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.)
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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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