In 1921, an architect named Benton MacKaye wrote an article arguing that national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone were magnificent, but wholly cut off from the majority of America’s population, who lived (and still lives) in the East. He hoped building camp grounds along the Appalachian Mountains would create jobs, opportunities and leisure for people who wanted to escape living like “canaries in a cage.”
By 1937, his brainchild was completed, not as a camp ground, but as a continuous footpath known today as The Appalachian Trail.
Now in its 75th year, the A.T. is a wild but hospitable footpath that’s attracted hikers from all walks of life, all along the Eastern corridor. The “green tunnel” (as it’s sometimes called) spans more than 2,000 miles, from Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia, to Baxter Peak on Katahdin in central Maine. Blazed by private citizens who formed local clubs and published guidebooks and maps, the trail was officially placed under federal protection in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The A.T.’s highest elevations can be found on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, where Clingmans Dome rises well above six thousand feet. But the path offers more than just elevations; hikers can also spot bald eagles, moose, Great Horned Owls, black bears and feral ponies across the varied terrain.
In 75 years of history, fewer than 14,000 people have joined the esteemed “2,000-miler” club by hiking the entire trail. Typically, a thru-hike can take anywhere from five to seven months, depending on how fast you trek all 14 states and pass all 250 shelters. Hikers going the distance often mail supplies like food, clothing or toiletries ahead of time, to arrive in one of the dozen or so small towns along the way. Some even ship a “bounce box” from one spot on the trail to the next, so they don’t have to carry batteries, extra food or winter clothes the whole distance.
But there’s no need to tackle the entire journey in order to appreciate one of the world’s greatest treks. Just spending a few miles on the Appalachian Trail will give you a sense of its splendor and culture – one that values a life lived beyond the confines of the mundane, and in the wildness of the outdoors.
Photo: Paul Mitchell, Appalachian Trail Conservancy