National Park Getaway: Appalachian National Scenic Trail

By Wendy Janssen, Superintendent, Appalachian National Scenic Trail

Herd of horses in a meadow
Along with views of Virginia's two tallest mountains, hikers have a chance to spot horses in Grayson Highlands State Park.

Photo courtesy of Jonny B (Appalachian Trail Conservancy collection)

On October 2, 2018, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail marks its 50th anniversary as a unit of the National Park System thanks to the passage of the National Trails System Act in 1968! The “AT” is the oldest, continuously marked, and publicly protected trail in the United States. Traversing 14 states, from Georgia to Maine, hikers can experience breathtaking scenic vistas, wilderness areas untouched by development, the serenity of nature, and the significance of history along the nearly 2,200-mile world-renowned trail.

The AT has a celebrated grassroots origin. The idea gained momentum in 1921 with the proposals of conservationist and planner Benton Mackaye, who envisioned a trail as a means to preserve the Appalachian crests and to provide a retreat from increasingly modern life.

Trail leading through the woods
The famous white blazes on trees guide thousands of hikers a year, including through Harriman State Park in New York, part of the first section opened in 1923.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Potteiger (Appalachian Trail Conservancy collection)

The AT was designed, constructed, and maintained in the 1920s and 1930s by volunteer hiking clubs brought together by the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Conference now known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC). ATC continues to work in partnership with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, states, local communities, and more than 30 volunteer-based clubs to preserve and protect this national treasure for future generations. Since 1921, volunteers have contributed millions of hours to the creation, conservation, and management of the AT, making it one of the greatest testaments to volunteerism in the nation.

It’s said that two-thirds of the American population is within a day’s drive of some portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. An estimated 3 million visitors from around the world visit the trail at one of its hundreds of access points every year.

Dramatic clouds over a dark-lit mountainous landscape and tree
The view from Killington Peak in Vermont offers dramatic views of the Green Mountains from sunrise to sunset.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Bruffey (Appalachian Trail Conservancy collection)

Ready to hit the trail, enjoy the fall season, and experience the heart of the East? There are so many incredible sites along the AT, and here are a few highlights:

  • More than 95 miles of the AT can be found in North Carolina, including the scenic and memorable Roan Highlands and the 4,629-foot Max Patch Mountain. The 360-degree views from this summit are well worth the 1.7-mile hike. Cleared by homesteaders in the 1800s, this landscape is maintained today to ensure those panoramic views will be enjoyed by future generations of hikers.
  • With 554 miles of the AT, Virginia has more miles of the trail than any other of the 14 states through which it traverses. Visitors to Grayson Highlands State Park may be lucky enough to spot herds of wild horses and can immerse themselves in views of Virginia’s highest peaks from high-elevation meadows.
  • As we move north to New York, 90 miles of the AT provide an occasional view of the distant Manhattan skyline from beautiful woodlands. In 1923, volunteers completed the first section of the AT at Harriman-Bear Mountain State Park, only 30 miles from New York City, making this section of the trail incredibly accessible to so many.
  • Fall foliage in Vermont is spectacular, and you have 150 miles of AT to choose from!
  • Killington Peak is a popular destination for not only its views but also its easy access from roadways and a short side trail. At the state’s second tallest mountain, hikers will be rewarded with a palette of crimson, gold, and amber in the surrounding Green Mountains.
Backs of hikers behind a sign for Katahdin on a rocky mountain top
Thru-hikers heading north end their journey on Mount Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.

NPS / Todd Edgar

So ends our brief but memorable tour of a few sites along the AT. As then Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall said about the trail when it was established:

…None who has seen it has not marveled; none who has traveled it has not been moved.

Last updated: October 12, 2018