The usual start of Appalachian Trail is at the Southern Terminus in Georgia. Since the trail actually begins at a bronze plaque on the summit of Springer Mountain at 3,780 feet, the first decision you make is whether to do the 8.5-mile approach trail. The approach trail is not a part of the official 2,190 miles of the Appalachian Trail but the Max Epperson Shelter at Amicalola Falls State Park where the approach trail begins is a place you will meet many other starters.
You can sleep there on the first night of your adventure. Purists hike the approach but many others choose to skip it. By Pennsylvania, if you are still on the trail, no one cares if you skipped the approach. You are legit for still being on the trail.
The trail in Georgia includes elevation changes between 2,500 and 4,500 feet, meaning you becoming “trail-hard” almost immediately. Georgia is often quite crowded, most especially in spring. Shelters tend to take a beating, as do the tent sites. If you are in Georgia in spring, be ready for extreme cold and rain. In my first March in Georgia it was twenty degrees and snowing.
Still, the Southern Terminus is the place most hikers wish to start. Many Trail hikers get a charge out of climbing down off Blood Mountain and arriving at Mountain Crossings, a storied gear shop that the Appalachian Trail actually passes through. Untold numbers of poor-fitting boots are replaced at this famous gear shop, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934. Discarded hiking boots are nailed high on the walls around the entire circumference of the shop, giving the shop a one-of-a-kind and ever-evolving decor.
North Carolina follows, which is perfect if you love a challenge. You will hike over ninety-seven miles in the Tar Heel State, over several mountains that top 6,000 feet. Unique to the North Carolina leg of the Trail are high grassy balds. These treeless mountain summits are covered in thick swaths of grass. No one knows how these landforms got the way they are. One of the sights you see while up on the balds is the beautiful purple-blue crests of the Smoky Mountains. One glance and you’ll understand why they are called the Smokies.
All Appalachian Trail towns have these quirky and wonderful hostels in which to stay overnight. Each independently owned property has its own personality and is a very affordable stay. You will hear stories of amazing breakfasts, huge stacks of pancakes, savory eggs, biscuits and bacon. After several days of hiking on the trail, a stop for a hot shower, bed and a big breakfast is a huge treat.
There truly is nothing like hiking the Appalachian Trail, seeing the Eastern United States mile by mile, traveling under your own steam. There is so much good time for thinking and letting life happen out there. An entire long-distance hiking culture awaits you. Like all cultures of which you have been a part, there are crosses to bear and things to light you up and make you glad you joined this crazy band of boot-wearing, shelter-sleeping, and forest-breathing folks.
Trish Harris is professor and hiker living in North Carolina. Her list of planned treks includes the Pyrenees, The John Muir Trail, the Khumbu Icefall, the North Rim, the Compestela in northern Spain, the GR20. Just back from the Tour de Mont Blanc, she will be doing “trail magic” in April for northbound AT hikers.