7 Things About the AT’s Past That Might Surprise You

1) The AT was originally planned to connect a massive network of quasi-socialist utopian communities.

Created in 1921 by a former Forest Service employee named Benton MacKaye, the original proposal for an Appalachian Trail outlined a very different AT than exists today. The footpath that MacKaye envisioned was to be a connecting thread for an elaborate system of self-sustained woodland communities. MacKaye described plans for small-scale agriculture, forestry camps, shelters, inns, study centers, and cooperative commonwealths with permanent residencies, all to be a part of a broader “Appalachian Domain” that would provide an alternative to America’s industrial, profit-driven society.

MacKaye’s Domain never quite came to be, of course. While MacKaye provided the trail’s inspiration, a lawyer and outdoorsman named Myron Avery was chosen to lead the actual construction of the trail from 1930 through its completion in 1937. Consequently, the trail produced was much more a reflection of Avery’s unwaveringly pragmatic nature rather than of his contemporary’s idealism. Primitive shelters and the trail itself were the only physical remnants of MacKaye’s original vision to survive.

2) The AT was never intended to be thru-hiked.

Nowhere in MacKaye’s vision for the Appalachian Trail did hiking the whole thing, let alone completing it in a single trek, make any appearance. Even Avery, who had already section-hiked the trail’s entirety during the course of its construction, didn’t think that an uninterrupted completion in a single year was possible. The Appalachian Trailway News actually published an article explaining why a thru-hike was allegedly impossible at the same time that, unbeknownst to the rest of the country, the first ever AT thru-hike was in the process of being completed. It’s little surprise, then, that…

3) When Earl Shaffer completed the first ever AT thru-hike, nobody believed him.

Many are familiar with Earl Shaffer’s first-ever AT thru-hike in 1948, a landmark journey now revered in Appalachian Trail history. When Shaffer first announced his feat, however, the Appalachian Trail Conference assumed he was a fraud. Shaffer’s claim was put through a “charming but thorough cross-examination,” as he described it, before it was finally recognized.

On an added note, Shaffer’s record setting (and total bad-assery) didn’t actually stop there. A second thru-hike in 1965 made him the first person to complete the trail in both directions. And in 1998, 50 years after his original thru-hike, Shaffer completed the AT once again to make himself the oldest person at that time to finish a thru-hike – at just shy of 80 years old.

4) Due to prolonged rerouting, the AT follows a totally different path today than it did when it was first cut.

At one point or another, nearly the entire Appalachian Trail has been relocated or rebuilt, piece-by-piece, since its completion in 1937. This has been done in an effort to have the trail pass through less private land, improve its quality, and more thoroughly surround it by wilderness. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that only about one percent of the original footpath is still part of the modern-day AT.

5) Nobody has ever known the exact length of the AT.

It’s commonly agreed that the AT is between 2,100 and 2,200 miles long, but consensus on a more specific number has historically been surprisingly hard to reach. A large part of this is due to the aforementioned rerouting; the trail’s exact route still changes almost annually, and as a result it is rarely the exact same length from year to year. Even so, the trail’s precise length has often been a matter of debate throughout the years. For example, a 1993 measurement based on U.S. Geological Survey maps determined the trail to be 2,189.3 miles long, but during the same year three people rolled a measuring wheel along the entire trail and found its length to be 2,160.2 miles long – a difference of almost 30 miles.

6) The AT’s southern terminus wasn’t always Springer Mountain.

For the AT’s first 20 years of existence, Mt. Oglethorpe of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Mountains marked the trail’s official southern terminus. Springer Mountain, about 15 miles away, would have remained obsolete it weren’t for smelly chicken coops alongside the trail on Oglethorpe, vandalism on Oglethorpe’s summit, and other developments in the area. These factors convinced trail officials to relocate the terminus to Springer Mountain, which, although somewhat unremarkable, fit the bill for an undeveloped, nearby peak. In 1958, the switch was made.

7) The AT was originally planned to be only 1,200 miles long.

Despite outlining a much more ambitious vision for an Appalachian Trail than what actually came to be, Benton MacKaye originally proposed a trail of only 1,200 miles. The planned footpath was to stretch between North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell, the highest point in the Southeast, and New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, the highest point in the Northeast.

All of the additional 1,000 miles of trail that exist today had already been added by the time the trail was completed in 1937. About 330 of these were tacked on to bring the trail’s northern terminus to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, an addition based on Myron Avery’s personal affinity for hiking in Maine. The rest of the additions came about on the trail’s southern end, where Mt. Oglethorpe replaced Mt. Mitchell as the trail’s southern terminus. At no point in the AT’s physical existence has the path actually gone anywhere near Mt. Mitchell.

Lead photo from gsmca.org, courtesy of Carlos C. Campbell Collection

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Comments 2

  • Warren Doyle : Feb 24th

    Based on the ATC definition of what constitutes a thru-hike (someone who consciously follows the existing white-blazed trail in one mostly continuous stretch of time), based on meticulous, credible research Earl Shaffer was NOT the first thru-hiker, Gene Espy was.(sorry class, Columbus did not discover America) In addition, it is a fact that Earl was shuttled around the Bigelow Range during his third alleged ‘thru-hike’.
    The three people who measured the trail by pushing a measuring wheel was in 1990, not 1993. (I was one of them pushing the wheel approximately 1,500 miles.)

  • Mismatch (SOBO 2011) : Jun 10th

    In general, a lot could be gained from thru-hikers having a better context of the Appalachian Trail. If you have any interest in the making of The Appalachian Trail, I highly recommend Sarah Mittlefehldt’s “Tangled Roots: The Appalachian Trail and American Environmental Politics”


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