An Appalachian Trail Experience in Four Parts: Max Kiel Gets into the Best Section Hikes
Words and Photos by Max Kiel
If you're a backpacker or a regular reader of this blog, you have probably heard of the Appalachian Trail before. You may have even hiked on the trail at some point. If so, then what comes to mind when you think of the Appalachian Trail? Is it the rugged, mountainous landscape of the White Mountains? The majestic forest scenery of the Smoky Mountains? Or how about the endless trailside ponds and lakes in Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness?
There's a ton of diverse, awe-inspiring wilderness to be explored along the 2,100+ miles on the Appalachian Trail, all the while connecting communities and people all along the East Coast.
If the prospect of hiking this trail in one continuous effort peaks your interest, often referred to as a 'thru hike,' then I will be the first person to strongly urge you to follow through with your goal. However, you do not have to thru hike to experience and enjoy what the Appalachian Trail offers.
If you are looking to hike on the Appalachian Trail but don't have the desire or resources to do the whole thing, then you have come to the right place, my friend. Here you'll find four possible section hikes that one can complete all along the AT, ranging from 30 miles to upwards of 100. Each of these sections offers a great variety of the AT in terms of difficulty, landscapes, and wildlife.
I will be providing sample itineraries for each section, consisting of daily mileage and each day's campsites. It is important to note that each of these itineraries can be easily adjusted, extended, or cut in half to better suit your hiking style, experience, fitness, and goals for your trip.
Whether you are looking to hike one of these sections for your first ever backpacking trip or have aspirations to hike the entire trail over the course of a few years, there is no wrong way to hike the Appalachian Trail. Load up your pack, step out into the unknown, and go have some fun.
TENNESSEE'S GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK
Total Mileage: 71 Miles
Starting/Ending Points: Fontana Dam, TN, Davenport Gap, TN, Newfound Gap, TN
Total Elevation Change: ~35,100'
Difficulty Rating: 7/10
Highlights: Clingmans Dome, Charlie's Bunion, Rocky Top Mountain, Shuckstack Fire Tower
Great Smoky Mountain National Park; USA's top visited national park. For good reason–the park offers miles of mountainous landscapes above 5,000', mossy-covered spruce and hemlock forests, and iconic vista views such as the iconic Charlie's Bunion and Clingman's Dome.
Black Bears are relatively prominent in this area, which is something that should be acknowledged and respected. Every shelter offers cables for hanging food bags at night.
There aren't many major elevation changes during this stretch, other than the initial 2,000' ascent up in the mountains and the final 2,000' descent out of the park boundaries. The trail remains well above 4,000' the entire section, high up on the ridgelines of the Smoky Mountains. With that being said, there is still a lot of elevation change throughout, and the trail rarely remains entirely flat.
This section can start/end at Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap, both easily accessible by shuttle drivers. One thing to note– the trail hardly crosses any roads in this section, with the busy Newfound Gap roughly halfway through being the most prominent option for a bailout or an alternative starting/ending point.
I would consider this entire section a highlight, but there are certain landmarks that stand out. Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the entire AT at 6,643', and Charlie's Bunion, a rocky outcrop, offer phenomenal views of the surrounding mountain ranges on clear days. Shuckstack Fire Tower on the Southern end of the park offers views of Fontana Dam, and Rocky Top Mountain is just one of several jagged, bald mountaintops the AT reaches along the way.
Weather can be cold and wet year-round, so make sure to be prepared with the proper rain, wind, and cold weather gear for your time spent in the high elevation. It is important to note that camping is only permitted at designated shelters and camping areas, and a permit is required to hike through the park. This can be easily purchased from the park's website.
Hopeful hikers should be aware of one last thing: if pure solitude is what you are seeking, it is relatively hard to find that on this section hike. If you set out to backpack this section during the Spring, you will also be sharing the trail and campsites with several other hopeful Northbound thru hikers. Shelters will fill up very quickly.
Regardless, I would consider the GSMNP section a must-visit section for beginners and advanced backpackers of all skill sets. The elevation change will provide a challenge, but for the most part, the trail never gets very technical and offers smooth, dirt single-track trails that are easy to follow.
Sample Itinerary (Northbound)
Day One: Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter, 11.5 miles
Day Two: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter, 12.1 miles
Day Three: Derrick Knob Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter, 13 miles
Day Four: Mt. Collins Shelter to Pecks Corner Knob Shelter, 15.4 miles
Day Five: Pecks Corner Knob Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter, 12.9 miles
Day Six: Cosby Knob Shelter to Davenport Gap, 7.8 miles
VIRGINIA'S TRIPLE CROWN OF HIKING
Total Mileage: 33 Miles
Starting/Ending Points: Trout Creek Trailhead on VA Route 620, and US Route 220, Daleville, VA.
Total Elevation Change: ~14,700’
Difficulty Rating: 5/10
Highlights: Dragon's Tooth, McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs
The AT covers 550 miles through the state of Virginia, offering scenic vistas and landscapes throughout. However, there are about 30ish miles that I feel almost sum up the beauty of the AT in Virginia.
Virginia's 'Triple Crown' consists of Dragon's Tooth, McAfee's Knob, and Tinker Cliffs, each offering fantastic views of distant Virginia ridgelines and towns. McAfee Knob is regarded as the most photographed spot on the AT, and it is a tradition that thru-hikers sit on the very edge of the rocky outcrop.
The AT makes its way through tons of Oak and Pine forests in this section, along with plenty of rhododendron tunnels that bloom with colorful wildflowers in the Spring. Hikers can expect to encounter the standard Eastern forest wildlife on this stretch, and one should note that Black Bear activity has been increasing in the McAfee Knob/Tinker Cliffs area.
The ascents to these three iconic landmarks aren't easy but are certainly manageable and are all relatively short climbs. At times, the terrain will be rocky, particularly near Dragon's Tooth, but never very technical for too long. There are lots of camping options along this thirty-mile stretch, including several shelters and undesignated campsite options.
Camping is not allowed on the summit of McAfee Knob. Still, a shelter located a couple of miles away from the viewpoint offers hikers the chance to experience this landmark at sunrise/sunset. No permit is required to hike this section.
This is another section perfect for backpackers of all experience levels. The shorter distance of this section is particularly beginner-friendly, and several road crossings along the way provide bailout options if needed. The starting/ending points of this section are easily accessible by shuttle.
Like everywhere else on the AT, rain can be expected year-round, and temperatures can get very cold during Fall/Early Spring.
Sample Itinerary (Northbound)
Day One: USA Route 220 to Lambert's Meadow Shelter/Campsite, 9.3 miles
Day Two: Lambert's Meadow Shelter/Campsite to John's Spring Shelter, 9.5
Day Three: John's Spring Shelter to Pickle Branch Shelter, 13.6 miles
Day Four: Pickle Branch Shelter to Trout Creek Parking at VA 620, 1.3 miles
*Several other hikers choose to hike the Triple Crown portion in a loop, extending on another trail to loop back around to the car. More information can be found on AllTrails.
NEW HAMPSHIRE'S WHITE MOUNTAIN NATIONAL FOREST
Total Mileage: 79.5
Starting/Ending Points: Trailhead at NH Rt. 25 near Glencliff, NH, Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center, NH
Total Elevation Change: ~50,200+ feet
Difficulty Rating: 10/10
Highlights: Mt. Moosilauke, Lonesome Lake, Franconia Ridge, Presidential Range, Mt. Washington
Thru-hikers often say, "You haven't seen anything yet; just wait until the Whites." Of course, this isn't exactly or entirely true, but they definitely make a good point. Referred to as the "crux" of the AT, this rugged portion of trail is perfect for those more experienced backpackers seeking a more physically demanding trek.
What makes the Whites that much more challenging than most other parts of the Appalachian Trail? Between the relentlessly steep elevation changes, the highly technical nature of the trails, and the unpredictable weather, the trail through the White Mountains will physically and mentally test even the fittest and experienced backpacker.
But with great challenges come even better rewards. Some of the best views along the entire AT can be seen on this stretch of trail. Hikers will find themselves above treeline for large stretches of trail, while reaching the summits of a dozen 4,000' peaks—a peak-baggers dream.
I have listed Pinkham Notch as a starting/ending point for this particular section hike, but hikers can easily extend this by adding the section of trail from Pinkham Notch to US Route 2 right outside of Gorham, NH.
Along the way, hikers will experience 360-degree views (on clear days) from the iconic Franconia Ridge, a five-mile ridge hike above treeline that reaches the summits of three 4,000' peaks along the way. In addition to Franconia Ridge, hikers also experience life above treeline for around 15 miles on the Presidential Range.
On the Presidential Range, the AT reaches the summit of Mt. Washington, the Northeast's highest point at 6,288', along with several other peaks that brief side-trails can easily access.
The extended time spent above treeline in this section also comes with great risk. The Whites are notorious for quick and drastic weather changes, going from clear skies to thunderstorms with gale-force winds in a matter of moments. So make sure to check the weather before beginning your hike through the Presidentials.
Mt. Washington is known for having some of the worst weather in the world– wind gusts of 230 MPH have been recorded at the weather station on the summit, the strongest wind ever recorded by man.
Camping above treeline is prohibited in the White Mountain National Forest, but there are several designated shelters (several of them come with a small fee) and tent sites along the way, along with stealth-camping when prohibited.
The Whites are also known for their extensive Hut system run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. Hikers will pass several of these huts along the way, offering the chance to take shelter from bad weather, enjoy a hot meal, or pay to spend a night.
Sample itinerary (Northbound):
Day One: NH Route 25 to Beaver Brook Shelter, 8 miles
Day Two: Beaver Brook Shelter to Eliza Brook Shelter, 9 miles
Day Three: Eliza Brook Shelter to Liberty Springs Campsite, 11.4 miles
Day Four: Liberty Springs Campsite to Garfield Ridge Campsite, 7.6 miles
Day Five: Garfield Ridge Campsite to Pemigewasset River (legal, unofficial campsites can be found here), 12.4 miles
Day Six: Pemigewasset River to Nauman Tensites at Mizpah Hut, 11.5 miles
Day Seven: Nauman Tentsite to Osgood Tentsite, 14.8 miles*
Day Eight: Osgood Tentsite to Pinkham Notch Visitor's Center, 4.8 miles
*Tenting is not permitted above treeline on the Presidential Ridge, forcing hikers to complete the 14.8 miles in one long day. Hikers can opt to cut the day shorter by purchasing a bunk at the Madison Spring Hut or Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
MAINE'S 100-MILE WILDERNESS
Total Mileage: 100 Miles
Starting/Ending Points: Trailhead off ME Rt. 15 near Monson, ME, Abol Bridge, ME
Total Elevation Change: ~34,200’
Difficulty Rating: 9/10
Highlights: Chairback Mountain, White Cap Mountain, Crawford Pond Beach, Views of Mt. Katahdin
Located in remote Northern Maine, this section of trail is known for being the largest wilderness portion of the trail, crossing no major roads throughout this 100-mile stretch of trail. Hikers will occasionally cross a remote dirt/gravel logging road, but for the most part, you're as far removed from civilization as you can get on the AT.
Hikers must keep this in mind before committing to the 100 Mile Wilderness section hike. It is vital that you come prepared with more than enough food, supplies, and the proper gear to last the entire hike duration. There is hardly any cell service, so there aren't many easy bailout options once you commit to hiking deep into the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Those who choose to tackle this section will surely be well rewarded. Many hikers stand firm with their beliefs that this is one of the most beautiful portions of the entire AT.
Hikers will make their way through miles of stunning spruce and pine forests, traverse mountain ranges that offer stunning views, all the while constantly passing large ponds/lakes, with many offering trailside beach access.
Be on the lookout for some moose, too. Hikers often encounter them at some point in their time spent in the Wilderness, but they're typically not aggressive. Black Bears are around, but a bear sighting is rare. Definitely expect to hear some loons singing away at night/early AM.
The elevation profile of the northern half is significantly flatter than the Southern 50-ish miles. Those who choose to hike the Wilderness northbound will tackle the Chairback and White Cap Mountains early on before reaching the much flatter portion with more trailside beach access points. Those who hike Southbound will experience this in the opposite order–there is no right/wrong way to do this section.
Hikers will be treated to an abundance of camping options through the 100 Mile Wilderness, between a plethora of shelters, designated campsites, and unofficial tent sites. There are several camping options right on the shores of the lakes and ponds the trail passes–options I highly recommend.
The idea of carrying all of your food for 100 miles may seem like a big turnoff for some hikers. However, hikers can arrange food drops with the iconic Shaw's Hiker Hostel, who can access the trail at some logging road crossings to drop off your food. Shaw's is also a good option for a place to stay either before starting the section or upon completion of the hike. They also offer shuttle arrangements for hikers.
Due to the remoteness of this portion, I would not recommend this section hike for your first-ever backpacking trip. Instead, join along with a group of more experienced friends if you are not comfortable in your skillset to take on this portion solo just yet.
Sample Itinerary (Southbound):
Day One: Abol Bridge Campground to Rainbow Lake Dam (sunrise view of Katahdin), 13.1 miles
Day Two: Rainbow Lake Dam to Wadleigh Stream Lean-to, 10 miles
Day Three: Wadleigh Stream Lean-to to Antlers Campsite, 13.5 miles
Day Four: Antlers Campsite to Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to, 8 miles
Day Five: Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to to Logan Brook lean-to, 11.7 miles
Day Six: Carl Newhall Lean-to to Logan Brook lean-To, 7.2 miles
Day Seven: Logan Brook Lean-to to West Chairback Pond, 11.6 miles
Day Eight: West Chairback Pond to Wilson Valley Lean-to, 13.9 miles
Day Nine: Wilson Valley Lean-to to ME Route 15 Trailhead, 10.4 miles
Max Kiel is a New York-based freelance outdoor writer and digital content creator, and a Trail Specialist at Confluence Running. Upon graduating college in the Winter of 2021, he completed a long-time dream of his and thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. In addition to hiking, Max is also an avid trail-runner, aspiring Ultramarathoner, and Winter mountain explorer who is constantly looking for his next challenge. In his free time, Max can typically be found running around in the local New York hills with his black lab Maverick, training for an upcoming race or expedition. You can follow more of his adventures on his Instagram.