10 Reasons it’s so freaking cool to choose the Appalachian Trail

I remember decades ago when I was on a wilderness course in the snowy Cascade mountains in Washington, I told my instructors of my dream to hike the Appalachian Trail one day. They scoffed. “Why would you hike that trail? It’s so crowded – it’s like a superhighway.  And it’s not really the wilderness.  And you’ll be in the “green tunnel” for miles and miles with no views. You should hike the PCT instead.”

I was undeterred. I love the eastern woodlands, and eighteen years later I finally achieved my goal of an AT thru hike. I loved nearly every minute of it. Here are ten of my favorite reasons why the Appalachian Trail is so cool, why I love the “superhighway” and the “green tunnel” and why you will too.

1. Rain means water. The AT is a rainy place. You should expect a lot of rain,  sometimes for days on end, sometimes just every afternoon. The great thing about rain is it means you rarely have to carry more than a half-day’s worth of water. You’ll cross so many water sources – streams, creeks, springs, seeps. gorgeous little cascades popping out of mountainsides.  How wonderful not to have to carry so much water. (Note – always treat your water and consult your maps and guidebooks for water source information so you aren’t surprised when you do encounter the rare dry stretch.)

All water sources are not this gorgeous, but they're still plentiful.

All water sources are not this gorgeous, but they’re still plentiful.

2. The green tunnel is the most beautiful thing you will ever see. If you’re starting your thru in spring, it will take a while for the trees to leaf out, but once they do, you’ll be captivated by the gorgeousness. Walking through the fully leafed-out forests in deep summer is like receiving hugs from the trees.  The trees protect you from rain showers, they shade your path, and the maple leaves make good TP too!

green tunnel apallachian trail

Green tunnel beauty, Virginia in June.

3. The smells- I dream of the smells of the AT. Sunshine on hay-scented fern smells like the best soap ever. Honeysuckle is delightful. Maine smells like Christmas because of all the balsam fir. And then there’s simply the wonderful smell of fallen leaves in the woods, especially just after a rain. I should create an AT candle line, but you know it wouldn’t be the same.

Hay-scented fern. Best smell ever.

Hay-scented fern. Best smell ever.

4. The biodiversity. In one day on the AT you can go from a rocky summit to a mushy bog to a farm field to a swamp to a pine forest to an oak and maple hardwood forest. And within each of these diverse ecosystems, you’ll find an incredible variety of  mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects.

one of a zillion of these cutie-pie efts I saw on my hike!

one of a zillion of these cutie-pie efts I saw on my hike!

5. Fungi. Rain also means fungi. More colors, shapes and sizes than you could imagine. Yes, fungi made the top ten list. You’ll see. It’s incredible!

red fungi on the Appalachian Trail

Tiny red ones.

6. There’s no altitude sickness. The Appalachian Mountains are about 300 million years older than the Rockies and more than 400 million years older than the Sierras in California. That means they’ve had a lot more time to be worn down by weather so they’re not nearly as tall. You’ll have plenty of oxygen on all parts of the AT while you huff and puff on the steep rocky trails.

7. Temperate climate. The fact that the Appalachian Trail runs through temperate forest most of the way means it’s highly accessible most seasons. Yes, it’s freezing in the winter and blazing in the summer, but most days of the year there’s a part of the AT that’s perfect for hiking. If you’re prepared with the right gear you can hike just about any part of it in any season, allowing for many permutations and combinations of hiking routes – like flip-flopping.

8. Ease of getting on and off trail to reach towns and amenities. When you’re in the woods on the AT it feels remote, even if there is a road crossing in a couple of miles. And when you’re low on food or fuel, or trying to meet up with a friend, or ready for a break in town, those relatively frequent road crossings are so welcome-  they mean access to showers, pancakes, ice cream, a cozy bed, a break from the rain, a laundromat, and maybe an all you can eat buffet. I personally love the mix of woodland quiet and readily accessible cheeseburgers.

I love a convenience store steps from the trail. I think I ate about 6000 calories here, and packed out a giant sandwich.

I love a convenience store steps from the trail. I think I ate about 6000 calories here, and packed out a giant sandwich.

9. People. Gary Sizer (Green Giant) just wrote a piece celebrating a few of the people he met on his hike, and I can’t agree more that people make the AT extra-special, whether they’re fellow thru hikers, day hikers, people in town, people out for a weekend, or people who love the AT as much as you do and are busy maintaining the trails so you don’t have to climb over blowdowns and bushwhack through thickets of poison ivy. You will treasure the incredible people you meet and the lifelong friends you make on the AT.

10. So many flowers! Spring and summer on the AT offer a profusion of blooms, from pink azaleas and rhododendrons to white mountain laurel to purple irises. Summer brings goldenrod as high as your head and Queen Anne’s lace, along with scores of orange day lilies.

day lily fields

Of course there are other beautiful trails. The PCT is like walking through a picture postcard every single day, with sweeping views for a hundred miles in all directions. (It’s also a slog through desert sands with no water for days, and the altitude on much of the trail is enough to make anyone lightheaded. And some of it is on fire every year.) I love the west and its rugged, exposed, blow-your-mind-with-the-scenery glory, and who knows, I may have another thru hike on a western trail in me yet. But the Appalachian Trail will always be my first and favorite love.

(All photos taken by me, Carla Robertson, on the Appalachian Trail.)

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Comments 6

  • Slack Packhiker : Jan 28th

    Delightful read, Carla. Your online coaching is awesome too!

  • Carla Robertson : Jan 30th

    Thanks so much, Slack Packhiker! You rock! 🙂

  • Char O. : Jan 31st

    Loved your article. Any other words you have for a nervous mother whose only child will be thru-hiking next month?

    • Carla Robertson : Feb 12th

      My mom was worried about me too, as were most family members, especially because I was setting out alone. As the trip progressed and she learned more, she became more comfortable. Then when I needed resupply support about two months in, she started sending me my packages. That made all the difference – now she was shopping for me and packaging my food – and when I told her thank you for helping me in a pinch and she didn’t need to do it anymore, she said, “No! I’m just figuring this out – I’m just getting good at it!” So she resupplied me for the whole rest of my hike. When I happened to run into Ray Jardine – look him up – and hiked with him for a couple of days, she looked up his books and got them out of the library and became an “expert” on ultralight hiking! So I would say learn about the trail, be as involved as you’d like to be – sending care packages or food resupply, and trust that the trail is an amazing place surrounded by a generous and caring community of people.

  • Mark : Feb 4th

    Great article. Planning on leaving a job I’ve done for many years that I can’t stand to thru hike the AT. Long time backpacker in Indiana and gotta say love the term “greenway” so true and beautiful. Been to the west coast and love it but there’s just something about the eastern hardwoods that cannot be measured by the same ruler as the western mountain ranges.

    • Carla Robertson : Feb 12th

      I totally agree. There’s something about those trees. The tall Tulip Poplars – with their giant super-straight trunks – I remember places in Pennsylvania that were gorgeous groves of them. And the smells – yes – I’m a deciduous forest girl for sure!


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