How to Hike the Best Sections of the Appalachian Trail

From idyllic rambles through mid-Atlantic farmland to epic alpine treks in the Northeast, the Appalachian Trail offers a multitude of adventures for every type of hiker. There’s no need to attempt a thru-hike in order to experience the best the Appalachians have to offer.  Whether you’re looking to hike for a few days or a few weeks, here’s how to hit the highlights on these seven stunning sections of the Appalachian Trail.

All miles and coordinates are from the 2019 A.T. Guide, using northbound mileage for consistency. We’ve recommended gear for each section, but check out our AT thru-hiker gear guide for a complete Appalachian Trail packing list.

The listings are based off the below post, straight from Appalachian Trail thru-hikers.

Best Sections of the Appalachian Trail

1) Roan Highlands: North Carolina / Tennessee Border

Distance: 17.2 miles
Start and finish: Toll House Gap (NOBO mile 378.2) to Bear Branch Road trailhead (NOBO mile 395.4)
Time: Two days

Where to Park

  • Toll House Gap (36.104, -82.1331)
  • Bear Branch Road trailhead (36.1794, -82.0128)

What Makes this Section so Great

For the southern part of the AT, this is what “above treeline” looks like. The rolling, grassy balds are majestic, and the views are sweeping. But the epic panoramas you’ll see from the likes of Jane Bald, Hump Mountain, and Doll Flats aren’t the only highlights of this classic section hike. The area is also home to two notable shelters. At an elevation of almost 6,200 feet, Roan High Knob Shelter is the highest shelter on the AT; seven miles north, Overmountain Shelter (pictured above) is a picturesque, two-story red barn that features glorious front porch views and a rich Revolutionary War history.

What to Expect

Northbound hikers will end their treks with a long downhill off Hump Mountain, while southbounders will tackle a stiff climb right off the bat to get into the Highlands—so consider your preferences and choose accordingly. Whichever direction you choose to hike, plan to stay the night at Overmountain Shelter near the middle of the trek. Get your water at the first source you cross on the spur trail to the shelter—it’s the only one there, so this will save you some pointless walking.

When to Go

April or May for wildflowers; October or November (the later the better) for fall colors; or June through August for 99.9% humidity at all times, and the sensation of drowning in your own sweat.

Recommended Gear

Permethrin-treated clothing: Ticks are abundant in this part of the world, and they love grassy meadows like the ones you’ll be trekking through in the Roan Highlands. Invest in some insect-repellent clothing or buy Permethrin and treat everything you own.

Sit pad: This isn’t the kind of hike to rush through. You’ll want to hang out and enjoy all the beautiful views on this short-but-sweet section, so bring yourself a nice sit pad and prepare to get comfy. We like the Therm-a-Rest ZSeat.

2) Baxter State Park, Maine

Distance: 15.1 miles (one way)
Start and finish: Abol Bridge (NOBO mile 2,176.9) to Baxter Peak, Katahdin (NOBO mile 2,192.0).
Time: Three days

Where to Park

  • Abol Bridge (45.8352, -68.9693)

What Makes this Section so Great

Experience strong enchanted forest vibes on an easy jaunt through Baxter State Park, followed by an epic climb to summit iconic, charismatic Katahdin.

What to Expect

Start out with a gentle 9.9 miles from the park boundary to Katahdin Stream Campground on your first day. Set up base camp and carry a daypack on your 10.4-mile round trip to Baxter Peak and back on day two (take the Hunt Trail). Trust us, you’ll be glad not to have all your heavy gear with you on this steep, technical, unforgettable climb. Savor one more night at Katahdin Stream before retracing your steps to Abol Bridge on your third and final day. Katahdin Stream Campground requires a reservation, and spots fill up fast—reserve your site well in advance.

When to Go

Tackle this section between July and September for the best weather and the fewest bugs (see below). Go later in September to catch the fall color change. It’s not recommended to plan your trip much later than this, as the trail to Katahdin typically closes by mid-October due to snow and ice.

Side note on bugs: Mother’s Day through Father’s Day is black fly season in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. As a rule, plan not to be in any of those places during this time period.

Recommended Gear

Puffy jacket: Baxter Peak can be very cold and windy, so bring your cold-weather gear if you plan to hang out at the top… which you definitely should. Three of our favorites are the Patagonia Nano Puff, Arc’Teryx Cerium, and REI Co-op 650 Jacket.

Headlamp: In Baxter State Park, carrying a light source isn’t just a good idea—it’s a park rule. For a combination of price point, features, and battery life, we like the Black Diamond Storm 375 and the Petzl Actik Core.

3) White Mountains, New Hampshire

Distance: 100.4 miles
Start and finish: Oliverian Notch (NOBO mile 1,793.3) to Gorham (NOBO mile 1,893.7).
Time: Eight to 12 days

Where to Park

  • NH 25/Oliverian Notch trailhead (43.9899, -71.8995)
  • US 2 trailhead (44.4008, -71.1098)

What Makes this Section so Great

The White Mountains are one of the most popular sections of the Appalachian Trail, and deservedly so. The alpine air is invigorating, the views are incredible, and the moose—when viewed from a healthy distance—are majestic. It’s tough going, but the vistas are worth every quad-crushing ascent and knee-jarring downhill. From Franconia Ridge to the Presidential Traverse to the character-building Wildcats, this trek will leave you with memories to last a lifetime.

What to Expect

Rugged terrain in the Whites makes for slow progress. Expect to make fewer miles per day than you’re used to, and budget enough time to complete the whole section. Stealth camping is allowed in the Whites, but you must be sure to set up camp below the alpine zone, at least a quarter mile away from roads, campsites, and facilities, and 200 feet away from the trail. There are numerous official campsites and shelters, as well (many of which require a small fee).

The 23-mile Presidential Traverse from approximately Mount Jackson to Mount Madison is almost entirely above treeline, and no camping is allowed. Prepare for exposed alpine conditions and plan to stay the night at either Lakes of the Clouds or Madison Hut (or both), being sure to make reservations well in advance.

When to Go

Weather and trail conditions will be most favorable during summer. Start after June 15 to avoid peak black fly season, and finish by early October to avoid early season snow. Be aware that weather conditions in the Whites are highly unpredictable and come prepared for bad weather.

Recommended Gear

Sun protection: Carry sunglasses, a hat, and plenty of sunscreen for those long, exposed stretches of the trail that are above timberline.

Windbreaker: Add this lightweight item to your layering system to help prepare yourself for the Whites’ notoriously unpredictable weather. It can really make a difference in the Whites, especially on the infamously blustery Mount Washington. The classic Patagonia Houdini Jacket  is a solid option, as is the Cotopaxi Palmas Active Jacket.

Sleeping bag liner: A sleeping bag liner is an easy way to add warmth to your regular three-season bag without breaking the bank, and if conditions turn chilly in the Whites (a year-round possibility), you just might be glad to have it. We like theThermolite Reactor Extreme.

4) Southern Maine

Distance: 126.8 miles
Start and finish: Gorham, NH (NOBO mile 1,893.7) to East Flagstaff Road (NOBO mile 2,020.5)
Time: Nine to 14 days

Where to Park

  • ME 15 trailhead (45.3309, -69.5354)
  • Abol Bridge (45.8352, -68.9693)

What Makes this Section so Great

It’s extremely challenging, but you won’t be bored. The trail is rocky and rooty, Mahoosuc Notch is like a jungle gym, and the peaks are beautiful—especially toward the northern end of the region. Old Speck, Mahoosuc Notch, the Saddlebacks, and the Bigelows are just a few of the high points on this action-packed hike.

What to Expect

This is a tough section, so be conservative with your planned mileage each day. There are plenty of towns within hitching range of the trail on this stretch, so you can plan to resupply several times and not carry more than a few days’ worth of food at a time. Andover is a particularly tough hitch, so if you want to hit this town for supplies, plan for a shuttle to get you to and from.

When to Go

July through September for the best weather as well as fewer bugs and easier fords. Go later in September to catch the fall color change.

Recommended Gear

Take a freestanding tent. A number of campsites and shelters in Southern Maine feature wooden tent platforms that pose a challenge to hikers using non-freestanding tents. You’ll also encounter some rocky tent pads where staking down is difficult. For that reason, you may want to consider carrying a few extra ounces in the form of a freestanding tent for this section. The Big Agnes Fly Creek and REI Quarter Dome are both solid options in this department. If you do choose to bring your non-freestanding setup, make sure to carry extra rope in order to tie it down.

5) 100-Mile Wilderness, Maine

Distance: 99.1 miles
Start and finish: Monson, ME (NOBO mile 2077.5) to Abol Bridge, ME (NOBO mile 2176.6)
Time: Five to ten days

Where to Park

  • Monson, ME (45.3309, -69.5354)
  • Abol Bridge (45.8352, -68.9693)

What Makes this Section so Great

Remote and relatively undeveloped, this section is as close to a true wilderness experience as you’re going to get on the bustling Appalachian Trail. It’s kind of like Southern Maine’s sweet cousin—miles of serene, wooded trails with a fraction of the rocks and roots of the southern part of the state. If you’re not passing ponds or cruising over sparkling streams, you’re breaking treeline and glimpsing Katahdin from gorgeous summits.

What to Expect

Signage on either side of the Wilderness will warn you that access to resupply and outside aid will be virtually nonexistent on this stretch of trail. Plan to carry everything you’ll need for the five- to ten-day journey, or call Shaw’s Hostel in Monson to inquire about food drops.

When to Go

Hit the 100 in August or September for wild blueberries, safer fords, and fewer bugs. Go in late September or early October for beautiful autumn colors in one of the US’s premier leaf-peeping states.

Recommended Gear

Inflatable sleeping pad: Not only will it pack down small in your pack and help you sleep great, but it can also double as a raft on the many picturesque lakes and ponds you’ll pass along the way. Hoping to take to the high seas on a durable, lightweight raft with a decent R-value? We recommend that you set sail on the USS Thermarest Neoair XLite.

Sturdy backpack: We love ultralight packs as much as anyone, but in this section you’ll want something capable of hauling your unwieldy food bag with relative comfort. The Osprey Atmos/Aura is a solid option.

GPS beacon: The safety conscious might also consider looking into a GPS beacon like the SPOT Gen3 or Garmin inReach. Cell service is spotty at best, and roads are few and far between.

6) Roanoke Triple Crown, Virginia

Distance: 42.6 miles
Start and finish: Craig Creek Road (NOBO mile 688.6) to Troutville, VA (NOBO mile 731.2).
Time: Thee to five days

Where to Park

  • VA 621, Craig Creek Road (37.3793, -80.25)
  • US 11 parking (37.4045, -79.8895)

What Makes this Section so Great

This hike packs three spectacular destinations into a compact section just over 40 miles long. Dragon’s Tooth, McAfee Knob, and Tinker Cliffs are the three highlights of the Roanoke Triple Crown, a major bucket list item for southeastern hiking enthusiasts. This hike will also take you past the Audie Murphy Monument, a memorial to the most decorated American soldier of World War II, as well as The Homeplace—a family-style southern restaurant that’s cherished among thru-hikers.

What to Expect

There are a few considerations when planning your itinerary for this section. First, be prepared for the formidable physical challenge posed by Dragon’s Tooth and budget plenty of time on the day you plan to tackle it. Next, camping is restricted to designated sites in the northern half of this section (from Newport Road at mile 704 through Troutville at mile 731.2), so plan accordingly. Finally, McAfee Knob poses one of the best sunrise photo ops in the galaxy. If you can camp at either Campbell or Catawba Mountain Shelter the night before McAfee and hit the summit by dawn, you won’t regret it. Get there early, because there may or may not be 25 other hikers there vying for the exact same picture.

When to go

April-May or October-November: hike in spring for wildflowers, fall for autumn color change in the mountains. Both time windows will achieve the highly desirable effect of avoiding the worst of Virginia’s stifling summer heat.

Recommended Gear

Collapsible trekking poles: The rolling hills of Virginia conceal one of the most technical climbs on the AT south of New Hampshire: Dragon’s Tooth. If you use trekking poles, opt for a telescoping pair like Black Diamond’s Trail Ergo poles for this hike. You may want to collapse your poles and stow them when you hit this rugged section—that way your hands will be free for climbing.

7) Vermont

Distance: 155.5 miles
Start and finish: Williamstown, MA (mile 1,594.4) to Hanover, NH (mile 1,749.9)
Time: Nine to 14 days

Where to Park

  • MA 2 trailhead (42.699, -73.1535)
  • Hanover, NH (43.7065, -72.2776)

What Makes this Section so Great

Friendly towns, beautiful peaks, lush greenery, and miles of gentle trail with soft pine needles underfoot. Look forward to the views from Stratton and Killington, as well as the gratuitous amount of maple candy available for purchase in every store you enter.

What to Expect

Vermont is pretty straight-ahead hiking, featuring plenty of elevation change but few truly steep sections. Just remember that camping and campfires are only allowed at designated sites statewide.

When to Go

Late summer (after June 15) for warm weather and minimal bugs, but beware of mud. Late September or most of October for the spectacle of maple trees in autumn.

Recommended Gear

Bear canister: Campers are now required to hang food or use a bear canister throughout the Green Mountain National Forest (MA-VT border through NOBO mile 1,704) due to recent bear incidents in the area. Technically the canisters aren’t required (you can still hang your food the old-fashioned way), but given the level of bear activity reported, you may want to consider erring on the side of caution in this section.

Try the BearVault BV500 for the best combination of weight and price point. Ursacks are currently approved, but that could change if problems persist.

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Comments 4

  • Ken Lam : Aug 26th

    The Grayson Highlands state park/Rodgers (and ponies) are a favorite of mine. And too bad the NPS disbanded the goats on Roan.

    Reply
  • David Magee : Aug 27th

    Thanks for ranking us number one. We at The Station at 19e try to make roan mountain the best possible experience!

    Reply
  • Cosmo A Catalano : Aug 30th

    Making over-crowded (at times) sections even more busy. The age old problem of “loving to death” our favorite places. How about some advice on off-peak times to spread out the crowds a bit?

    Also note that incorrectly hung food in Vermont might get you a fine (and you might contribute to the destruction of another bear). 12ft off the ground and 6ft from any other object–not easy to achieve in our northern forests–bring a canister.

    Reply
  • FM : Sep 4th

    A less known weekend hike and my favorite nearby in VA is near the remote tiny town of Montebello. (Spy Rock Rd to Reeds Gap VA644, 20 miles). I love the sense of isolation and views this section provides.

    Hike about a mile up the forest road to the AT from AT Parking on the fish hatchery road, then half a mile northbound up to Spy Rock, an old Confederate Army lookout with views in all directions (great spot to cowboy camp when it’s dry, or tented below in the open camping area during storms. The scramble up the front face can be difficult for some).

    3.7 miles northbound, cross VA826, a half mile down which find a camping area, parking and developed latrine. As an excursion, you can hike farther down stream to the top of Crabtree Falls, a popular falls with a developed trail to a parking lot below at VA56.

    Back on the AT, the ridge of the Priest is 1.4 miles north, and there is a great rock outcrop on the left with excellent views, just after you pass the Priest Shelter. You then have a steep hike down to the Tye River parking area (VA56). (Beware of possible wasp nests in the rocks on the trail of this descent.) There is only one level spot about 0.3 mile shy of Cripple Creek that you can camp at on this descent. Follow the creek 1.3 miles down to the parking area, then cross the footbridge at the Tye River.

    Pass Harpers Creek Shelter after 2.6 miles (substantial creek and plenty of primitive sites), a steep hike up to Chimney Rock, over the ridge and down to Maupin Field Shelter. Reeds Gap parking lot is 1.7 miles farther north. Alternatively, you can skip the Three Ridges ascent and take Mau-Har Trail, a blue blaze trail shortcut (1.7 miles on the left after VA56) to Reed’s Gap shelter. Along the way, there is a large creek with a waterfall below. (Beware of the large rattler that lives there as you scramble over the rocks. He was 6 feet long last time I saw him 9 years ago.)

    Reply

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