More Than A Walk in the Woods: What You Need to Know About the Appalachian Trail

Fourteen states, a 2,185 mile footpath, and two cranky old men with very sore feet.

That’s the premise of the latest Hollywood comedy adventure, “A Walk in the Woods,” which opens in theaters on September 2. The movie, based on Bill Bryson’s bestseller, stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte as old friends who make the improbable decision to hike the Appalachian Trail.

The movie will, undoubtedly, boost interest in the Appalachian Trail. But the A.T., as many call it, has long been a popular bucket list adventure item. So lace up your hiking boots, break out your oh-so-flattering convertible pants and get ready for a dose of “trail magic”—here’s the basics of the Appalachian Trail.

(Before you start, you might want to check out this post for more hiking tips.) 

Some history

The Appalachian Trail evolved from the 1921 proposals of Massachusetts regional planner Benton MacKaye to preserve the Appalachian crests as a wilderness belt - a retreat from urban life. Completed in 1937, the trail traverses the scenic, wooded, pastoral, wild, and culturally resonant lands of the Appalachian Mountains. It is managed by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, numerous state agencies, and thousands of volunteers.

It goes through 14 states

Running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail follows the Appalachian mountain range through 14 states, including all but three of the original 13 colonies. Virginia is home to the most miles of the trail (about 550), while West Virginia is home to the least (about 4).

Who does this?

Besides Redford and Nolte, you mean? Approximately three to four million visitors hike a section of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail each year, and about 1,800–2,000 people attempt to walk the entire trail, also known as a “thru hike.” 

Wait, what’s a thru hike?

“Thru-hikers” are people who have a lot of time on their hands, and a great deal of determination. In 2013, only 875 people actually completed the trek, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. It is a huge commitment—thru-hikers usually take from five to seven months to walk the full distance in a continuous hike, which by the way, is mostly over jagged roots and sharp rocks. Most thru-hikers start their trips in March or the first half April at Springer Mountain and finish at Katahdin in September. 

You don’t have to thru hike.

“Section-hikers” piece the entire A.T. together over years. “Flip-floppers” or “leap froggers” thru-hike the entire A.T. in discontinuous sections to avoid crowds, extremes in weather, or start on easier terrain.

But if you flip-flop, you might not get a cool nickname.

Hikers usually adopt "trail names" while hiking the trail, such as "Eternal Optimist," "Crumb-snatcher," and "Silver Fox." (I made up that last one for Redford. You're welcome.)

What is trail magic?

Well, it’s not tree nymphs or faeries if that’s what you were thinking. The term “trail magic” describes an unexpected occurrence that lifts a hiker’s spirits, usually delivered by a “trail angel,” such as being offered a candy bar or sharing the location of an elusive species of wildlife (or Hollywood movie star).

Now that’s some real magic. 

September 2, 2015