also enjoy to lick the sweat off hikers and their backpacks! The most popular parking area to access the central area of the highlands and a prevalent spot for ponies is at Massie Gap. From here there are options for loop hikes and out & back routes. You can also hike to the Virginia high point here, Mount Rogers.
Directions to Massie Gap can be found here.
The Virginia Triple Crown
Miles: 700 - 730
This section of the trail is referred to as the Virginia Triple Crown because of three incredible geological features within the 30 miles. From south to north they are Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs. These can be done as single day hikes or can be strewed together as a short section hike. McAfee knob is a clear favorite and arguably the most iconic place along The Appalachian Trail. There is a shelter before and after the knob making sunrise or sunset on the knob an easy planning logistic.
The two common places to start and end this are in the towns of Catawba and Daleville. The Four Pines Hostel is located in Catawba and can help with all your shuttle needs if completing the section.
Shenandoah National Park
Miles: 865 - 969
Shenandoah National Park or SNP is a roughly hundred mile stretch of The Appalachian Trail in Virginia and the last of the two national parks traversed by the AT. Similar to GSNMP, SNP has amazing hiking with beautiful forests, landscapes, and rock vistas. The difference is less mountains and more waysides, lots more waysides. A wayside is essentially a camp store and grill that serves the hikers and campgrounds of the park. These are a favorite stop for hikers to get quick resupply, some real food, and plenty of beverages, including beer. My second day in the park a group of us had a long siesta consisting of plenty of beer before hiking a rough 14 miles to camp that night.
If planning a section hike through SNP, the starting and ending towns are Waynesboro and Front Royal. Both Stanimals and Stumble Inn are hostels that offer shuttling and can be arranged for easy planning. The Park is also perfect for day hikes and overnights – for some of the best views check out the hiking around Mary’s Rock. If entering the park by car, a $30 fee per vehicle is charged allowing unlimited entry and exit for seven consecutive days.
The Four State Challenge
States: Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania
Miles: 1020 - 1067
The Four State Challenge is a popular challenge among thru hikers looking to push themselves. The challenge is to hike starting in Virginia for northbounders, through West Virginia and Maryland, ending up crossing the Mason Dixon Line and into Pennsylvania. The challenge is 43 miles long and to be completed in a 24-hour period. By no means is this the only way to do this section. Maryland has some of the nicest built and largest shelters on trail and getting the experience of four states in under 50 miles is a cool aspect. Plus, this section includes Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia and is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy headquarters.
Lehigh Gap to Delaware Water Gap
Miles: 1260 - 1296
What I love about this section is the climb coming out of Palmerton. It’s the biggest and most technical rock scramble on the trail up to this point and allows for some incredible views of the Lehigh River. There are plenty of rock ledges and vistas to spend time enjoying the summit. The section of trail after the rock scramble is also great as it follows along the ridge and is a mostly flat dirt path. At the end of this few mile section, there is an option to circle back on a blue blaze trail to create a loop back to the Lehigh River or hikers can choose to continue on towards Delaware Water Gap (DWG).
The section between Palmerton and DWG is a classic Pennsylvania rocky section of trail. The state is universally known to hikers as being awfully rocky and for those who are looking to get the experience, this will give it to you. Hikers looking to do the Lehigh Gap rock scramble can choose to park at the trailhead or choose to park anywhere in Palmerton and take the Winter Trail blue blaze over to the Appalachian Trail.
Bear Mountain State Park
State: New York
Miles: 1404 - 1412
Possibly because this is close to home to me, but Bear Mountain is an iconic section of The Appalachian Trail. Lots of great sights and destinations are visited within these 10 miles making it one of the trail favorites. At the top of Bear Mountain is the look-out tower which unfortunately, due to covid, has been closed for the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Nonetheless, standing atop Bear Mountain on a clear day, you can get views of the New York City skyline. The trail comes down from the mountain and through Bear Mountain Park and even through the Bear Mountain Zoo. This is where hikers can be guaranteed to see a bear on trail! The zoo has specific hours so if this is a must-see, check the zoo hours before planning your hike.
After the zoo, the trail heads across the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge before climbing Anthony’s Nose. Anthony’s Nose is a blue blaze trail .6 miles off the AT but is strongly recommended. It has the best sights and is a popular hike for many in the area. I ended the mileage of this section at the Appalachian Market, a deli about five miles after Anthony’s Nose. The deli is a trail favorite and gives people hiking a section of the trail a deli blaze experience that thru hikers get in these Mid-Atlantic states.
The White Mountains
State: New Hampshire
The White Mountains make up the most difficult terrain of the entire Appalachian Trail but reward you with endless beauty. They contain stunning trail sections like the Franconia Range, Presidential Traverse, and the Wildcats. There are plenty of options for doing shorter sections of the trail that contain the AT. One common loop trail is the Pemi Loop, a 31-mile loop trail that includes Franconia Range and the Bond range. No matter what you choose to hike in The Whites, it’ll be an exhilarating and strenuous trip.
A great feature about The Whites is the AMC Huts. These are 8 cabins spread out about a days walk from each other and are run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Guests pay upwards of $150 pp to stay in the bunks and have breakfast and dinner served by caretakers. Don’t worry if you’re not looking to spend the money, the huts are open to the general public during the day and sell a variety of fresh baked goods and hot foods. You can also buy items such as Cliff Bars and Snickers for a short-term resupply. Here’s a pro tip, caretakers usually have leftover food they are trying to get rid of so if you come during the day, it’s common for leftover breakfast or last nights dinner to be available for free.
The Hundred Mile Wilderness
Miles: 2078 – 2178
An infamous section of The Appalachian Trail and the most remote section too is The Hundred Mile Wilderness (HMW). This section starts at ME Route 15 outside of Monson and ends at Abol Bridge before entering Baxter State Park. This section of northern Maine has less mountains but makes up with lots of lakes and waterfalls. Hikers typically enjoy doing lower mileage through this section to get the most out of the trail here. There are plenty of amazing shelters and campgrounds in these hundred miles making it the perfect place to slow down and focus on the camping aspect of backpacking.
Whether you’re going north or south through the wilderness, Shaw’s hostel in Monson is a great place to stay. They’re experts on the HMW and can help arrange transportation, food drops into the wilderness, and even shuttles. A common misconception is that you need to do the entire wilderness in one shot. The HMW is private land so you can actually access the trail by paying a fee and travelling in on gravel and dirt roads. Not to be relied on, but there is a surprising amount of cell service for Verizon and AT&T customers in the HMW. Don’t expect anything with other carriers.
Also, a popular way to climb Mount Katahdin in Maine is to hike through the HMW and arrive at Abol Bridge to check-in to Baxter State Park. They will issue a special section hiker permit and that will let you stay at The Birches shelter and forego the Baxter campground registration and reservation process.
*Mileage provided is 2021 northbound mileage rounded taken from the Guthooks App
** Details to the trail and locations mentioned herein are subject to change at any time and specific research should be done before relying on this guide.
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