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5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail (AT) is probably the U.S.’s most iconic trail. It’d be tough to argue differently, to be honest. Stretching 2,190+ miles from Georgia to Maine, this trail changes lives and inspires hikers anew every year. Passing through 14 states, if you were to thru-hike the AT, you would take on elevation change equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times. Whether you hike the whole thing, a section, or just tackle a day hike, this trail is worth your time. Here are a few lesser-known facts to help color your experience.

5. The Appalachians are Old, Even Geologically

Image by Cappi Thompson

When you start thinking in geological terms, time gets a little funky. At least, as far as rocks and mountains go, it’s crazy to think that an age of several-dozen million years is considered “young.” Similarly, it’s quite a feat for a mountain range to be thought of as relatively “old.”

Once upon a time, the Appalachians were a part of an ancient mountain range, the Central Pangean Mountains. We can learn about those ancient ranges by looking at soil and sediment in the Appalachians, and this can even give us a sense of the volume and size of their individual peaks. It’s possible that the eroded, rounded Appalachian Mountains we know today were once the size of our present-day Himalayas. A wealth of history has filled them ever since—humans, plants, and animals alike. There’s a lot of stories in that earth.

4. It Passes by a Well-Known Cult

Image by the YellowDeli.com

After a couple of weeks on trail, thru-hikers’ bodies get very used to the routine of walking, eating, walking, eating, walking, eating, sleeping, eating, and walking again. Your body adjusts to accommodate this new lifestyle, and you develop what’s called “hiker hunger.” Essentially, you’ll absolutely gorge yourself at the nearest restaurant, and be ready to do it again an hour later.

Not all restaurants are exactly as they seem, though. The Yellow Deli is both a popular stop for a hot meal on the AT and owned by the Twelve Tribes cult. Most hikers have heard of this place somewhere along the trail and stop in just to see what it’s about. You can certainly just grab a bite and leave, but the open, inviting social aspect of the AT is something people get swept up in. It would be tragic for that environment to be used as a cover for recruiting people into a religious society that they don’t know everything about . . .

3. It’s Been Done Barefoot

Image by Johner Images

Imagine: You’re walking north on the AT. You’re about three months in. Your blisters had blisters for a while there, but now you’ve got your trail legs. Your feet are calloused and hard. Stopping for a break, you’re passed by two women. You look down and notice that they’re . . . barefoot? And you thought you were doing something hard.

The barefoot sisters are, of course, real hikers, and they really accomplished that feat. Apparently, they always used to hike barefoot as kids, and it just felt natural to bring that habit with them out onto the AT. Their feet got so hard that when they walked through snow, it wasn’t the cold that forced them to put shoes on but the possibility of slipping on ice. A few miles through snow would have otherwise been no problem. Later, they would go back to complete those sections barefoot too.

2. It’s Full of Angels (And Magic)

Image by Rebecca Smith

Along the AT, there’s an incredible network of people known as “trail angels.” These are folks who donate time, money, or space to the thousands of hopeful thru-hikers. If you see a hiker hitchhiking and you drive him or her into town, you’re a trail angel. Sometimes, especially generous angels will even welcome hikers into their homes for a night, offering them a warm bed and a clean shower. The atmosphere of the AT  is one of generosity, trust, and renewed faith in humanity.

Trail angels are also the benefactors of what we call “trail magic.” What’s trail magic? Imagine, you’re tired, worn down, but still hiking. You pull into a random trailhead, and there’s a huge canopy set up with a bunch of hikers around. A smiling person with a spatula asks if you’d like to sit down and eat a pancake. You could cry from happiness. Trail magic is a blessing from strangers that always seems to come just when you need it. From free, hot meals to coolers of cold soda left in the woods, the AT has the most trail magic per capita out of any trail in America.

1. There’s An Extended Edition

Image by Rebecca Smith

Sure, 2,190 miles is pretty impressive, but how about a little more of a challenge? You could hike the 4,400-mile Eastern Continental Trail, or the ECT. You’ll start all the way down in Key West, Florida, at the southeastern tip of the United States. After a lot of roadwalking through the Keys, you’ll find your way to the Florida Trail. That’ll be about 1,500 miles, then you can connect to the AT via the Pinhoti Trail and some roadwalking. Then, after you hike the entire Appalachian Trail, you won’t quite be done. You’ll have to continue north to Belle Isle on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula.
This is becoming an increasingly popular option among highly experienced thru-hikers. One such hiker, “Professor,” added it on to his Calendar Year Triple Crown—an already ridiculous feat that he made even more ridiculous. Another vastly experienced hiker, Lil Buddha, has just recently completed the ECT (again) as a part of “The Pangea Traverse.” On this journey, he’ll walk the remains of those Central Pangean Mountains we discussed earlier. There’s always history in the making.

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  1. Donnie Shields

    The trail should be opened to equine riding it is highly under used by hikers
    And would open up great scenery for equine riders

    1. Joanne (Greyhound)

      Thru hiked the AT this year. There are some parts of the trail in the Smokey Mountain National Park that are open to horses. Unlike the PCT and CDT, that are graded for stock, much of the AT is not safe for horses though. I was surprised how much of the trail was more rock climbing than hiking. Lots of cliffs that are hand over hand climbing and very steep bouldering sections. Most of PA was a boulder field. Most of NH and ME had multiple daily cliff climbs and more boulder fields. NY had its share of cliffs too.

  2. Joanne (Greyhound)

    Thru hiked the AT this year. My feet are still complaining about the 16 Everest climbs. The food at the Yellow Deli was delicious, but they closed the restaurant for renovations the day after I ate there. They didn’t try to recruit me.

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