WHETHER HIKING ‘THRU’ OR JUST VISITING, THE APPALACHIAN OFFERS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.
Lowcountry residents might be surprised to learn that the world’s most-famous long-distance trail isn’t as far from our beaches and marshes as it might seem. Springer Mountain in Georgia is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and it’s only a six-hour drive from Hilton Head Island. The trail also passes through Hot Springs, North Carolina, a little more than five hours away, so it’s not hard for area mountain lovers to get their fix.
Author Bill Bryson detailed his partial walk of the trail — he went about 800 miles — in his popular 1998 book “A Walk in the Woods,” and his account made many readers assume that the trail is too daunting for the average vacationer. However, just a few thousand of the trail’s 3 million annual visitors undertake a “thru hike” — backpacking the entire 2,190-mile length of the trail — or a “LASH” (hiker lingo for a “long-a** section”) hike of 100 miles or more. Most trail visitors are day hikers and weekend campers.
THE SOUTHERN TRAIL, FROM GEORGIA THROUGH VIRGINIA, ROLLS UP AND OVER MOUNTAIN AFTER MOUNTAIN AND THROUGH DENSE CORRIDORS OF OAK, PINE, RHODODENDRON AND MOUNTAIN LAUREL.
Originally completed in 1937, the Appalachian Trail traverses 14 states, running from Georgia to Maine. Rambling mostly through wild woodlands, it snakes through the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. But hikers are seldom more than a two- or three-day walk from a paved road into a “trail town,” where civilization awaits.
The trail has a reputation for being steep, but its beauty is also well-known. The Southern trail, from Georgia through Virginia, rolls up and over mountain after mountain and through dense corridors of oak, pine, rhododendron and mountain laurel. Hikers especially love the many “balds,” mountaintops offering spectacular vistas for hundreds of miles in every direction. Wildlife sightings are common — and don’t worry about the bears; they typically flee approaching humans and attacks are exceedingly rare.
Camping is allowed along virtually all of the trail corridor and at more than 250 sleeping shelters — rustic, three-sided structures, though some are fancier; you can even order pizza and Chinese takeout at a handful up north.
Hiking the Appalachain
When is a hike more than a hike? If you ask Urban Dictionary, a popular website that defines current slang terms, “hiking the Appalachian Trail” is a euphemism for sneaking away to meet your lover. In 2009, Mark Sanford — then governor of South Carolina and now a lame-duck U.S. representative — falsely claimed he’d been on the trail in an effort to cover up an extramarital affair. In reality, he was in Argentina with his mistress.
If you’re considering some time on the trail, here are a few ideas that aren’t too far from the Lowcountry:
• Max Patch: This 4,629-foot bald on the North Carolina-Tennessee border near Ashville offers breathtaking 360-degree views of the Smokys and surrounding mountains. A 1.4-mile trail leads from a small parking area to the summit, or you can hike a 2.4-mile loop.
• Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Countless trails are easily accessed from paved parking areas. Two favorites: Newfound Gap to the dramatic Charlie’s Bunion overlook (8 miles roundtrip) and 6,625-foot Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail (half a mile roundtrip from parking area).
• Amicalola Falls State Park, Georgia: Though technically not part of the Appalachian Trail, many northbound thru hikers start with this steep, 8-mile hike from the park to Springer Mountain, the Southern terminus of the trail.
• Iron Mountain, Tennessee: A 17-mile meander from Iron Mountain Gap to Cross Mountain makes for a perfect one-night journey.
• Interstate 40 to Hot Springs: In just over 34 miles, this section crosses Max Patch and drops into a charming town where you can soak in the eponymous springs to celebrate your hike.
• Great Smoky Mountains: The trail runs through about 70 miles of the park, from Fontana Dam to I-40, traversing oak-scrub ecosystems and alpine spruce-pine forests. A permit is required to camp or to stay in park shelters; to get one, go to www.smokiespermits.nps.gov.
There’s another great way to experience the Appalachian Trail that doesn’t require hiking boots or a tent: Volunteer on a trail crew. The A.T. is maintained almost entirely through the efforts of about 6,000 volunteers, who provide 250,000 hours of service annually. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that oversees conservation and management of the trail, runs dozens of five-day crews from May through October. You can also volunteer with any of the 31 local trail maintaining clubs, including five in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
For more information on volunteering, go to www.appalachiantrail.org.
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