21 Fascinating Appalachian Trail Facts
How well do you know the Appalachian Trail? You thru-hikers in the crowd probably think you know the AT like the back of your dirty, mud-stained hands. After taking those five million steps can you recall the many incredibly minute factoids about where you spent six months of your life, or is everything some sort of green blur?
Either way, my mission here is to expand your knowledge of the trail with a great big pile of
useless fascinating Appalachian Trail facts! By the time you’re done reading this, you’ll be a veritable rockstar of AT trivia. New to the trail? Don’t worry. I’ve broken things down into three levels. Facts will increase in wonderment as levels go up. So just to make sure everyone is up to speed, let’s start with a quick session of Appalachian Trail 101.
Level 1: The Apple Chin What Now..?
1. The Appalachian Trail is…
…a nearly 2,200 mile hiking trail through the Appalachian Mountain Range in the Eastern United States.
2. It is the longest “hiking-only” footpath in the world.
3. The Trail travels through 14 different states:
2. North Carolina
5. West Virginia
8. New Jersey
9. New York
13. New Hampshire
4. The Appalachian Trail is the largest AND longest-running volunteer conservation project in the world.3
The entirety of the trail is maintained by an army of volunteers organized into 31 distinct maintenance clubs. Clubs do everything from maintaining existing trails and painting blazes to excavating trail reroutes and building new shelters. Each club is responsible for maintaining specific sections of trail as small as the Wilmington Trail Club’s 7.2 miles and as large as the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s 266.8 miles.4
5. The elevation gain/loss of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail is the equivalent of climbing Mount Everest 16 times.
The summit of Mount Everest sits at 29,029 feet. Doing a little math, that means that the elevation change hikers traverse along the AT totals up to an approximate 464,464 feet!5
Level 2: Day-Hiker
6. Civilization is not as far away as you might think.
On average the trail crosses a road every four miles. The Appalachian Mountains are bustling with many small mountain communities making it easier to find your way back to society than other long-distance trails. The trail itself runs right through the middle of several towns and passes within a few miles of many others.6
7. Less than 22,000 people have completed a successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.
According to the records kept by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) as of this writing, there have been 21,553 successful thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail since its creation. That’s 21,553 people out of all people that have ever existed. Ever. Even if you throw in estimates of how many people may have completed a hike without reporting it to the ATC, it still makes for quite an impressive figure.7
8. The “wild” ponies of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park are not really all that wild.
Though many of us nearly fainted at the thought of encountering a wild horse along the Appalachian Trail, as with many things, the reality is slightly less magical. The technical term would actually be that they are “feral,” meaning that they are in fact descended from a domesticated breed that has re-adapted to more a “wild” behavior.
The ponies that we know today actually came from Assateague Island off the coast of Maryland where the ponies have roamed since the 1600s. Theories on how the ponies originally came to the island vary, but the consensus seems to be that humans did it.
Surprise, surprise. In 1975 fifty Assateague ponies were brought to the Grayson Highlands to graze atop the mountains and help manage vegetation atop the balds. The ponies are rounded up twice a year to check their numbers and health providing veterinary assistance when necessary. To help stabilize the population some of the ponies are even sold at auctions usually once a year.8
9. It’s estimated that about 99% of the entire trail has been either relocated or rebuilt since its completion.
Many of the most scenic sections of trail we enjoy today were not originally a part of the trail. This includes Tennessee’s Roan Mountain, Virginia’s Grayson Highlands, New Jersey’s Pochuck Creek swamp, and Maine’s Saddleback Mountain.1
10. Springer Mountain is not the original southern terminus of the trail.
I’ve touched on this topic before, but it bears repeating. Springer Mountain did not receive the title until 1956. Before that, the honor of the southern terminus fell to Mount Oglethorpe.
Related reading: Appalachian Trail Map: 32 Reasons to Hike the AT
11. The AT cuts through one of the oldest mountain range on the planet.
While it is fairly difficult to prove that it is, in fact, the “oldest,” it is at least considered one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. How old? Well, it is believed that the Appalachian Mountain Range predates the creation of the North American continent! In their early years, The Appalachian Mountains were likely stunning peaks reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains. However, centuries upon centuries of weather, ice, and erosion have rounded the peaks giving us the mountains we know and love today.9
12. The trail’s creators thought most people would actually hike Southbound.
If that’s the case, why do so many people hike the trail northbound? This is one of those questions with many different answers, but the tradition can be traced back to the fact that the first AND second person (Earl Shaffer & Gene Espy) to ever thru-hike the entire trail hiked it northbound. Most hikers follow their example today, whether they are aware of it or not.
Level 3: Thru-Hiker/Section-Hiker
13. No one seems to actually know why the southern Appalachian bald mountains exist.
The grassy balds of the southern Appalachian Mountains are some of the most exciting destinations along the early parts of the Appalachian Trail. A “bald” essentially describes a high-elevation area that is devoid of prominent vegetation such as trees. The Roan Highlands, Big Bald, and the Grayson Highlands are all included in this category. Balds such as these are considered oddities.
Up north, bald mountains such as those found in the White Mountains are not uncommon. The colder, harsher climates of New Hampshire and Maine create an alpine environment that commonly causes the effect. Yet in the warmer climate of the South, this result is abnormal.
Theories abound about how these famous mountain tops may have been cleared. Some believe they were high enough to be susceptible to lightning strikes and fires. Others believe overgrazing of livestock inhibited growth. Still others say logging is to blame. The truth is there is apparently little evidence to support any of these claims to eliminate the idea that it may actually be a naturally occurring phenomenon.10,11
14. Of the 14 states the trail passes through, it will only take travelers within hiking distance of seven state “high point” peaks.
Tennessee – Clingmans Dome – 6,644 ft.
Virginia – Mount Rogers – 5,728 ft.
New Jersey – High Point – 1,803 ft.
Connecticut – Bear Mountain – 2,316 ft.**
Massachusetts – Mount Greylock – 3,491 ft.
New Hampshire – Mount Washington – 6,288 ft.
Maine – Mount Katahdin – 5,269 ft.
**The highest point in Connecticut is on the mountainside of Mount Frissel, but the mountain’s summit is actually in Massachusetts. This makes Bear Mountain the highest “peak” in the state. (Credit: Kat Woodward)
15. The famed Appalachian Trail Days Festival in Damascus, VA is only 34 years old.
That means I’m actually older than this hallowed AT tradition. The festival was started in May of 1987 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Appalachian Trail. Since then it has been an annual event calling thousands upon thousands of hikers back to Trail Town, USA.12
16. One of the most ecologically damaged sections of the trail is also a United States Superfund site.
The Palmerton Zinc Pile is one of the country’s 1319 Superfund cleanup sites. In the early 1900s, the town of Palmerton, PA was home to a fairly large zinc smelting operation. Smelting operations ended in 1980 and the site was added to the National Priority list under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1983. Smelting activities at the site emitted large quantities of zinc, lead, sulfur dioxide, and other contaminants that resulted in the defoliation of the 2,000-acre area.
The AT takes hikers up to the site by way of Lehigh Gap through one of the more extreme climbs that can be found south of the White Mountains. The trail used to take travelers directly through the site but in recent years has been rerouted around the border of the Superfund to assist in the revitalization process. The Superfund is also home to the most polluted water source on the trail. It is recommended that most hikers avoid the aptly named “Metallica Spring” unless they haven’t gotten their recommended daily dose of heavy metals…13
17. The idea for the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail were conceived atop the same mountain.
It was atop Stratton Mountain in Vermont that these two famous scenic trails got their start. In 1909, James P. Taylor found himself on the mountain when he birthed the idea of a trail stretching from Massachusetts to Canada. This would later become The Long Trail in Vermont.
It was during the construction of the Long Trail that Benton Mackaye stood atop the very same mountain finding the inspiration for the beginnings of the Appalachian Trail. The two trails are contiguous for about 100 miles. Stratton Mountain may not be the most awe-inspiring view along the trail, but it is certainly one of the most significant.14
18. Skyline Drive follows the original path of the Appalachian Trail.
That’s right! If you’ve driven Skyline Drive’s 105 miles of winding road through Shenandoah National Park you’ve traveled along the original path the AT was intended to follow! The idea of Skyline Drive was proposed in 1931. This was six years before the official completion of the trail. Its path along the crest of the Blue Ridge is the original siting for the Appalachian Trail through the area. The idea of its construction was a major player in the rift that formed between Benton Mackaye and Myron Avery. Avery felt the road and the trail could coexist while Mackaye was less compromising.15
19. Do you know which famous hiker town was home to a WWI internment camp?
If you guessed Damascus, VA then congratulations! You are WRONG! The answer is actually Hot Springs, NC. The Mountain Park Hotel and grounds were leased to the US government in 1917 to house captured German merchant sailors. The prisoners were treated so well by the townspeople that several even returned to Hot Springs after the war!16
20. You’re most likely to run into a black bear in New Jersey.
Wait. What? Really? Yes! Actually, there are three places where most hikers will check black bear sightings off their AT To-Do List: The Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and New Jersey. New Jersey holds the claim of having both the highest population density of humans AND black bears in the country. What New Jersey has in common with the national parks is that the state has historically had heavy regulations on black bear hunting. Since 1953 black bears were protected from “indiscriminate killing” and then in 1971 the black bear hunting season was closed entirely. Since then black bear populations have surged in the state. It wasn’t until 2010 that an annual bear hunting season was once again allowed in the state.17,18
21. The trail will take you by the only town in America to ever execute an elephant…by hanging.
As absurd (and horrifying) as that sounds, it is true. In 1916 Erwin, TN, home of Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, a five-ton elephant known as “Murderous Mary” from the Sparks Brother’s Circus was executed. In front of a gawking crowd of 2,500 people, Mary was hung by her neck from a crane. The story of Murderous Mary has become popular folklore and through the years exact reasons for her execution are not quite as clear. In short, Mary stood accused of killing a man and people demanded some of that crazy ol’ early 20th-century justice. The story and its exaggerations may vary depending on the teller, but they all end the same way.19
So how much did you know?
Was your mind expanded or were you already a top-notch AT expert? Do you have any useless Appalachian Trail facts of your own stored away in the recesses of your brain? Do you think I got something wrong, or do you just want to say hi? If so you should head on down to the comments section and let your text be read!
UPDATE 4/20/2014Seeing as the point of this article is to try and communicate “facts” about the trail I added the citations for where I researched the information for the various points presented. Naturally I did not just come up with these facts out of the blue. They are presented thanks to the work of the folks represented below. I should have included this in the original publishing of the article but it slipped by undone. To rectify this mistake my citations are presented below. They should be marked to their corresponding reference in the text above – Kenny
1 “Appalachian Trail Conservancy – 75th Anniversary of the Completion of the AT.”Appalachian Trail Conservancy. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.appalachiantrail.org/promo/75th-anniversary>.
2 Critton, Beth. “The White Blaze.” Georgia Appalachian Trail Club. Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://georgia-atclub.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=144:the-white-blaze&catid=33&Itemid=684>.
3 “Five Things You Didn’t Know About the Appalachian Trail – The-House.com.”How To Guides Reviews and Articles for TheHousecom. The House Outdoor Gear, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.the-house.com/portal/five-things-you-didnt-know-about-the-appalachian-trail/>.
4 “Appalachian Trail Conservancy – Trail Maintaining Clubs.” Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Appalachian Trail Conservancy, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.appalachiantrail.org/who-we-are/our-team/trail-maintaining-clubs>.
5 “Appalachian Trail Conservancy – About the Trail.” Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Appalachian Trail Conservancy, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
6 “Appalachian Trail FAQs.” Conservation. Appalachian Mountain Club, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
7 “Appalachian Trail Conservancy – 2000 Milers.” Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Appalachian Trail Conservancy, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.appalachiantrail.org/about-the-trail/2000-milers>.
8 Delaney, Ky. “The Roundup: Guide To Wild Ponies And Elk.” Blue Ridge Outdoors. Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine, Dec. 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <http%3A%2F%2Fwww.blueridgeoutdoors.com%2Fgo-outside%2Froundup-guide-wild-ponies-elk%2F>.
9 “Appalachian Mountains.” New World Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Appalachian_Mountains>.
10 Frankenberg, Dirk. “Mountain Balds.” Elevations and Forest Types. Carolina Environmental Diversity Explorations, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
11 “The Natural Communities of Virginia Classification of Ecological Community Groups.” Natural Heritage. Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, July 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/natural_communities/ncTIb.shtml>.
12 Louise Fortune Hall Marilou Hall Preston William Stein Ron Fisher Christopher Percy Collier Marcus Roth, “Appalachian Trail,” Hall Collection, accessed April 8, 2014, https://www.archives-wcpl.net/archive7_hall/items/show/16.
13 “Palmerton Zinc.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.epa.gov/reg3hwmd/npl/PAD002395887.htm>.
14 “Off the Beaten Path.” Stratton, VT. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.stratton.com/events-and-activities/stratton-activities/summer-activities/hiking-off-the-beaten-path.aspx>.
15 United States. National Park Service. “Appalachian Trail History.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 29 Mar. 2014. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.nps.gov/shen/historyculture/at.htm>.
16 “History of Hot Springs, NC.” Hot Springs, NC. Hot Springs Tourism Association, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://hotspringsnc.org/about/history/>.
17 Dodd, Scott. “The Real Bears of New Jersey.” On Earth. N.p., 4 June 2013. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://www.onearth.org/articles/2013/06/the-black-bear-capital-of-america-is-new-jersey>.
18 “History of Black Bears in New Jersey.” Division of Fish & Wildlife. New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 27 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Apr. 2014. <https://www.state.nj.us/dep/fgw/bearfacts_history.htm>.
19 Schroeder, Joan V. “The Day They Hanged an Elephant in East Tennessee.” BlueRidgeCountry. N.p., 1 May 1997. Web. 8 Apr. 2014. <https://blueridgecountry.com/archive/favorites/mary-the-elephant/>.
“21 Fascinating Appalachian Trail Facts” was originally published April 10, 2014. Updated December 20, 2021.
Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).
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