I almost wished that the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length.

In 1948, Earl Shaffer became the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail (AT). A WWII veteran, Shaffer wrote that he set out on the trail to walk “the Army out of my system.” He set out to complete the trail once more in 1965 at the age of 79. But how did this now legendary trail get its start?

The Proposal

Verdant trail with sign that says "Appalachian Trail"
Credit: ehrlif/ Shutterstock

The story goes that Benton MacKaye sat in a tree at Stratton Mountain, Vermont, when he was struck with the idea of the trail. In a 1921 public proposal titled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning,” MacKaye wrote:

Something has been going on these past few strenuous years, which, in the din of war and general upheaval, has been somewhat lost from the public mind. It is the slow quiet development of the recreational camp. It is something neither urban nor rural. It escapes the hecticness of the one and the loneliness of the other… All communities face an "economic" problem, but in different ways. The camp faces it through cooperation and mutual helpfulness, the others through competition and mutual fleecing...
The skyline along the top of the main divides and ridges of the Appalachians would overlook a mighty part of the nation’s activities. The rugged lands of this skyline would form a camping base strategic in the country’s work and play.

MacKaye was an employee for a number of federal bureaus, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Department of Labor. MacKaye spent the next four years amassing support and funding for the trail until construction began in 1925. Today, the AT is managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy alongside state agencies and volunteers.

The Trek

Appalachian Trail on the ridge of the White Mountains, New Hampshire
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The AT today is 2,192 miles long, stretching across 14 Eastern states from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. It's the longest hiking-only trail in the world. The highest point of the trail is 6,625 feet at Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, while the lowest elevation is 124 feet. Along this entire length, elevations fluctuate wildly with very little flat ground. The total climbing for the trail is an estimated 515,000 feet, equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 17 times.

Since Earl Shaffer, somewhere between 1,500-2,000 hikers attempt to hike the trail every year, though about 12 percent successfully complete a “thru-hike” from end-to-end. In recent times, attempts are increasing while success rates are declining. Time spent on the thru-hike varies by pace of the hiker taking anywhere from 46 days to a year, but usually between five to seven months. The trek demands preparation and endurance, but success isn’t limited to the young and spry. "Grandma Gatewood" was 67 years old with 11 children and 23 grandchildren when she completed the thru-hike in 1955.

Handles, Spoons, and Tents

Hut along the Appalachian Trail
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Tradition has it that hikers never use their real names. Instead, hikers use handles like "Quiet Moose," "Shaggy," and "SLAM." The ones who time it right get to join in on the music and festivities of the Appalachian Trail Days Festival in Damascus, Virginia. Regardless of when they set out, most people will take on the Half-Gallon Challenge at The Pine Grove Furnace General Store in Gardners, Pennsylvania – the halfway point of the trail. The challenge involves eating a half-gallon of ice cream in one sitting for the coveted prize of a wooden spoon. Then it’s back off to the trail with an extra load in their bellies. However, the rest of their gear may or may not include a tent, as there are 250 huts along the length of the trail, all of which can be used for free. The huts are spaced roughly a day’s hike apart, but distances vary wildly.

The Trail’s Legacy

Mountain landscape on the Southern part of the Appalachian Trail
Credit: MarkVanDykePhotography/ Shutterstock

When Earl Shaffer set out on the trail, he aimed to leave something behind. Some followed his footsteps with the same in mind, whereas others looked to pick a few things up. One way or another, the AT still beckons the footsteps of wayfarers from across the country and across the world.