In March of 2022, I embarked on an incredible journey to hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. It took me six months to walk the 2,194.3 miles, which seemed like both the longest period of my life and simultaneously flew by in an instant. Some days would drag on, as I trudged through the rain and mud, climbing over endless rock scrambles, and hiking from sunup to sundown. And other days were pleasant and relaxing, with warm, sunny weather, beautiful views, and maybe some trail magic if I was lucky. The Appalachian Trail can be divided into sections based on terrain or by state, and each section has its own flavor and sense of adventure. Here are some of my favorite sections of the AT and why I found them to be so memorable.
Mile 164.3 - Mile 240.7
Highlights: Varied Weather, Wildflowers, and Epic Views
Downsides: Tough Terrain, Limited Resupply Options
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park held a special place in my heart, because that’s where I first learned about the AT. In the summer of 2018, I visited the Smokies for a few days and camped and hiked some of the more popular trails. I absolutely loved the dense forests with their moss covered rocks, dancing ferns, and cool water cascades. And the views! I was completely awestruck by the mystical fog rising up between the mountain tops and dissipating into the warm sunshine at Charlie’s Bunion.
The AT passes through 71 miles of trail in the Smokies, riding atop the ridgeline that runs along the Tennessee and North Carolina border. It was early April when I hiked through, starting at Fontana Dam and traveling north. It took me six days to get through the Smokies, and in that time, I hiked through thunderstorms, freezing rain, dense fog, snow, 60 mph winds, and warm, bright sunshine. Some days I hiked in a tank top and leggings, and other days I had to wear every layer in my pack to stay warm. For some people, the crazy weather of the Smokies would be a downside, but I enjoyed the variation and excitement of the changing weather conditions.
With all the wet weather, the Smokies are considered to be the most diverse temperate rainforest in the world. In the spring, that means an abundance of wildflowers coating the forest floors. The Smokies are home to over 1,500 species of flowering plants, and I walked among blankets of spring beauty, bluets, and trillium.
You are up on the ridge most of the time on this section of the AT, so you don’t get all the scenic waterfalls and vistas that you can see in other parts of the Smokies, but there are a few spectacular views. On the first day I climbed the Shuckstack fire tower, just a short side trip from the AT, and was rewarded with 360 degree views of the mountains and Fontana Lake, which I climbed from early that morning. But when I got to Clingman’s Dome, the highest elevation in the Smokies and on the entire Appalachian Trail at 6,643 feet, it was so foggy, I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of me. The next day, the fog cleared out, and I hiked to Charlie’s Bunion for the second time, and the views were breathtaking.
Downsides: Terrain and Resupply
The Smokies section, between Fontana Dam and I-40, is a challenging bit of trail. With around 76 miles, there is over 19,000 feet of total ascent, which means each day, I was climbing around 3,000+ feet of elevation. The constant ups and downs were tiring, and the terrain was often rocky with quite a few blowdowns to climb over. The other thing that makes the Smokies challenging is that there is only one road crossing to use for resupply at Newfound Gap. The road is long, and takes about an hour long drive to get down into Gatlinburg, the Tennessee mountain town known at the entrance to the Smokies. While getting a hitch is fairly easy since Newfound Gap is almost always full of visitors, Gatlinburg can be a little overwhelming (and expensive!) for thru-hikers. The town is very touristy, with attractions and restaurants to suit everyone, and it’s easy to get sucked into the town vortex. If thru-hikers decide they don’t want to visit Gatlinburg, then they have to hike all the way through the Smokies on one resupply, which can take from 5-7 days. I hiked through in 6 days without stopping at Gatlinburg, and was completely out of food by the end, which meant I couldn’t stop to wait out bad weather and had to push myself a bit to get out of the park.
Northern Tennessee / North Carolina
Mile 241.5 - 467
Highlights: Hostels, Hot Springs, Roan Highlands
Downsides: I got sick…
There are 226 miles of trail from the end of the Smokies up to the Virginia border. This section of the AT crosses back and forth between Tennessee and North Carolina, and I really enjoyed the time I spent there.
Right outside of the Smokies, just after crossing I-40 is the Standing Bear Farm Hiker’s Hostel. Most thru-hikers stop at Standing Bear since it is the first place to resupply after exiting the Smokies. I just loved Standing Bear! It was like a magical, quirky little farmstead turned into a rustic bunkhouse and cabin. The walkways are lined with cobblestones and little trinkets and the shower walls are illuminated with recycled glass bottles. I got to wash my laundry with a sink washboard, take a hot shower, and was treated to a delicious hot meal. There is a community kitchen area where I made a hot cup of tea and shared stories with other thru-hikers. The resupply shop there wasn’t great, but I was able to get enough crackers, ramen, and poptarts to get me to my next stop. At only $25 for a bunk, it’s hard to pass this one up!
Standing Bear Farm was full of fun and creative artwork.
After Standing Bear, I made my way to Hot Springs, NC. One of the great stops along the way was on top of Max Patch, a beautiful mountain bald. It was cold and snowy on the way up, but the views were stunning. Hot Springs is only 20 miles from Max Patch, so I was able to make it there in a couple of days. The trail goes right through town, so it makes a great place to stop for a zero day. I stayed at the Laughing Heart Hostel; it had all the basics and the owner was really friendly. The town had a great little restaurant called the Smoky Mountain Diner, which I ate at twice during my stay. And I found a shop with a little pet rooster walking around on the counters… who would have thought you could keep a pet rooster inside! One of the best parts about Hot Springs is, well, the hot springs! I joined a group of hikers that booked a hot tub at the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, and we spent an hour soaking our sore and tired bodies in the hot mineral water. It was so refreshing!
North of Hot Springs, we made our way to Erwin, TN and then on to Roan High Knob and the Roan Highlands. This section of the trail was really nice, with a great variety of mountain views and dense rhododendron tunnels. Roan High Knob is home to the highest elevation shelter on the AT, and the hike up the mountain was long and strenuous. I made it to Roan High Knob on April 20, and the entire trailside of the mountain was covered in ice. The shelter at the top is a fully enclosed cabin-style shelter, which was nice for keeping out the cold. The next day, I passed through the Roan Highlands, which I think is one of the best parts of the whole AT. It’s a 15 mile section starting at Carver’s Gap and ending at the 19-E road crossing. The trail goes up and over four grassy mountain balds that offer grand views of the surrounding terrain. It was a warm and sunny day when I went through the highlands, and I had the bonus of slackpacking since my brother was visiting. He took my gear and I galloped through the grasslands enjoying the views. I’ve heard that these balds can get extremely cold and windy, but I lucked out with the weather.
The last of this section takes you up and around Watauga Lake before getting to the Virginia state line. On the way, I got to enjoy visiting several waterfalls, crossing over beautiful streams, and spotting wildflowers and spring birds. Many hikers stopped to stay at the Boots Off hostel and campground at Watauga Lake, where you can swim and even kayak on the lake. It was raining when I arrived, so I decided to just stop for a bite to eat and keep hiking. The lake was beautiful, even in the misty rains.
Downsides: I really loved this section of trail, which is part of the reason I ended up moving from Illinois to Tennessee after I finished my thru-hike. The mountains here were gorgeous, the water was plentiful, and the forests were teaming with wildlife. The one downside for me was getting sick when I stayed at a hostel after passing through the Roan Highlands. There were a lot of hikers congregating at this hostel and I ended up getting the infamous norovirus, a stomach bug that put me out for two whole days and took at least a week to fully recover. But, that wasn’t really a fault of the trail, although maybe the density of hikers at the hostels here were a contributing factor.
Mile 467 - 1008.7
Highlights: Grayson Highlands, VA Triple Crown, Aqua Blaze
Downsides: Pervasive myth that Virginia is flat and easy
Virginia holds the fame for containing the biggest section of trail on the AT, with 544 miles from the Tennessee border to the West Virginia border. The southern section has Damascus, a wonderful little trail town that is home to the Trail Days festival every May, and the Grayson Highlands, known for its wild ponies. In the middle of Virginia, you find the Virginia Triple Crown, a highly popular section with three iconic destinations: Dragon’s Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and McAfee Knob, which is the most photographed location on the AT. And the northern section of Virginia contains the Shenandoah National Forest. Many hikers refer to the “Virginia blues” when talking about the state, due to both the length of trail and the fact that much of the trail is under the forest canopy, or in the “green tunnel.” Hiking through the green tunnel for hours upon hours every day can get monotonous and it takes a month or longer to get through the whole state.
I really loved Virginia, and never felt the “Virginia blues” while I was there. I think that’s because I had the state broken up into a lot of little chunks with several things to look forward to. I was excited about the ponies in Grayson Highlands, I had planned a section hike with my sister, and I decided to “aqua blaze” on the Shenandoah river instead of hiking through the national park. These combined to make Virginia a really enjoyable state.
I got to Virginia at the end of April, at the height of spring when the wildflowers were in full bloom and the weather was warm. By the time I finished Virginia and the end of May, the trees had fully leafed out and the valleys were rich with green grasses and wildflowers. The terrain was more gentle than in TN/NC, and while there were still a lot of ups and downs, I loved getting out into the farmlands and lower elevation valleys. The days were longer and warmer, which meant I was able to hike longer into the evenings before setting up camp.
The Grayson Highlands State Park is right after you pass through Damascus. I had read about and seen pictures of the wild ponies online, so I was excited to get there. The real experience was way better than I could have imagined! As I started walking into the state park with Justin, I kept my eyes peeled for ponies. Sure enough, within about 15 minutes, a whole herd of ponies started walking down the trail, single file, right towards us! We stepped to the side and they came right up to us, close enough to get some selfies. We found a couple of carrots on the ground, probably left by other hikers, and offered them up to the ponies. They delightfully gobbled them up and then went on their way. As we continued through the park, over the rocky paths, I saw at least another dozen ponies out grazing in the fields.
Before I started my thru-hike, my sister decided that she wanted to come out and hike one of the sections with me. We planned to meet up in Virginia and spend 10 days together on trail. It was great for me to have something to look forward to in the middle of Virginia, and spending time with her on trail helped to fend off the Virginia blues. She had never been backpacking in the mountains before, but she was a real trooper! I think the terrain and mileage was a lot harder than she was expecting, but she managed to keep up and stay positive. We had so much fun, especially in the Triple Crown, and I loved getting some quality time with my little sis.
One of my favorite adventures on my AT thru-hike wasn’t even hiking at all. Justin and I planned to “aqua blaze” on the Shenandoah River, which meant we would travel by boat instead of by foot. We rented a canoe from a river outfitter called Shenandoah River Adventures. We actually had to buy the canoe for $550 and then they bought it back at the end of our 8 day trip for $150. There is an option for a 2-3 day trip, which only cost $150 for boat rental but we wanted a longer adventure. We got off trail in Waynesboro, VA, where we spent a day getting gear ready and packed, and then shuttled to Port Republic, where we got our boat and set out on the river. The river runs northbound, parallel to the AT and Shenandoah National Park. The outfitter that sold us the boat was very clear that they can only help for the first 3 days of the route, and then after that, we were on our own, which made the trip even more exciting! We bought a cooler and filled it with cold drinks and a camp stove with pots and pans to cook real food. In the weeks before the aqua blaze, we spent so much time on trail just planning out what kind of food we wanted to put in the boat. Since we didn’t have to carry it on our backs, the options were endless! We had ribeye steaks for 3 nights, pasta salad, spaghetti, chicken and corn on the cob, pancakes and eggs and bacon! We learned how to portage our canoe around dams and how to navigate the rapids. Most of the river was calm and shallow, although some parts were deep and wide. The trickiest section was called the Compton Rapids, a class II rapid that nearly took our boat underwater. But we made it through the whole trip unscathed! I’ll write a more lengthy post about the aqua blaze later, but if you’re interested in learning more, check out the Shenandoah River Adventures website for details.
A lot of hikers, including myself, had heard that Virginia was flat and that we would be able to do 30 miles a day easily. That was a lie… the trail is Virginia is at a lower elevation and has a lot of valleys and farmland, but it’s definitely not flat! And I never was able to hike 30 miles in one day… I think the furthest I hiked was 21 miles in a day. But, every hiker is different, so I know there are some that could do 30 miles.
100 Mile Wilderness, Maine
Mile 2079.6 - 2179
Highlights: Remote and scenic
Downsides: Limited resupply
The last 100 miles of the AT leading up to Mt. Katahdin is called the 100 Mile Wilderness. It starts just outside of Monson, ME and ends at the entrance to Baxter State Park. This is supposed to be the most remote and wild section of the entire AT, with no access to towns or resupply options along the way. There were a few road crossings, but they were old logging roads without public access. You used to have to hike through the whole section on a single resupply, but now you can arrange a food drop halfway through with Shaw’s, the hiker hostel in Monson. We chose to use the food drop which helped us to lower our food carry through the first part of the section, which is very similar to the tough and rocky White Mountains of New Hampshire. But after crossing over the Chairback range, the Gulf Hagas mountains, and Whitecap Mountain, the trail flattens out and weaves around a plethora of lakes all the way to Baxter State Park.
I thought the 100 Mile Wilderness was beautiful and serene, and had the best of everything: steep mountain ascents, boulder fields, open rock ledges, thick evergreen forests, endless summit views, bog bridges, and crystal clear lakes. Plus, the excitement of finally reaching the end of my six month journey on the AT made the 100 Mile Wilderness a little bittersweet and emotional. I felt like my body was ready to be done, but my heart wanted to stay on the AT forever. Two of my favorite stops in this section were for a sunset dinner on top of Whitecap Mountain and then a surprise trail magic of hot dogs and sodas at the Antler’s Campground.
While I was thru-hiking, I always reminded myself that every day is a great day on the AT! Even on the tough days, I felt like it was better than anything else I had ever done. Some of the sections were tougher than others (I'm talking about you, New Hampshire), but each part of the AT has a special place in my heart. If you want to hike one of these great sections of the AT, check out my mega-list of AT resources page or a breakdown of all the gear I used on my thru-hike.