The Hardest Sections on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail has a lot of ups and downs… some sections more than others. We polled 2016 thru-hikers on a lot of different aspects of the trail, including what sections they considered the most difficult. Difficulty can be determined by any combination of terrain, weather, trail conditions, time of year, and local novelties.

Most difficult doesn’t necessarily mean most disliked, however. Several sections voted most difficult were also among the favorites: The White Mountain National Forest, Southern Maine, and Baxter State Park/Mt Katahdin were all ranked most difficult and were hiker faves. Some sections, like Northern PA (rocks on rocks on rocks) were among the toughest and most disliked.

It’s worth noting that the White Mountains, Southern Maine, and Northern PA were reported as being significantly more challenging than the last four listings (Baxter State Park, New York, Amicalola, and the Smokies). We included the top seven results, since all of the following sections have difficult aspects.

Here they are, in order.

1) White Mountains, NH

white-mountains

Distance

Just over 100 miles long

Location and Mileage

NOBO: Start of the Whites section is generally considered Mt. Moosilauke (mile 1792), ending at the town of Gorham (mile 1891).
SOBO: Begins after Gorham, NH (mile 298.3) and finishes at the far side of Moosilauke (mile 397.8).

High Point

Mt. Washington at 6,289 feet. Lowest points are several “notch” road crossings at around 1,400 feet.

What makes this section hard

Elevation gain per mile, challenging terrain, rocky trails, intense weather, camping regulations

More Info:

The White Mountains are one of the the hardest, but also one of the most popular section of the AT. It’s NOBO’s first time consistently above treeline, and the terrain is nothing short of spectacular. The trails are glorified rock slides and the elevation-gain-per-mile ramps up, crushing your quads on the ascent and your knees on the way down. Many climbs gain over 1,000 rugged feet per mile.  The weather is also intense through this section, and can change in the blink of an eye. Preparation and planning are key. Mt. Washington is home to the “worst weather in the world,” despite the relatively low elevation of 6,289 feet. It lives at the intersection of several major stormtracks, which means nearly every storm moving west to east across the country travels over the peak. To make things even more fun, those storms intersect with weather systems moving south to north. The surrounding peaks create a natural “funnel,” all but ensuring the full capacity of storms hit Mt. Washington every time.

Notable points

AMC Hut system, which thru-hikers can stay at (depending on demand), working for a meal and space on the floor. Franconia Ridge is a 6-mile traverse  and one of the most highly rated day hikes in the country. There are numerous ponds, and fascinating alpine plants to look for. Camping can be tricky, as stealth camping is not allowed, and campsites do fill up. Again, planning and preparation is key to successfully traversing this amazing section.

2) Southern Maine

southern-maine

Mahoosuc Notch in a nutshell

Distance

Just over 100 miles long… exact end point can be a matter of opinion

Location and Mileage

NOBO: Begins at NH/Maine border (NOBO 1908), ends at north side of Little Bigelow Mountain (mile 2016.9).
SOBO: Begins at Little Bigelow Mountain  (mile 172.9), ends at NH/Maine border (mile 281.8).

High Point

North Crocker Mountain at 4,228 feet. Lowest points are road crossings at around 1,200 feet.

What Makes This Hard

Horrendous terrain, eroded trails, Mahoosuc Notch

More Info

Southern Maine is a bear no matter what way you approach it. For Southbounders, hitting one of the toughest sections of the AT so soon is a rude awakening. For Northbounders, being slowed to a crawl this late in the game is excessively frustrating. Hikers can move an average of 1.5 miles per hour for an entire day depending on weather and trail conditions. It’s rooted, rocky, and you won’t take a normal step for miles at a time through some parts, instead lowering off boulders, pulling up on tree roots, or sliding down on your butt. Since thru-hikers have a tendency to appreciate the rugged aspects of life, this section was also among the favorites in our poll. Our survey respondants included the Bigelow Range in this section, but “Southern Maine” can mean different things to different people. The Bigelows are tough but rewarding, and not as bad as the first 80 miles of Maine.

Notable Points

Mahoosuc Notch (the hardest or most fun mile of the AT, according to AWOL’s Guide), a variety of beautiful ponds to take a dip in between arduous climbs.

3) Northern Pennsylvania

northern-pa

These rocks are kind of fun. It’s the miserable miles of ankle-rollers you have to watch out for

Distance

About 146 miles long

Location and Mileage

NOBO: The rocky sections ramps up after Duncannon (mile 1147), and lets up around the PA/NJ border (mile 1294).
SOBO: Begins around NJ/PA border (mile 896) and ends past Duncannon (mile 1042).

High Point

Elevation gain is negligible. It’s one of the flattest sections of the AT, staying roughly between 600-1400 feet for the majority of the stretch.

What Makes This Hard

Rocks. Depending on conditions, water can be infrequent through here.

More Info

Hikers hear horror stories of Pennsylvania right from the start of their trek. Southern PA lulls NOBOs into a false sense of security with rolling hills, frequent towns, and hardly a rock in sight. As the miles pass, the rocks increase, until you’re stepping on and over rocks for days at a time. Your feet will bruise, your ankles will roll, but mostly it’s just a huge pain to not be able to walk normally, forced to stare at your feet for every step from dawn till dusk. To make things more fun, the water can be scarce through this section. Some of it might not be potable, and some water locations are down steep side trails. Harper’s Ferry Flip-floppers will escape most of the gnats through here, but NOBOs and SOBOs will hit the hottest time of year with gnats on gnats on gnats.

Notable Points

The towns through this section are friendly and inexpensive for food and town resupply. You won’t find many hostels, but the motel options are reasonable. Take a zero and let your feet recover.

4) Baxter State Park, including Katahdin

katahdin

Descending Katahdin is as much an adventure as summiting

Distance

From Baxter State Park to the summit of Katahdin is 14.6 miles. Yes, SOBOs will have to ascend Katahdin and NOBOs will have to descend for 5.2 off-trail miles, totalling 19.8.

Location and Mileage

NOBO: Baxter State Park boundary (mile 2175.2) to the summit of Mt. Katahdin (mile 2189.8)
SOBO: Summit of Katahdin (mile 0) to the Baxter State Park boundary (mile 14.6)

High Point

Katahdin! 5,268 feet up there. Low points are multiple stream crossings between 650-750 feet.

What Makes This Hard

The climb up Katahdin is long and has some hairy sections. The emotions are also running wild.

More Info

Keep in mind that this listing and the remaining ones were reported as significantly easier than the top three in this post. Katahdin is actually the longest climb on the entire AT, at a whopping five miles of climbing, starting from 1,089 feet at Katahdin Stream Campground to 5,268 feet at the summit. Baxter State park isn’t necessarily tough in of itself, but for SOBOs, this section is the first few days of the hike. For NOBOs? The terrain might be easy but ending your hike sure isn’t. Flip-floppers: You’re likely halfway done. Heck yeah.

Notable Points

Katahdin is the northern terminus of the AT, but we probably don’t have to tell you that. Be aware of the permit system in place for Baxter State Park this year, outlined here.

5) New York

new-york

Distance

Just under 100 miles

Location and Mileage

NOBO: NJ/NY border (mile 1366) to NY/CT border (mile 1461)
SOBO: CT/NY border (mile 728.7) to NY/NJ border (mile 823.8)

High Point

This is actually one of the lower sections of the trail. Prospect Rock is the high point at 1,433 feet, and the trail has multiple road crossings at merely 200-300 feet.

What makes this hard

Short, steep, repetitious climbs—many never breaking treeline. Standing water can mean nasty bugs.

More Info

New York catches thru-hikers off guard. This state has a surprisingly high amount of steep climbs, and while none are especially long, the consistent up-and-down takes a toll. Many of these climbs remain under treeline, making the effort feel fruitless. New York also happens to be a burn-out area for Northbounders. The peak of the season finds NOBOs in New York during the muggiest time of year, and the bugs can be vicious. The New York delis are not to be ignored though. If you time it right, you can hit a deli a day through the entire state, right at the numerous road crossings which means carrying less food and refueling with soda, deli sandwiches, and other delicious garbage as often as you please.

Notable Points

New York delis at road crossings, Bear Mountain State Park (vending machines!), walk-through zoo.

6) Amicalola Falls, Springer

amicalola_falls_stairs_9-11-2005_-_panoramio

Distance

Approach trail to the summit of Springer is just under 9 miles.

Location and Mileage

NOBO: Mileage is 0… the Approach Trail is not technically part of the AT
SOBO: You guys are done: 2289.8 miles. Feel free to head down the Amicalola steps if you so desire.

High Point

The trailhead is at 1,800 feet, Springer is the high point at 3,782 feet

What makes this hard

Stairs.

More Info

SOBOs will cruise this, but unless you’ve put in serious hours on the Stairmaster, the Amicalola stairs are a quad-killer for fresh NOBOs. The approach trail is tough, climbing about 600 stairs as you pass 729-foot Amicalola Falls, the tallest cascading waterfall in the southern US.

Notable Points

Springer is the southern terminus of the AT. People will ask you if you hiked the approach trail for the first three days of your hike.

7) Great Smoky Mountain National Park

smokies

Heading towards Charlie’s Bunion, a popular photo op and overlook in the Smokies

Distance

70 miles long

Location and Mileage

NOBO: Enter the Smokies after Fontana Dam (mile 167), and hit the northern boundary at Davenport Gap (mile 237.6).
SOBO: Enter the Smokies after Davenport Gap (mile 1952) and finish the section right at Fontana Dam (mile 2022.7).

High Point

Clingman’s Dome is the high point of the entire AT at 6,667 feet. Lowest points are the park’s northern and southern boundary, between 1700-1900 feet.

What makes this hard

Nasty early-season weather combined with higher elevation, first “big” mountains heading north on the AT

More Info

NOBOs hear about the glorious Smokies right from the start. The first real landmark of a northbound hike, the Smokies are higher in elevation than anything south, including Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. This stretch is often a source of inclement weather during the early spring, with days that don’t rise above freezing and nights hovering around 0 degrees. The Smokies stay between 4,000-6,000 feet for the majority of the section, and if you hit a bad patch of weather it can be a tough trek. They feel wild and remote, but despite the beefy peaks, there are sections of switchbacks to . Hikers are required to stay in shelters to lessen the environmental impact. Tenting is allowed at the shelter site if the shelter is at capacity.

Notable Points

Dogs are not allowed in the park, and must be boarded/shuttled. Options here. Ridgerunners and Rangers patrol the park, so be sure to follow the rules and stay in shelters. We’ve outlined permits in this post. You need one.

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Comments 12

  • Wanabe : Mar 2nd

    I’m a 2015 thru hiker and NH native.
    Endure and enjoy these ‘hard parts of the AT’. Seek that challenge, you won’t regret it in the long run. Plan on a little extra time, enjoy the environment you are in at the moment, become intuned….
    Before you know it you will be walking on level concrete side walks with an occasional 7,5″ rise, that I find is the hard part.

    Reply
  • Larry Salvatore : Mar 3rd

    One thing that the article mentions and can account for the list changing from year to year is the weather. A prolonged cold, wet, or dry stretch will make those sections more difficult. For example, in Maine, north of the Bigelows to Monson right after Hurricane Irene made that one of my toughest section. Didn’t top Mt K, southern Maine or the Whites but was next after those. As dry as last year was it’s no surprise that northern PA moved up the list.

    Reply
  • James Moorehead : Mar 3rd

    Excellent article. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Maslow : Mar 4th

    Excellent article! SOBO’d in 2015, having that very same debate about the PCT.

    Reply
  • Otter : Mar 14th

    Thank you for the research and the write-up, Maggie! Great post!

    Reply
  • lauren : Mar 14th

    how about the section just north and south of the nantahala river? i found those climbs and descents much more challenging than the smokies. i also don’t remember new york being too challenging, but other than those quibbles, this article is spot on!

    Reply
  • Shade : Mar 19th

    I definitely agree with this list. I burned out in New York (although my body is mostly to blame). And when I hit PA rocks, there was a bad dry spell + heat wave, so carrying extra water made the rocks that much more unbearable. When rain finally came, navigating the soaking wet Knife’s Edge rock scramble was pretty harrowing.

    Reply
  • Dan : Mar 19th

    I have to chuckle a little. Not much love ever came from out of state hikers for PA, but growing up in northern PA meant the rocks were all I knew of the AT and much of hiking for that matter. After years of it, learning to leap frog from rock to rock like lily pads (dangerous as it probably is) sort of made hiking PA fun! Even so, when you’re weary and can barely lift your feet, stubbing toes and stumbling every 50 yards gets old right quick.

    Reply
  • hubeywan : Mar 20th

    I did the trail back in the 80’s when it was a wilderness trail, sure their were bad days, hard day, wet days hot and dry days, but isn’t that why were out there? if it was easy anybody could do it . I loved it now in my 60’s i’m still hiking ive done a few states
    more then once and Pa and Maine are two of them, help keep this a wilderness trail. we are hikers not BnBers and if you like Pa trails check out the loyal Sock in Sullivan, Co. 60 miles of great hiking. We’ll as we say in Pa”keep on Rocken”

    Reply
    • Richard : Mar 22nd

      +1 for the Loyalsock. Hiked in back in the late 80’s and didn’t see 10 people in 3 days.

      Reply
  • Brian Peterson : Mar 22nd

    I did my master’s thesis on the AT mapping relationships between trail tread conditions and experiential elements. One of the experiential elements in my study was level of challenge. My results aligned with this article 🙂

    Reply
  • Dave Michel aka Pitchit : Jul 1st

    On my 2016 NOBO New York and south Maine surprised me. Had read a lot about the trail, but somehow missed those, except Mahoosich Notch. Mahoosich Arm kicked my button! Good article.

    Reply

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