Hiking the Famed Appalachian Trail in Small Bites
The Appalachian Trail, the longest pedestrian-only path in the world, winds 2,190 miles through 14 eastern states. It begins and ends on mountains—Springer in Georgia and Katahdin in Maine—gaining and losing more than 450,000 feet in elevation. Thru-hiking the trail takes months. Shorter hikes, suitable for kids, break the trail into manageable bites.
Hiking From End to End
Thru-hikers, intrepid adventurers who hike the Appalachian Trail from end to end without taking a break, budget between five and seven months to complete the trail. Once you’ve gotten your trail legs, expect to hike at about a 3-mph pace—faster on flat, even stretches but slower on steep uphill sections or over rocky terrain. Trail towns along the way provide stops for hot showers and resupplying. Trailside lean-tos keep hikers dry at night.
Hikes Around Trail Towns
Towns along the Appalachian Trail that make an effort to welcome hikers are designated Appalachian Trail Communities. You can park the car right next to the trail in many of them and take a trail hike as long or as short as you like.
The Appalachian Trail becomes Main Street in Hanover, NH, home of Dartmouth College. Stop by the Howe Library (13 South St., Hanover, NH) and have your kids find your location on the oversized map of the trail on display, or read the hikers’ log book.
The trail drops from Pine Ridge and winds through the town of Duncannon, PA, before crossing the Susquehanna River and climbing back up Peters Mountain. If you have older children who won’t mind the climb, park the car downtown and head southwest for views from the top of Pine Ridge.
Hiking With History
Harpers Ferry, WV, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, was the site of John Brown’s 1859 raid. Historic homes cling to the sides of streets that climb up the hill from the river. Stop at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (799 Washington St., Harpers Ferry, WV) for maps and brochures. The trail crosses both rivers here. Hike east to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal for an easy walk along the towpath, or climb the steps to Jefferson Rock for views of the rivers and surrounding mountains.
Very Short Hikes
Max Patch (Max Patch Road, Hot Springs, NC), in western North Carolina is what’s known as a bald, or a mountaintop where no trees grow. A winding dirt road leads to a small parking lot at a trailhead leading to the Appalachian Trail. From the top of the bald, hikers have long-range views of the highest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains.
A footbridge (U.S. 501, Glasgow, VA) carries the Appalachian Trail across the James River in Virginia. High railings on the bridge 20 miles from Lynchburg make it safe for kids, and trains rumble by on a nearby trestle. Park on the north side of the river for the quarter-mile, round-trip, walk across the bridge.
Notes on Safety
Pack a first-aid kit for longer hikes. A few adhesive bandages, a tube of hydrocortisone cream and antiseptic wipes should suffice for short hikes. Keep in mind that your cellphone may not work on remote portions of the trail, and always let someone know where you plan to hike. Teach your kids that they should always have you in sight, and have them wear a whistle in case of an emergency.