Trail Profile: The Appalachian High Route

The Appalachian High Route (AHR) is a loop that runs approximately 330 miles through the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. Beginning in Burnsville, a charming town nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, it bends and circles southwest, providing a tour of the range’s highest summits.

The route includes sections of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST), the Appalachian Trail, the Black Mountain Crest Trail (BMCT), and around 30 miles of secondary and forest service roads. It passes legendary landmarks including Mount Mitchell and Max Patch while also providing access to nearly all of the 6,000-foot peaks east of the Mississippi.

When Jennifer Pharr Davis announced this route in June of last year, I knew at once that I had to tackle it myself. My Guadalupe Ridge Trail plans for the year were threatened by flood and fire, so I headed east and became the second person to thru-hike the AHR ever. Coming from my home in Austin, Texas, I was fueled entirely by enthusiasm, and trust me, this route holds up to the hype.

READ NEXT — Jennifer Pharr Davis’s Appalachian High Route is a Peak Bagger’s Dream

The Basics

A map of the AHR. Photo via

  • Length: Approximately 330 miles
  • Expected Completion Time: 3 – 5 weeks 
  • Location: Western North Carolina/Tennessee
  • Best season(s) to hike: Spring, Summer, Fall
  • Trail Type: Loop
  • Scenery: The gorgeous backdrop of Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)
  • Terrain: Moderate 
  • Navigation: The Friends of the Mountain-to-Sea Trail offers trail guides for the MST, FarOut Guides provides reliable navigation for the AT and MST, and this CalTopo gpx file pieces together the Burnsville Connector and BMCT.

Getting There

As a loop, the AHR has its advantages. You can feasibly begin anywhere along this trek and finish right where you started. I chose to start at the Burnsville Visitor Center after arranging a ride from the Asheville Regional Airport. This is the way Jennifer Pharr Davis intended it to be hiked when she pioneered the route. However, there’s no wrong answer here.

There are several hostels along the route. These include Standing Bear Farm and The Discerning Hiker near the Great Smoky Mountains, and Laughing Heart Lodge and Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Hot Springs. All are potential locations to stash a vehicle for the duration. If interested, I recommend reaching out ahead of time to check availability and pricing.

Note: New for 2023, there is a fee for parking inside GSMNP. Learn more here. 


The visitor center in Burnsville, where it all starts. Where it all ends.

Again, the beauty of a loop trail prevails. Prospective thru-hikers can hike either clockwise or counterclockwise, but I’d recommend the former. Starting with the MST rather than the AT (clockwise if beginning in Burnsville) provides a smoother grade and time to get your trail legs into gear before tackling the high steeps of GSMNP.

Why Hike The Appalachian High Route?

Landmark gems of the southern Appalachians: From gorgeous grassy balds to rigorous ridges in the Great Smoky Mountains, this trail really does have it all. Max Patch, Clingman’s Dome, Mount Mitchell, waterfalls, Blue Ridge Parkway overlooks, and much, much, more await you on this absolutely stellar trek.

Pro Tip: Throw in the Art Loeb Trail to Cold Mountain while you’re passing through Shining Rock Wilderness. You’ll bag several peaks along this additional adventure.

Peak access for summit-hungry hikers: Speaking of peak bagging, an optional challenge for hikers tackling this route is to top all the peaks east of the Mississippi that stand over 6,000 feet. While they are all accessible from the trail, no one said it was easy. Ticking summits off the list can mean significant bushwhacking, or detours of up to 17 miles.

Official lists are maintained by the Carolina Mountain Club and Peak Bagger. All of the peaks can be viewed on the CalTopo Map.

Celebrate solitude: I hiked this trail just before autumn leaf season hit the mountains. It was common for me to go days without encountering a soul (aside from squirrels and possibly sasquatch). You’re most likely to run into crowds where the AHR overlaps with the AT. If solitude is what you seek, you can use this handy dandy Hiker Tracker to avoid the thru-hiker bubble. It estimates where the NOBOs and SOBOs might be at any given time, allowing you to plan for the experience you want.

Climate and Weather

Full 4 seasons: One thing I love about my home of Western NC is the true 4-season experience. The summers stretch into the 90s with high humidity, and the winters can sometimes drop below zero with heavy snow at higher elevations. Afternoon thunderstorms are common from Spring through Fall, but otherwise, the sun shines often — but don’t worry, the green tunnel’s got you covered with the exception of a few grassy balds.

The ultimate leaf-peeping adventure: The leaves in this neck of the woods begin changing from late September to early October. The green tunnel is truly forgivable this time of year as the mountains present their vibrant bursts of yellows and reds for a few precious weeks every autumn. Check out this Fall Foliage Prediction Map to help you plan the perfect time to hit the trail.

Gear Suggestions

Tackling trails in bear-itory: If you’re on the AHR, you’re sharing the trail with a healthy population of black bears. A bear canister is required in Shining Rock Wilderness, which encompasses parts of Segments 2 and 3 of the MST. Check local trail updates before heading out to make sure no aggressive bears have been reported or shelters closed.

Trekking poles tips: The AT is famous for steeply-graded trails, and the section that the AHR shares through GSMNP is no exception. Trekking poles can help with stabilization and taking weight off of your hard-working legs, but between the numerous road walks and the often flat MST, you may consider a method for easily stowing them away. I find Spud’s Stick Stashers to be a helpful addition to my pack, and I always make sure to bring along the blunt tips for the bottom of my poles.



Camping legally on the Appalachian High Route can be inconvenient depending on your targeted daily mileage. On the AT, shelters are located approximately every 8-12 miles. However, for the most part, the other segments lack sites specifically designated for camping. For an example itinerary, here is the one I followed on my thru-hike last September. Below is an overview of the regulations section-by-section:

Blue Ridge Parkway: Camping is not allowed within 1/4 mile of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This can present challenges as the MST follows it for over 100 miles, from Mount Mitchell to its terminus at GSMNP. Specific segments where camping is allowed are notated in the MST Trail Guides and FarOut’s MST Guide.

Great Smoky Mountains: Because AHR thru-hikers enter the GSMNP on the MST, they are not eligible for an AT Thru-Hiker Permit and must declare their shelters and campsites in advance with the General Backcountry Permit. Sites are $8/night as of 2023, with a maximum of $40 per permit for up to 7 nights. It’s important to note that dogs are not allowed on the AT, MST, or most other trails in the GSMNP.

Bent Creek Experimental Forest, Mt. Mitchell State Park, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians land: Camping prohibited except in designated campgrounds.

Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests: Camping is allowed except where noted in the MST Trail Guides.

Burnsville Connector: There is no camping available on any stretch of the Burnsville Connector after leaving the Lost Cove Trail and Devil’s Creek Trail. This segment is made up of primary, secondary, and forest service roads with private property lining either side.


Burnsville, NC: An idyllic mountain town. It’s no wonder JPD chose it as the starting point for the route.

Craggy Gardens and Max Patch: These grassy balds may be on opposite sides of the AHR, but any local will tell you these are two of the top hikes in the region for a reason.

Mount Mitchell: The Black Mountain Crest Trail takes hikers to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi with many opportunities to snag scenic 6,000-footers along the way.

The Blue Ridge Parkway: The MST follows the BRP to GSMNP (and if that’s not enough abbreviations for ya I don’t know what is). While there is a bit of road walking here and there, the meticulously maintained overlooks and plentiful opportunities for trail magic more than makeup for it.

Mount Pisgah/Pisgah Inn: If you’re looking for a worthwhile detour to another spectacular summit or some on-trail ice cream, this section of the AHR is one to look forward to.

Great Smoky Mountains: There’s a reason it’s the most visited National Park year after year. Iykyk.

Water Sources

The one constant in life is change, and the AHR water sources are no exception. If FarOut marks a source as reliable or the MST Trail Guides indicate “5 Drops”, you’re in business. Alternatively, if it’s marked as seasonal or has 3 or fewer Drops and there hasn’t been a steady rain in a while, you probably want to camel up.

Additionally, water sources on the Burnsville Connector are few and far between (unless you’re a fan of agricultural runoff).

Pro tip: If you’re in the GSMNP and your water has a faint coloration to it after you’ve filtered, don’t panic! It’s the harmless tannins of the region doing their thing.

Resupply Options

In addition to camping regulations, the resupply options for this route are also less than convenient. I highly recommend having a skeleton itinerary with a rough resupply plan in place before hitting the trail. The MST in particular presents some challenging sections if you’re on your own.

Burnsville: The AHR passes straight through the heart of town, but Burnsville isn’t particularly helpful as a resupply option if you’re choosing to begin and end your hike here.

Asheville: There are several trailheads along the MST on the commuter stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Folk Art Center, Hendersonville Road, and Bent Creek are convenient places for shuttle pick-ups, drop-offs, or finding hitches into town.

Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee: Near the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, hikers can hitch or call a shuttle into Cherokee from US 441 or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center Trailhead before entering the GSMNP.

Hot Springs: The AT goes directly through town, and thus it couldn’t be more convenient.

Closing Thoughts

FarOut was onto something when they added the Mountains-To-Sea Trail to their repertoire of guides this year (and it’s not just because it’s the Year of the Trail in North Carolina). It’s because this section of the world is unlike any other, and there’s true magic in these woods. From the smell of the decomposing leaf litter to the baby black bears that scurry away through the trees, you’ll smile from ear to ear as you explore the southern Appalachians on this worthwhile adventure.

Thanks to the Pioneers

Special thanks to Jake Blood and Jennifer Pharr Davis for the work they put into pioneering this route.

Featured image: Katie “Oats” Houston photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 5

  • Catherine Skewes : Jul 20th

    I think I met you on the AT in MA. If so, you got your trail name from eating raw oatmeal.

  • GearNerd : Jul 20th

    Hi! Excellent post, gorgeous pictures, great idea for a trail! Tiny nitpick from a northern New Englander: under the Why Hike, it reads as if this trail can grab all the 6000-footers east of the Mississippi–as you say up top, Mt Washington counts🤣. Happy Hiking!

    • Michael : Jul 20th

      I was going to say the same. And as the bumper sticker reads, “This car climbed Mt Washington!” 🙂 The trail sounds awesome, thanks.

  • ThreeSpeed : Jul 21st

    Throw in the Art Loeb?
    Yikes. Be prepared for that part of your hike in regards to water availability and weather.
    Great article and sounds like a great trip.


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