Best Places to Do Trail Magic on the Appalachian Trail
The outdoor community has always had a way of attracting utopian dreamers, and the tradition of trail magic is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the experience of the Appalachian Trail. Each year, the trail community is comprised of thousands of hikers, but it also includes nearly as many folks on the periphery of the trail who dedicate their time helping those hikers achieve their dreams. These non-hikers, sometimes called trail angels, bestow trail magic—random acts of kindness that carry no expectation of repayment—with the hope that one day the recipient will pay it forward.
Trail magic can take many forms. It can be a ride into town, a free shower, an invitation to sleep on someone’s couch, someone else’s unwanted pair of trekking poles available at the moment yours snaps. But most often when hikers think of trail magic, they think of kind strangers parked at trail crossings with coolers full of beverages and food. This tailgating form of trail magic is the main focus of this article.
General guidelines for doing trail magic
If you would like to put smiles on hikers’ faces and earn the honorable title of Trail Angel, here are a few general tips to keep in mind.
Have Enough Space: Choose a location with sufficient room to set up whatever equipment you have brought (tables, chairs, coolers, grill, etc.) and for people to congregate without obstructing a road or the path of other vehicles.
Be Present: Coolers full of snacks and Capri Suns left along the trail for hikers are the kind of well-intended gestures with which the road to Hell is paved. The problem is that they attract animals and when animals get a taste for human food, they become a nuisance to humans and then humans kill them. Make sure you do not leave food unattended.
Leave No Trace: Clean up and pack out all trash and leftover food. If you placed signs along the trail, make sure you go back and remove them before you call it a day.
Be Creative: The most memorable trail magic is the trail magic you least expect. Some trail angels have gone above and beyond by hiking blenders to the tops of mountains to dispense frozen margaritas. Others have brought greeting cards and stamps so that hikers could write to their moms in time for Mother’s Day. Creativity will have people talking about your trail magic for many miles, and perhaps many years.
Best Places To Do Trail Magic
All trail magic is good trail magic, no matter where or when it is received. That said, the following is a list of places along the AT where the love may be extra magical. We’ve listed the times you’re likely to see the bulk of NOBO and SOBO hikers come through, but non-traditional hikers and hikers avoiding the bubble will be on the fringes of these time spans. For the sake of convenience, the majority of these locations are easily accessed parking areas, but do not hesitate to venture farther off the beaten path to meet hikers where they will least expect it. Now go forth and enjoy taking part in one of the greatest AT traditions there is!
Ideal Timing: Early March to mid-April for NOBOs, October-November for SOBOs
Mile 20.5 NOBO, 2170.4 SOBO
Located roughly 20 miles from Springer Mountain, Woody Gap has a large parking area that offers the perfect location to give NOBOs a little encouragement during their first few days in the woods, and to party with SOBOs during their last.
Ideal Timing: Mid-March to late-April for NOBOs, October-November for SOBOs
Mile 84.2 NOBO, Mile 2106.7 SOBO
Whether hikers are headed north or south, they will be smack dab in between resupplies and grateful for the chance to stretch their rations. A great location to congratulate NOBOs on crossing off their first state and SOBOs who are about to enter their final one.
Mile 199.6 NOBO, Mile 1991.3 SOBO
The only thing that could possibly make reaching the high point of the AT better is trail magic! Bear in mind that there is a somewhat substantial uphill climb from the parking lot to the observation tower, so you may want to keep the offerings modest. Even a single clementine or piece of candy is bound to make a hiker feel all warm and fuzzy.
Mile 207.3 NOBO, Mile 1983.6 SOBO
Less than eight miles from Clingmans Dome is the vast scenic parking area known as Newfound Gap. This location offers plenty of space to post up in a lawn chair next to a cooler and enjoy the view. There are also bound to be lots of hikers looking for rides into Gatlinburg, so if you can tolerate the smell for 20 minutes, the weary travelers will be much obliged for the hitch.
Mile 253.9 NOBO, Mile 1937 SOBO
Located less than a mile south of the iconic bald’s summit, the AT comes to a small parking area where it crosses Max Patch Road. Hikers will be a few days out from a resupply in both directions and will welcome a break from ramen noodles and Pop-Tarts. As a bonus, you can hike to the top of Max Patch and take in some of the most spectacular views on the whole trail!
Mile 455.1 NOBO, Mile 1735.8 SOBO
A large parking area with picnic tables. NOBOs especially will appreciate trail magic at Low Gap, what with Damascus being so close and yet so far. The kind of spot where you could serve breakfast lunch and dinner if you were so inclined.
Ideal Timing: April-May for NOBOs, September-October for SOBOs. Remember, Virginia is 500-plus miles long, so if the bubble is in Southern Virginia, it won’t reach the northernmost part for several weeks.
Mile 501.5 NOBO, Mile 1689.4 SOBO
The gateway to the Grayson Highlands, Massie Gap has a large parking area with toilets and trash cans. Given the popularity of the Grayson Highlands, the parking lot may be crowded. But the great perk of doing trail magic here is that when you’re done, you can hike in and visit the ponies yourself.
Mile 592 NOBO, Mile 1598.9 SOBO
Between Marion and Pearisburg, the resupply options are less than stellar. Towns are small, restaurants are few, and grocery stores carry what you need, but not necessarily what you want. Therefore, Bland, Va., is an excellent place to feed hungry hikers.
Mile 709.4 NOBO, Mile 1481.5 SOBO
A popular trailhead to McAfee Knob, this parking lot may or may not be crowded with day hikers, but it is certain to be crawling with thru-hikers. Not only is it located near one of the AT’s most iconic landmarks, it is also on the same road as the Homeplace restaurant, a popular destination for hikers to indulge in an all-you-can-eat family-style meal. A hitch to the Homeplace would earn you any hiker’s undying love.
Mile 833.1 NOBO, Mile 1357.8 SOBO
Whether you descend it as a NOBO or climb it as a SOBO, the Priest is guaranteed to feel like pure punishment. That is why trail magic at the border of the Priest Wilderness is so clutch. Set up in this parking lot with a delicious spread and a cooler full of beer and you’ll see the sheer anguish on many a face vanish.
Daleville, Va., to Front Royal, Va.,
From Daleville to the northern border of Shenandoah National Park, the AT parallels and crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive in many places. Frequently, it does so at scenic overlooks with parking areas and a few picnic benches. There are so many stunning locations to set up trail magic along this road that it would be silly to try to pick just one.
Ideal Timing: Early May for NOBOs, September for SOBOs
Mile 1065.5 NOBO, Mile 1125.4 SOBO
A momentous occasion in the life of a thru-hiker is crossing the Mason-Dixon line. The dividing line between North and South is located at the edge of Pen Mar Park. The park offers picnic benches, grills, and plenty of space to set up a congratulatory hiker feast.
Ideal Timing: May for NOBOs, August for SOBOs
Mile 1166 NOBO, Mile 1024.9 SOBO
After walking 100 miles through Pennsylvania, NOBOs are likely to notice that trail magic does tend to be a little less frequent in the North than in the South. This spacious dirt parking lot with a river flowing by is a great place to remind them that Yankees are rooting for them too.
Mile 1250.1 NOBO, Mile 940.8 SOBO
On paper, Pennsylvania looks like a cakewalk, but at this point hikers will have learned that appearances can indeed be deceiving. They have definitely traveled quite a few miles over the state’s notorious rock. Perhaps they’ve narrowly avoided stepping directly on several of the rattlesnakes that like to hide in them too. The sight of some trail magic at the crossing of this gravel road will be just what the doctor ordered.
Ideal Timing: May-early June for NOBOs, August for SOBOs
Mile 1328.7 NOBO, Mile 862.2 SOBO
The AT in New Jersey surprises many with its loveliness, but it is not exactly a mountainous place. Trail angels looking to post up for the day might as well take advantage of this Garden State parking and picnic area with a view.
Ideal Timing: June for NOBOs, July for SOBOs
Mile 1399.7 NOBO, Mile 791.2 SOBO
Park your car in this lot that sits about one-tenth of a mile off the AT. Bring your magic right to the trail or set up signs directing hikers to you. Either way, you’ll save hungry yet budget-wary hikers from blowing their money on the vending machines at the top of Bear Mountain. Be sure and check out the view of the New York City skyline from the top of Bear while you’re there.
Ideal Timing: Late June – Early July for NOBOs, late July for SOBOs
Mile 1474 NOBO, Mile 716.9 SOBO
Welcome NOBOs to New England and congratulate SOBOs about to bid the region farewell as you relax next to a lovely flowing river.
Ideal Timing: Late June – Early July for NOBOs, late July for SOBOs
Mile 1587 NOBO, Mile 603.9 SOBO
The highest point in Massachusetts, the top of Mt. Greylock may be reached both on foot and by car. The grassy summit with gorgeous views of the valley below is the sort of place both you and the hikers you meet will want to spend some time.
Ideal Timing: July for NOBOs, July-August for SOBOs
Mile 1634.3 NOBO, Mile 556.6 SOBO
In Vermont, NOBOs start to feel the ascents getting longer and steeper. SOBOs who have just finished what they were told would be the hardest part of the trail are hit with the reality that the rest of it is not easy… just a little easier. Salve the aches and hunger of these weary travelers at the base of the beautiful yet beastly Stratton Mountain.
Mile 1732.1 NOBO, Mile 458.8 SOBO
A gravel road crossing with no parking area may seem an odd choice for this list, but Cloudland Road was the site of some of the best and least expected trail magic that the author of this post received during her walk from Georgia to Maine. Right next to the trail, two Triple Crowners who had met on the PCT parked their van and set up some tables and a few lawn chairs, and shared food and trail stories with hikers from dawn till dusk. The sight of trail magic on the side of this lightly traveled thoroughfare will be a welcome surprise to all who pass through.
Ideal Timing: July for NOBOs and SOBOs
Mile 1768.2 NOBO, Mile 422.7 SOBO
Every AT hiker hears about the great trials and tribulations that they are sure to face while hiking through the Whites. What no one tells them is that the Granite State has more nasty tricks up its sleeve beyond the borders of White Mountain National Forest. It may not look like much on paper, but Smarts Mountain is truly brutal. Buoy the spirits of its unsuspecting victims with a little trail magic at the base.
Mile 1845.2 NOBO, Mile 345.7 SOBO
This trailhead off Route 302 could well be considered the halfway point of the Whites. Situated at the southern end of the Presidentials, this is a great place to reward SOBOs who have just conquered the windswept piles of jagged rock that are the Northeast’s highest peaks and to refuel NOBOs who are about to. Also a great place to offer rides to hikers who need a light resupply at one of the general stores that lie two-ish miles away.
Ideal Timing: Early August-mid-September for NOBOs, early June for SOBOs
Mile 1923.7 NOBO, Mile 267.2 SOBO
NOBOs will be feeling all the feels after crossing into their final state and SOBOs will be feeling exhausted after having made it through Southern Maine. Either way, trail magic is definitely in order.
Mile 2002.7 NOBO, Mile 188.2 SOBO
People like to say that the southernmost 50 or so miles in Maine are brutal, but that the terrain mellows out after that. The truth is that the rest of Maine is mellow only in the sense that Virginia is flat. Situated between some gorgeous but substantial peaks, this parking area is a great place to feed hungry hikers and offer hitches into the nearby town of Stratton.
Mile 2076.4 NOBO, Mile 114.5 SOBO
This one may seem a little obvious, but the importance of this milestone to a thru-hiker cannot really be overstated. Entering the 100-Mile Wilderness is an emotional moment for NOBOs as they are flooded with the realization that their great adventure will soon come to an end. For SOBOs, the southern end of the 100-Mile Wilderness marks the first major milestone in their journey to Springer. This is a pretty special place to wish hikers well.
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