In 1921, when Benton MacKaye introduced the concept of the Appalachian Trail in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, hiking was just an afterthought for the regional planner. Disenchanted with the East’s growing metropolises, MacKaye envisioned a series of work and study camps on the Appalachian ridgelines where weary citizens could escape rampant industrialization and immerse themselves in nature. For MacKaye, the extensive trail was a means to an end, simply a way to connect the camps. Those camps may not have materialized, but the hiking trail thrived.
Seventy-six years after its completion, the Appalachian Trail is the most famous footpath in the country, stretching roughly 2,186 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Its proximity to major cities along the eastern seaboard means that half of the U.S. population, more than 150 million people, lives within a day’s drive of the Appalachian Trail, giving it an outsized role in connecting people to nature.
Starting in the early 1900s, nationwide enthusiasm for land conservation saw national parks designated across the country. New parks like Glacier and the Grand Canyon became icons of the American West, while the Appalachian Trail gave Easterners a massive project of their own. Miles of path were quickly cut, and enthusiasm for the trail enabled the designation of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks soon after.
The Appalachian Trail was completed in 1937—just 16 years after MacKaye proposed the idea—thanks to a handful of dedicated hikers and public land managers who were galvanized by the idea of a “super trail” traversing the wild ridges and peaks in their proverbial backyards. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy steered the public-private joint venture, which was designed by private citizens and largely implemented by public works programs. At the time it was completed, roughly half the Appalachian Trail traversed private properties; today, 99.5 percent of it is on protected land.
The Appalachian Mountains are a conservation priority, and the trail threads together many Nature Conservancy projects across the region: In New Jersey, for instance, the Conservancy is working along the Kittatinny Ridge to preserve migratory bird flyways and improve forest connectivity in the region. In West Virginia, it leads efforts to restore red spruce forests. And in Georgia, the Upper Coosa River Basin Project secures land around headwaters that feed Atlanta’s freshwater supply.
“The Appalachian Trail is like Yellowstone. People like the idea of it, and they’re willing to stand up for it,” says Katherine Medlock, program director for the Conservancy’s Eastern Tennessee office, which has roughly 278 miles of Appalachian Trail in its region. “If people hike even a little of this incredible trail, they become lifetime advocates for conservation.”
For many, the path offers the ultimate backpacking adventure, an opportunity to spend months walking the greatest wilderness complex in the East. For a glimpse of pure joy, look at the face of a “thru-hiker” standing on top of the trail’s craggy, alpine terminus in Maine. The hiker is inevitably dirty. Worn. Tired. And always ecstatic from completing a defining outdoor pilgrimage.
Over the years, the Appalachian Trail has evolved to play a role as an environmental laboratory. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the trail helps protect 250,000 acres. The mountain chain is home to one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world. It functions as a flyway and nesting habitat for more than 230 bird species. As climate change pushes cold-loving plants and animals northward, these mountain ridges are now playing a valuable role as an intact wilderness corridor where species can move and survive.
“MacKaye’s vision of a wilderness belt where you could study nature away from the metropolises below has come back around,” says Brian King, publisher of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s magazine. “The A.T. is now one of the most important natural resources in the National Park System. It was a gift that MacKaye and his colleagues came up with more than 90 years ago. The people who built the trail probably didn’t think of it that way at the time. They just thought it was a neat idea—a really long trail.”
The Journey Starts Here
This thin ribbon of trail connects cities with national parks, humans with nature and biodiversity with its future.
IN THE BEGINNING
The Appalachian Trail hits its 6,625-foot peak elevation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near the summit of Clingman’s Dome. A nearby observation tower offers a 360-degree view of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Geologists believe the Appalachian Mountains began forming 480 million years ago as the supercontinents Gondwana and Laurasia shifted and eventually collided. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Appalachians likely stood the size of the Rockies. Recent surveys show the mountains’ river valleys are eroding faster than their peaks, creating a deeper relief within the landscape.
The Appalachian Trail is not just a bucket-list adventure; it can be a quick weekend escape. The trail passes through small towns, skirts the skylines of larger cities and intersects with countless other side trails. According to the National Park Service, more than 2 million people set foot on the Appalachian Trail every year. If getting people outdoors is the most effective way to promote conservation, the trail has proven a successful ambassador.
FIVE MILLION STEPS
“I caught my brother talking to his oreo cookies one day,” says Ethan Kearns, manager of film and video for the Conservancy, describing their Appalachian Trail thru-hike. “Those first couple of break your body down. Your mind, too. But it gets easier as you move north.”
"Easier” is a relative term. In 2005, Kearns thru-hiked the trail with his younger brother in just 99 days. Most people take six months to complete the trek, typically starting in Georgia and walking north. It’s a monumental feat. Only one in four would-be thru-hikers finishes; most northbound hikers quit before reaching Virginia. An estimated 13,500 people have walked the trail from end to end according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
WALK THE LINE
Henry Ford gets to take some of the credit for the Appalachian Trail. Before the automobile, backpackers mostly hiked in loops because they had limited means of shuttling from the end of a linear trail back to the starting point. the first “long trail” to emerge from the automobile boom was Vermont’s 270-mile Long Trail, which now joins up with the Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont—fitting since MacKaye was inspired to create the Appalachian Trail while summiting Stratton Mountain on Vermont’s Long trail.
The final leg of the Appalachian Trail, two miles between Spaulding and Sugarloaf mountains in Maine, was completed in 1937. Conservationists have spent decades protecting the trail’s corridor. In the 1980s, the Conservancy preserved a piece of hiking history, purchasing 12,000 acres in southern Vermont, including a shared section of the Long and Appalachian trails that features Stratton Mountain.
Mark Anderson, the Conservancy’s regional science director in Massachusetts, sees the Appalachian Mountains as a bank of biodiversity, insurance in the face of climate change. He studied 156 million acres between Virginia and Canada, looking for landscapes that feature a series of microclimates that aren’t fragmented by development. The Appalachians promise to be one of the most resilient landscapes in the East. Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone has more than 17,000 documented species (923 are recently discovered) according to an ongoing biodiversity inventory.
Protection of the Appalachian Trail has left a corridor that allows species to migrate into more hospitable ecosystems as conditions change. “The rest of the East is so fragmented, species will eventually be pushed through these mountains, turning the Appalachians and the trail into a natural stronghold for species,” Anderson says.
And though the trail was built to reconnect urbanites with nature, its influence on surrounding lands may be what ultimately preserves Eastern forests and mountain habitats.