Hike The 2,000-Mile Trail That Most People Never Finish

Appalachian Trail

Photo: Wikipedia

The Appalachian Trail, or AT, stretches more than 2,000 miles along the U.S. East Coast.Completed in 1937, the longest marked trail in the country runs from Georgia to Maine, connecting 14 states and passing through ridges and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range.

Stretches of the AT are within a couple hours drive for millions of Americans, but few have walked its full length. Each year, thousands of people attempt to hike the entire AT; only one in four succeeds. 

National Geographic explored the wooded footpath, travelling south to north, in a 50-minute documentary. You can take the adventure in our slideshow or watch the movie on Netflix.

The Appalachian Trail, better known as the AT, stretches about 2,175 miles along the eastern United States.

The AT runs from Georgia to Maine, making it the longest marked trail in the country, and one of the longest in the world.

The trail cuts through 14 states along the way, including New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut.

The AT is divided into four sections: The Southern Mountains, The Virginia Highlands, the Mid-Atlantic Lowlands, and New England.

The AT was first proposed in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a former forester and newspaper editor. He hoped the trail would be a way for people to escape city life and reconnect with wilderness.

The AT was not completed as a continuous footpath until 1937.

This was largely the work of volunteers who found routes, made maps and established local trail clubs.

The AT's signature white blaze, plastered on trees and rocks, guide hikers along the route.

Even today, the AT is maintained by thousands of volunteers who clean the trail, clear fallen trees, touch up trail markers, and warn hikers of hazards.

Every year, around 2,000 hikers attempt to tackle the AT's full length (around 2 to 3 million people walk a portion of the Trail).

But only about one-quarter of those thru-hikers, or around 500 people, make it the full way.

There are two kinds of thru-hikers: Northbound (Georgia to Maine) and Southbound (Maine to Georgia). Most thru-hikers walk north, starting in Georgia in March or April and finishing in Maine in September.

Most hikers cover about 15 miles a day, taking six months to complete the entire trail.

Some hikers load up on food high in calories like Snickers bars to maintain strength. Many climbers can burn up to 6,000 calories a day.

Fewer than 1,000 people have completed the AT southbound, in part because it's a tougher hike that starts with Mount Katahdin, the hardest climb of the entire path.

If you start in the Southern Mountains, the trail head begins at the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia.

The trail head is 10 miles from the nearest access road. A crew of volunteers helps to shuttle hikers to the starting line.

Chad Kinsey, a 33-year-old network administrator, is being dropped off today. Kinsey is a section-hiker, hiking for five to seven days at a time.

Around 15 per cent of thru-hikers throw in the towel after just a few days of hiking through Georgia.

One of the biggest issues hikers run into is packing too much.

After two days, the AT runs through an inn, where most hikers drop pounds of gear.

Extra food, tents, and water bottles either get dumped or traded in for lighter versions at the store. Many ambitious hikers think they are going to read at night, but end up being too tired, so lots of books are also cast away.

Every year, the store mails home 4.5 tons of equipment, or about 4.5 pounds per hiker.

Meanwhile, after hiking some 28 miles, Kinsey reaches his final destination before turning around.

Along the way, he passes one of the oldest hiking shelters on the Trail, built in 1934. There are more than 250 shelters along the Trail. These are often three-sided structures with a wooden floor, also known as lean-tos.

Kinsey's journey ends on the top of Blood mountain, the highest peak on the Georgian section of the AT.

But thru-hikers move on to conquer the rest of the Southern mountains.

The path continues through North Carolina, across the Fontana Dam along the Tennessee border.

More than 70 miles of Trail weaves through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park in America.

Here backpackers cross the trail's highest mountain, Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet.

It's a steep half-mile walk to the top of Clingmans Dome.

But once on the summit, the observation tower offers incredible 360 degrees views of the park.

Next, hikers will tackle the Virginia Highlands. Compared to the Southern mountains, this patch of the trail is relatively flat and hikers can cover 20 to 25 miles per day.

Backpackers have been on the trail for about a month when they reach the trail town of Damascus, Virginia at the southern border.

Here they can stop for food, clean up, sleep in a real bed and stock up on supplies.

Deborah Taylor sees a lot of hikers come through who are ready to give up.

A juicy hamburger and thick-cut French fries usually gives them the strength to move on.

More than one-fourth of the AT (about 550 miles) slices through Virginia. Moving north, 105 miles of this section cuts through the heart of Shenandoah National Park.

The AT is home to thousands of different plants and animals.

The black bear is one of the largest animals that lives around the trail. They are especially common in Shenandoah National Park.

Hidden cameras have snapped more than 5,000 images of creatures roaming near the AT, including the bobcat seen here.

Foxes are also common.

As are deer.

And raccoons.

At least one herd of horses runs wild though the southern part of the Virginia Highlands.

Wildlife experts think they are the offspring of domestic horses.

Venomous snakes including the Rattlesnake and Copperhead are common along rockier sections of the trail.

Surprisingly, the biggest danger does not come from bears or snakes, but from ticks that carry Lyme disease.

Thru-hikers hit the half-way point at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, which also marks the end of the Virginia Highlands portion.

With almost 1,200 miles to go, it's tradition for hikers to stop and pose for a picture.

Hikers undergo radical transformations along the way, both physically and mentally.

Many men grow beards.

The Mid-Atlantic section of the trail takes hikers through Maryland and Pennsylvania. This is one of the more traveled portions, where the Trail hugs farmlands and often crosses roads.

The lowest elevation of the hike comes when the AT crosses the Hudson River at Bear Mountain Bridge.

The Mid-Atlantic Lowlands run to the fourth and final section of the AT: New England.

Northbound thru-hikers hit New England in the fall. At this point, 80 per cent of the trail is behind them, but one of the toughest sections still lies ahead.

Through New Hampshire and Maine, the path is rugged, steep, and slippery. Maine's 281 miles of trail are some of the most strenuous and remote to hike in all 14 states.

Gary Hill has been on the trail for six months and is three days from the northern terminus on Mount Katahdin. He is 70 years old.

Gary also faces the risk of getting kicked off the trail before he reaches the end. The trail up Katahdin is closed on days when weather makes hiking there dangerous.

After travelling more than 2,000 miles, Gary spends his final night on the Trail.

When Gary wakes up, the weather is good and he begins his five-hour trek to Baxter Peak on Katahdin.

Even the strongest hikers find the final stretch tough.

Luckily, Gary has many people with him for support.

Finally, Gary makes it to the finish line on Baxter Peak. He kisses the marker.

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