The Appalachian Trail doesn’t just traverse the forests, meadows, swamps, and peaks of 14 eastern states; it’s also a window into the cultural and historical heritage of the longest settled part of the country. It is the oldest of the great long-distance hiking trails, traveling through farm country, centuries-old towns, and storied battlefields, and yet it’s one of the most rugged, blazing straight up and down ancient mountains as if they were anthills. That’s why, for any avid hiker, the Appalachian Trail is the ultimate badge of honor, and some 11,600 people have done the whole thing. A storied trail culture has formed, in which thru-hikers earn trail names and local residents and supporters offer “trail magic”–free food, gifts, and other unexpected kindnesses–at many points.
The challenge of walking, on average, 8 to 25 miles (13 to 40 kilometers) a day and five million footsteps over five to six months isn’t for everyone, and, thankfully, it isn’t necessary. Many tick off the trail in chunks and others glimpse the most beautiful parts, such as this spot in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, on day hikes. One of the greatest sections is the very last of the 160,000 white blazes that lead up Maine’s Mount Katahdin. There, in August, if you’re lucky, you might spot a few shaggy-haired, bearded thru-hikers taking the last few steps of their journey from Georgia, glimpsing, for the first time, the signposted terminus of the trail. They’re almost always in tears.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy offers information and guidebooks on thru-hiking the trail (www.appalachiantrail.org).