How many times have you heard someone say they would like to one day hike the Appalachian Trail? Take a sabbatical from life and just go. I know. If you only had a dime. Maybe you know someone who actually did it, but chances are you don’t.
The trail officially opened in 1937 and the first person to ever hike its entire length was Earl Shaffer in 1948. Since then, only 4000 hikers out of 325 million Americans have completed it, so don’t feel too bad if you aren’t one of them.
The trail runs from the northernmost forests of Maine to the cotton fields of southern Georgia. By any one’s calculation, that’s a lot of miles. Especially if you’re hoofing it. On foot, the trip takes roughly five months to complete.
There’s a much easier way to do this, and you’ll still be able to say you have traveled the entire length of the 2,190 miles. Grab your gas card, fill your tank, and drive it. You’ll still breathe in the natural beauty of the trail, and you’ll be able to stop and hike portions of it when you want to. The biggest difference is you’ll have hot water and a flushing commode, and it’ll only take a couple of weeks to complete.
Best of all, the majority of the route consists of 2-lane country highways. You’ll be passing through quaint historic towns instead of ramrodding your way through NYC, Washington D.C., or Atlanta. There’s lots of history down roads like that so be prepared to learn a thing or two.
Along the drive, you will pass through some of the wealthiest areas in the country, as well as some of the most impoverished. You’ll gain a better perspective on life in America by experiencing it where it really lives. On the back roads. Smack in the heart of its heritage.
Starting in the south and traveling north, most hikers begin the trek at Amicalola Falls State Park near the town of Ellijay, Georgia, though the trail officially begins atop 3,782-foot Springer Mountain. Since there is no way to get a car on top of the mountain, this will the best starting point for the drive.
Before leaving the Peach State you will cross over Blood Mountain at 4,461 ft., and Dicks Creek Gap which is only 2,675 ft. Much of the trail is under snow during the winter but spring brings wildflowers of all colors. You’ll only be in Georgia for 79 miles before crossing into North Carolina at Bly’s Gap where you’ll follow U.S. Route 441 before jumping on state Route 28.
There are many places in North Carolina where a person can pull off of the road and dig up rubies and sapphires. The road twists and turns through the mountains, and as you skirt the Nantahala River near Bryson City you’ll run into signs of civilization in the form of rafters and kayakers out for a day of floating downstream. You’ll also see weary hikers with their boots off taking a much-needed break.
Not all of the hikers are keen on people driving the trail. One hiker, Shannon Belt said, “I got in a car a few days ago and almost flipped out. You go about two miles an hour walking the trail, and suddenly going 50 seems like you’re out of control.” His friend, Joe O’Neil, followed up with, “When I get to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, after climbing for hours, I’m going to be really mad when I find some lady who cruised up there in her Buick, petting her poodle.”
The trail winds its way through the Great Smokey’s National Park, the most crowded campground in America. Most of the visitors drive RV’s and campers into the park but trail hikers have much more to overcome. They have to climb Shuckstack, Devils Tater Patch, Old Black and Clingmans Dome, with the highest elevation being 6,643 ft.
While hikers are making their way through Beauty Spot, Tenn., and Virginia’s Lost Spectacles Gap, you’ll be cruising up I-81 north passing through little out of the way towns like Rural Retreat, Henry, Check, and Floyd.
You’ll meet up on the trail again as it crisscrosses the Blue Ridge Parkway in multiple locations where hikers are forced to trek on asphalt for a while.
Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive is much like the Blue Ridge Parkway where it continually intersects the trail. There is gorgeous scenery as scenic overlooks and as the sun goes down a huge assortment of wildlife, including deer, pheasants, turkeys, and groundhogs, can be seen foraging for food near the roadside.
The rest of Virginia is nothing but breathtaking scenery as you cross through the rugged corners of West Virginia and Maryland into Pennsylvania. Pine Grove Furnace State Park is the half-way marker and if you want to hike for a bit this is the perfect place to do it.
U.S. Route 209 will take you north and then east along the Delaware River across from New Jersey. U.S. Route 6 will then lead you along Hudson River on the same bridge as the trail at Bear Mountain. Then it’s on to New York via the Taconic State Parkway.
U.S. Route 44 runs through Northwest Connecticut, a slice of Massachusetts, and into Vermont. In Bennington, you’ll pick up Route 9. Be careful of moose when traveling this route. It’s wilderness and they are everywhere.
When you reach New Hampshire’s White Mountain you’ll need to go around it. There is no getting over it by car. You’ll cross into Maine on Route 2 before catching I-95 for the final leg of the trip.
Once you reach Baxter State Park’s 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin, you have completed the journey.
While you might not have hiked the trail, you have still accomplished what most people do not. Just because you drove it doesn’t mean you have not gone where most people don’t. And who knows, maybe next time around your boots will be made for walking.