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Appalachian Trail Celebrates 75 Years As The World’s—Yes, The World's—Quintessential Hike

Appalachian Trail Lakes of the Clouds Hut Mount Washington, NH.

There are intimate rounded green fastnesses on the Appalachian Trail, and alpine scenery that ranges from Mount Wasington's view of Lakes of the Clouds hut in New Hampshire (top, Mount Monroe above hut), to Hump Mountain meadows near Boone, North Carolina (third down). The AT passes through the popular parking area at Newfound Gap in the Great Smokies (second from top) and follows rock-pile cairns across alpine vistas in the Presidential Range, NH (bottom). All photos by Randy Johnson.

Today is the 75th anniversary of the world’s quintessential hike—the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.

Each spring nearly 2,000 people hoist unbelievably heavy packs and strain down a misty trail, intent on accomplishing the most difficult task of their lives: going the length of Eastern America’s Appalachian Mountains. This is a unit of the National Park Service—a footpath linking a tree-covered mountaintop in Georgia and a rock-capped summit in central Maine. The Appalachian Trail (AT) may have been the world’s first long-distance, organized recreational avenue to wilderness. Today there are many long-distance trails—but none equal the AT.

When first proposed in 1921 by regional planner Benton MacKaye, the idea for a Appalachian trail was labeled “an experiment in regional planning.” Actually, it was a lofty philosophical experiment, intended to dilute the hold that industrialism had on modern life. The AT would preserve the East’s wilderness while offering the laboring masses an uplifting escape from the manufacturing economy. The idea caught on dramatically. People recognized that the future of the logging-denuded and eroded Appalachians were at stake. And trail enthusiasts liked the idea of the path itself.

Creating the AT was a gargantuan task. Within two years of MacKaye’s first article proposing the AT, the major trail organizations had endorsed the plan and built the first sections of the AT in New England. In 1925, a meeting held in Washington, D.C., formally created the Appalachian Trail Conference Incorporated. That was the forerunner of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, named in 2005, that manages the trail today.

Early on, MacKaye’s philosophical bent still shaped the trail’s future; he announced at the first conference that “the trailway should ‘open up’ a country as an escape from civilization ... The path of the trailway should be as ‘pathless’ as possible.”

In the late 1920s, that’s exactly how the path was. The original route plan led from Cohutta Mountain, Georgia, across the Great Smoky Mountains, to Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, through southwestern Virginia, across the Blue Ridge Mountains at what is now Shenandoah National Park, and on to its terminus at Mount Washington, New Hampshire. With railroad imagery fostered by MacKaye, the trail’s “main line” would link to various “branch lines.” In the South, feeder trails were meant to reach Birmingham and Atlanta, funneling jaded urban workers into a refreshing green corridor of renewal.

In reality, the AT was built largely out of existing trails in the north, and through unexpected devotion from trail clubs and the Forest Service in the South. The Southern Appalachian section was finished quickly, surprising New Englanders who felt sure that their region’s trail clubs would be the most active. The Southerners helped build other sections, too: the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club was instrumental in completing the trail through Maine to Mount Katahdin.

While the AT was being constructed, nearly 600 miles of road, including the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, were built. The building of those roads, opposed by many trail clubs, claimed dozens of miles of the AT’s early route. Luckily, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was enlisted to revise the route; it built many of the most historic three-sided lean-tos that line the trail. Nevertheless, Appalachian Trail Conference chairman Myron Avery called the scenic roads a “major catastrophe in Appalachian Trail history.” Today, we nod at Avery’s assertions. Although the Blue Ridge Parkway boasts wonderful hiking opportunities, its leg-stretcher hikes do not a wilderness experience make.

The trail, in any form, became a symbol. Long before wilderness preservation was ever achieved in the East, diehard hikers followed ridgetops and linked remnants of a wild heritage as they built it. By 1937 (75 years ago in 2012), the first version of the trail was complete. That anniversary is celebrated with a variety of events this year.

Thousands of minor catastrophes and positive changes have happened since then. The bad events range from hurricanes to commercial development of private land, all claiming portions of the trail. The good came too. At each time of loss, a new generation of trail enthusiasts has stepped in and carved a new path. The extension of the trail to Mount Katahdin, originally a branch site rather than a terminus, was one of thousands of changes that qualify the AT as a living thing. It was Myron Avery who said that the AT was the trail of which it could never be said, “It is finished—this is the end!”

The Appalachian Trail started as, and remains, an effort spearheaded by the public. But the Appalachian Trail Conservancy also enlisted the support and cooperation of the national parks, forests, state parks, and other agencies and individuals. Since 1938, when a minimum width was established for the trail corridor through federal land, the extent of cooperation between AT enthusiasts and the government has been astounding. In 1968, the AT became the first National Scenic Trail under the landmark National Trails System Act, which gave the Appalachian Trail Conference control. It also authorized that the 1,000 miles of trail in private hands be acquired, by eminent domain if necessary.

The trail has elevated some isolated mountain burgs into backcountry boom towns. Hikers bring thousands of dollars into towns lacking mainstream tourist attractions. Hot Springs, North Carolina, is one place swelled by trail traffic. So is Damascus, Virginia.

Maintenance of the path never wanes and is accomplished through the efforts of organizations affiliated with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The Conservancy boasts 38,000 members, and 30 affiliated clubs. Many times each year, volunteers toil long hours in the task of maintaining their portions of the footpath and any of the 250 overnight shelters on the route. All told, about 5,000 volunteers work more than 180,000 hours each year on the path.

Because of such necessary efforts, the heart of the most populous part of the United States is today a forest trail. This premier hiking path is a world-class adventure covering about 2,180 miles. Only one in four people who start the hike finish the complete hike over the loftiest mountains in eastern North America. Oddly, while the number of people tackling the entire trek is declining, the number of finishers is going up. Those who have accomplished the entire feat number fewer than 10,000. But between 2 to 3 million people take to part of the trail annually, enjoying a short stroll, a summit hike, a nearby point of interest, or a multi-night backpacking trip.

The perils of the trek might be unimaginable to sedentary Americans. If the sheer physical task weren’t arduous enough, equipment and its failures pose other problems. If you’ve ever had a blister from new hiking boots, imagine having boot problems as you walk 10 or more miles daily. Even when a hiker’s boots are comfortable, they wear out or fall apart on the trek, often at the least-opportune time. That kind of roulette plagues everything a hiker relies on, from a backpacking stove to a tent to a sleeping bag.

And the end-to-end AT hiker discovers that the human body is just another piece of equipment bound to fail. Most people find a three- or four-day backpacking trip ample undertaking; imagine walking for an entire summer. Your body really begins to lag at the daily chore of hoisting 40 pounds onto your back. Food can become an obsession after just three nights without a satisfying, multicourse repast. But that’s the fun part; worse is yet to come. For some, the feet go first—blisters and other injuries plague these body parts that touch the trail. For others, the knees give in. A searing spike of pain with each step puts an end to many a hike. So can a sore back that just gets worse, or a bad cold that lingers long after your body’s spare energy is gone. An end-to-end hike on the AT is a Herculean undertaking. And not everybody makes it. Not everybody is up to the simple mental and physical fatigue.

But that doesn’t mean it’s unrewarding. Within North Carolina alone, hikers pass through tree-covered, modest mountains that conjure the Appalachians of stereotype. And they see their share of poverty, what many hikers call the raw side of life in these stark, rugged hills. They also see some of the East’s grandest, most spectacular views. Again in North Carolina, there is mud, cold summer rain, stinging spring snow, and just about everything else a mountain climate can deliver, including awesome solitude and pockets of virgin wilderness reminiscent of the forests Daniel Boone experienced.

In New England, true timberline leads into alpine zones where the weather has claimed lives in summer.

Seventy-five years after the trail was completed, the philosophical uplift that MacKaye hoped for has taken place. Our current outdoor lifestyle and environmental consciousness is traceable in part to the existence of the Appalachian Trail and the wildlands that enclose it. The path’s enduring grandeur inspires generation after generation of hikers. Perhaps more than any other recreational facility in the world—yes, say it, the world—the Appalachian Trail symbolizes the power of nature to work wonders in the hearts and minds of those who take the time to wander in the woods.

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I must add the end-to-end hike to my bucket list.

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