Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me About This?! The 5 Hardest Sections of the AT No One Talks About
No one starts the AT thinking it’s going to be easy. The moment someone vocalizes wanting to thru-hike, they are likely to be met by naysayers and people concerned with the challenges hikers face. The famous Appalachian Trail Conservancy statistic is thrown around: “Each year, thousands of hikers attempt a thru-hike; only about one in four makes it all the way.”
When I decided I was going to hike the AT in 2021, I, like many, started doing some research. I read numerous books detailing others’ thru-hikes and watched countless vlogs. My hope in consuming copious amounts of trail content was to better prepare myself for the hardships to come.
From the beginning, no matter what the source materials may be, there are certain sections of trail that are infamous for their difficulty. Everyone talks about how hard the Whites in New Hampshire are, the crazy elevation gain going northbound out of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and the four points of contact required in the Mahoosuc Notch.
During my NoBo thru-hike, I found that, yes, those sections were tough, but they didn’t surprise me. Because of the hype and fearmongering, I felt mentally prepared to “embrace the suck.”
It was the little-discussed sections of trail that really pushed my limits and made me question why I was attempting to thru-hike. There were plenty of times I found myself thinking, “why didn’t anyone warn me about this?!”
The 5 Hardest Sections of the AT No One Talks About
In order to impart my hard-earned knowledge to future thru-hikers, here’s a list of the five hardest sections on the AT no one talks about.
1. The Wildcats
According to FarOut, Pinkham Notch Visitors Center is at NoBo mile 1873.7 and sits at an elevation of 2029′. 21.1 miles later, US Route 2 sits at 768′ in elevation and is a straight shot into Gorham, NH with hostels and restaurants galore. Between these two roads, the Wildcats ascend 6,751.3′ and descend 8,009.2. That’s an elevation change of 700.5 ft/mi! My knees still hurt just thinking about it.
There are multiple peaks a hiker must bag in order to make it through the Wildcats. Wildcat D Peak, Wildcat Mountain, Carter Dome, South Carter, North Carter Mountain, and Mt. Moriah are all over 4,000′ in elevation.
One of the reasons I thought the Wildcats were so hard was because my tramily decided to slackpack the entire 21.1 miles section from Pinkham Notch to Route 2 in one day. We stayed at The Barn Hostel in Gorham, NH and the owners offered a sweet deal on slackpacking. At that point in our hike we were desperate to finish the Whites, so an all-day suffer-fest felt like an appropriate way to bid farewell to the Whites, even if it meant big miles during a thunderstorm.
The only warning I received about the Wildcats came during trail magic graciously provided by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association (ALDHA). My tramily and I were fortunate enough to stumble upon the ALDHA campsite in Gifford Woods State Park campground just after Killington, VT.
I vividly remember one of the trail angels telling us about the Wildcats because he said it was the section of trail responsible for the most broken bones. After sliding down rock slabs in the rain and stumbling through boulder fields in my quest for US Route 2, I didn’t doubt this statistic at all.
My biggest advice for tackling this section of trail is to mentally break it down into different checkpoints. When looking at the elevation profile for this entire stretch, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Take it one peak at a time. First, climb up Wildcat D Peak and take a break on the chairlift.
Next, push yourself to Carter Notch Hut and use your last AMC thru-hiker voucher freebie. If you’re not doing the Wildcats in one go, Imp Shelter is a great stopping place for the day or a wonderful snack spot if you’re going to push to US Route 2. The last big push is Mt. Moriah; it’s all downhill from there.
2. Southern Maine
Getting into Maine felt like such a big deal. I had walked through 13 states and was in the final arena. Katahdin felt so close as I stood posing for photos by the last sign marking the state line, but little did I know that southern Maine would absolutely kick my butt.
The end of New Hampshire meant the end of the Whites, and I thought that meant the end of difficult miles. WRONG! No one ever told me that southern Maine would be some of the toughest earned miles. Between the bog boards, torrential downpours, never-ending sheer rock face climbs, and rebar ladders, southern Maine felt like it was the AT’s final attempt to prevent thru-hikers from reaching Katahdin.
There are specific mountains/areas that still haunt me to this day. Everyone has heard about the “hardest mile on the AT,” the Mahoosuc Notch. The Notch gets so much attention that most people forget to mention the following 1,600+’ ascent over 1.5 miles up Mahoosuc Arm. In my memory, this was basically just a rock slab that I had little energy left to scurry up after the Notch.
There were few moments on trail I actually feared for my safety, but going over west and east Baldpate peaks, I felt as though I might fall off the side of the mountain. This fear was perpetuated by the fact that it was raining, windy, and the fog was so thick I could hardly see ten feet in front of me. I had never heard of Baldpate before my near emotional breakdown atop the peak.
Another triple threat in southern Maine is the steep ups and downs going over Saddleback Mountain, the Horn, and Saddleback Junior around NoBo mile 1980. Again, this was a range I had the misfortune of traversing in sleet/rain at the end of a long day. In reference to this section, my trail journal from that day said, “per FarOut, it looked like the rest of the day would be straight uphill, so I was feeling anxious and unable to hike… We even went above treeline again for Saddleback Mountain and the Horn but didn’t get any views because we were socked in.”
The trail’s last attempt to stick it to hikers is the Bigelows. My trail journal from that day read: “These were the last 4000 footers before Katahdin, so getting over these felt like a huge accomplishment. The climbs were long and steep in sections but not any worse than other hills we’ve scaled.”
So how does one survive the final miles in southern Maine? Don’t lose sight of the goal. By the time a NoBo hiker crosses into Maine, they have less than 300 miles until they have completed the AT. Quitting so close to the finish line would be almost as challenging as walking from Georgia to Maine!
3. The Kinsmans in NH
My trail journal from the day I climbed the South and North Kinsman mountain goes as follows: “It felt like the trail was climbing straight up the mountain; lots of boulders to climb over. It wasn’t too bad, and there was a really pretty bog about 1.5 miles from the Kinsmans, but it looked right up to the summit and was crazy intimidating. The climb up was the toughest yet—so much vertical climbing that required me to use my hands in order to pull/push myself up. It felt like it took hours, and I was cranky and exhausted by the time I got to the top.”
In just under 2.5 miles, a NoBo hiker must climb almost 2,000 feet of elevation from the Eliza Brook shelter to the top of South Kinsman Mountain in New Hampshire. I remember distinctly hiking alone up this mountain and wanting to take a break to cry. Not to rest, but literally to sit down and cry because I was having such a hard time.
Maybe I was just having a really, really bad day, but either way going up the Kinsmans in the Whites sucks. I am proud to say I did not let myself stop climbing to have a pity party and instead kept pushing to the summit.
Sometimes it is necessary to give yourself a break in order to compose yourself when the mental climb is just as challenging as the physical climb. On the flip side, sometimes it’s necessary to push through the pain and not rest until you have done what you set out to do. In the words of my middle school gym teacher, “suck it up, buttercup.”
4. Jacob’s Ladder
Just after the famous climb out of the Nahahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina, there is an equally intimidating climb with less infamy. “Jacob’s Ladder” starts close to Stecoah Gap at the base of Sweetwater Gap, 2021 AT Guide NoBo mile 151.5. In just 0.6 miles, the trail climbs 600 feet to the top of a “cliff.” That’s 100 feet per tenth of a mile! So early on in the trail, this equals out to be a ball buster.
Before I arrived at Stecoah Gap, I had never heard of Jacob’s Ladder. It was a wary trail angel who warned me about the steep climb. Thankfully, though, I remember this section of trail having tons of switchbacks. I am a big fan of taking breaks, especially during a climb, and the switchbacks offered plenty of opportunities to rest. I especially like to face downhill when I am resting so that I can see how far I have already come rather than staring at the looming accent.
My advice on an aggressive climb like this one is to pace yourself. You aren’t going to win a medal at the end for being the first one of your friends to reach the top. Why overexert yourself when you could take your time, practice controlled breathing, and actually enjoy your hike?
5. The climb into NC
Being a North Carolina native, I was thrilled to have crossed the line from Georiga into the old north state at mile 78. My friends and I took pictures at the state line and even had a photoshoot by an iconic tree at Bly Gap.
The trail climbs sharply out of Bly Gap and continues steeply traversing up and down until finally arriving at Muskrat Creek shelter approximately three miles away. My trail journal detailing this climb said, “the majority of the day was manageable, but the first three miles of NC were BRUTAL! … I didn’t think we’d ever make it to the shelter, but we finally arrived.”
The excitement of the first state line crossing was a sharp contrast to the pain I remember experiencing chugging up this section of trail. I remember passing other hikers and, in turn, being passed. This climb felt like it went on forever. Finally arriving at the shelter to drop my pack and kick my feet up felt like heaven on earth. With so few miles on my trial legs at that point in my journey to Maine, this climb stuck out as especially challenging.
My best advice for pushing through the climb into North Carolina is to tackle it with a buddy. On this day especially, I am thankful to have hiked with my friend Bug Bite. Having someone else to talk to and suffer with somehow eases the tension and lets your mind focus on making conversation rather than your heaving breath and aching muscles. This section of trail also has some nice lookout points, so take plenty of breaks to enjoy the view and catch your breath.
Miley Cyrus Said It Best
No matter how challenging a section of trail is, it will inevitably end. There were days during my thru hike I thought I would surely keel over and die on the spot, but all the pain, suffering, and agony faded away each night when I crawled into my tent. They say all good things must end, and the same is true of the bad things as well. Most days, I would give anything to be back on trail, even if it means dry heaving at the top of a mountain or sliding my way down a rock face.
“Ain’t about how fast I get there/
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side/
It’s the climb.”
No matter how difficult or impossible parts of the AT may feel, thousands of people successfully thru-hike every year. Why shouldn’t you be one of them?
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