Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail, is a 2,174 mile (3500 km) marked hiking trail in the eastern United States, running from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Along the way, the trail also passes through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
The International Appalachian Trail is an 675-mile (1,100 km) extension, running north from Maine into Quebec. It is actually a separate trail, not an official extension of the Appalachian Trail. An extension of the International Appalachian Trail, to Newfoundland, is still under construction.
The trail is currently protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership of the land or by right-of-way. Annually, more than 4,000 volunteers contribute over 175,000 hours of effort on the Appalachian Trail, possibly the largest volunteer effort on Earth, coordinated in most part by the Appalachian Trail Conference organization.
Trail hikers who complete the entire trail in a single season are termed "thru-hikers"; those who traverse the trail during a series of separate trips are known as "section-hikers". Those heading from Georgia to Maine, the direction in which the whole route is most often attempted, are termed "north-bounders" while those heading in the opposite direction are termed "south-bounders." Part of hiker subculture includes making colorful entries in log books at trail shelters, signed under trail names adopted by the hikers.
Completing of the trail generally requires five to seven months, although some have done it more quickly. The trail's rugged terrain and cold weather conditions during the spring and fall, make through-hiking a fairly demanding experience. Only about 20% of those who make the attempt actually succeed in completing the entire trail.
Nearly all of the trail is also open to local use, although there are some rules and regulations that favor "thru-hikers"; some believe that the emphasis on hiking the entire length of the trail is misplaced.
The 270 miles of trail in Maine are particularly difficult . Known as the "Hundred Mile Wilderness" the eastern section begins in Baxter State Park, at the Maine terminus of the trail. The park closes to camping from October 15 to May 15 each year. Park management strongly discourages thru-hiking within the park before May 31 or after October 15 .
The central Maine section includes a 70-yard-wide crossing of the widest unbridged river along the Trail. Fording the river is unsafe due to swift and powerful current and the unannounced release of water from upstream hydroelectric facilities. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club  offers a canoe ferry ride across the river during peak hiking season.
The trail was originally conceived by Benton MacKaye, a forester who wrote his original plan shortly after the death of his wife in 1921. MacKaye's utopian idea detailed a grand trail that would connect a series of farms and wilderness work/study camps for city-dwellers.
On October 7, 1923, the first section of the trail, from Bear Mountain south along the Shawangunk Ridge to the Delaware Water Gap, was opened by groups of enthusiastic volunteers. To maintain forward momentum, MacKaye called for a two-day Appalachian Trail conference to be held in March of 1925 in Washington, D.C. This resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Trail Conference organization, though little progress was made on the trail for several years.
At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, a retired judge named Arthur Perkins and his younger associate Myron H. Avery took up the cause. Avery, who soon took over the ATC, adopted the more practical goal of building a simple hiking trail. He and MacKaye clashed over the ATC's response to a major commercial development along the trail's path; MacKaye left the organization, while Avery was willing to simply reroute the trail.
In August of 1937, the trail was completed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. The ATC shifted its focus toward protecting the trail lands and mapping the trail for hikers. From 1938 to the end of World War II, the trail suffered a series of natural and man-made setbacks. It is said that a group of Boy Scouts from the New York metropolitan area, with exceptional support such as trucked-in supplies, covered the whole trail (at least among them) some time in this period. It may not be clear whether any individual covered the whole route, nor whether contemporaneous records exist, and it appears any surviving participants are not pursuing credit. At the end of the war, the damage to the trail was repaired, and the first documented through-hike, by Earl Shaffer of York, Pa, brought a great deal of attention to the project.
In the 1960s, the ATC made real progress toward protecting the trail from development thanks to a number of sympathetic politicians and officials. The "National Trails System Act" of 1968, paved the way for a series of national scenic trails within the national park and national forest systems. Trail volunteers worked with the National Park Service to map a permanent route for the trail, and by 1971 a permanent route had been marked (though minor changes continue to this day). By the close of the 20th century, the Park Service had completed the purchase of all but a few miles of the trail's span. Completion of all purchases is currently scheduled to occur in 2004
The most popular and accurate guidebook for hiking the Appalachian Trail is the A.T.C. publication compiled by A.L.D.H.A. volunteers called the Thru-Hikers Companion. Compiled by hikers (many of whom are past thru-hikers) who hike their trail sections and visit all the service providers in person each hiking season, the Companion continues in the tradition of the "Philosopher's Guide" the original guide for thruhikers. The Companion can be viewed online for free at http://www.ALDHA.org, or purchased directly from the Appalachain Trail Conservancy at http://www.atctrailstore.org. Proceeds from the publication go directly to protecting and preserving the Appalachian Trail, and no individual profits personally from the ALDHA Thru-Hikers Companion.
Also available from the A.T.C. is the Official A.T. Databook, an annually updated compilation of trail mileages, water sources, road crossings, shelter locations, etc. The 2005 DataBook is the 27th annual edition, and is rightly considered indispensable by AT hikers.
Roughly 70 percent of thru-hikers start their hikes on Springer Mountain in Georgia and hike north to Katahdin in Maine. Another 20 percent start on Katahdin and head south. The remaining 10 percent flip-flop or leap-frog, rather than hiking in one continuous trek. In the past several years, ATC has received approximately nine northbound "2,000-miler" completion reports for every one southbound report.
Scores of books about the trail have been published by thru-hikers and others. The first thru-hiker, Earl Shaffer, wrote a wonderful account of his journey titled "Walking With Spring", few subsequent books about the A.T. have matched it. In 1998 Bill Bryson described his attempts at walking the trail in his book A Walk in the Woods. It is a less-than-serious view of the trail, from a less-than-fit person's perspective.
- Appalachian Trail Conference
- ALDHA - Celebrating the A.T. Community
- The Appalachian Trail Home Page
- National Park Service Trail information
- Trail Journals, Backpacking and Hiking Journals
- WhiteBlaze.net - A Community of Appalachian Trail Enthusiasts
- Full trail map (in PDF format) from the National Park Service
- Appalachian Trailplace - an Appalachian Trail resource site and information center
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