Claim a little piece of the Trail for yourself
The Appalachian Trail stretches from Mount Katahdin, Maine, in the north to Springer Mountain, Georgia, in the south. Along the way, the Trail passes through fourteen states. Its 2,186 miles makes it the longest marked trail in the world, and it has drawn thousands of hard-core hikers throughout the world seeking to hike its entire length in one go. Only 25 percent of them actually finish.
While thousands suffer blisters and other deprivations in their attempts to conquer the hikers’ version of Mount Everest, you can claim a little piece of the Appalachian Trail for yourself with a much simpler day hike. No need to push yourself to the limit. Depending on your comfort zone — and your zip code — you can find an easy or strenuous hike to suit you.
The Best Time to Go
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (appalachiantrail.org), the best time to hit the Trail is from mid-September to the first week in November. Not coincidentally, October represents peak time to view the changing colors of the foliage in many Central Appalachian states. When planning your trip, remember that the leaves change earlier in the higher elevations.
Listed below are day hikes throughout the region, scattered throughout the states. If you live nearby or are planning a trip to one of these states, especially during peak foliage season, avail yourself for one of these hikes to experience the real charm of the Appalachian Trail.
Georgia Day Hikes
Not every hike ends with a waterfall and a swimming hole, but 3 Forks trail does. It’s an easy 1.8-mile roundtrip hike. Getting there requires driving over rough Forest Service roads, so be warned. Take Georgia Highway 52 west from Dahlonega for more than eight miles to the closed Grizzle’s store. Turn north and go two miles. Turn right onto USFS Road #28 and follow for two miles. Bear left on USFS Road #77 for five miles. Continue on USFS Road #58 to the trailhead.
If you’re up for a challenge, try Source of the Chattahoochee trail. A 4.8-mile roundtrip hike, it requires some climbing to get to the source of the Chattahoochee River (thus, its name). To get to the trailhead, you have to find Jack’s Gap, where Georgia State Road 180 meets the 180 spur that goes to Brasstown Bald.
Maryland Day Hikes
Crampton Gap trail in Gathland State Park can take you half a mile or over five miles roundtrip. It’s a relatively easy hike featuring historical buildings and a nice picnic spot, perfect for a day out. From Burkittsville, head north on Gapland Road for about a mile, into the Park. Look for the stone arch at the intersection of Arnoldtown Road.
Not far from Burkittsville is Washington Monument trail in the Washington Monument State Park. It’s another easy half-mile hike, but it’s on the Appalachian Trail, so it counts. As a bonus, you get to see the historical monument. Take Alternate Route 40 south from Boonsboro for about four miles to Washington Monument Road. Follow it into the Park.
North Carolina Day Hikes
For a moderate 1.6-mile roundtrip hike, try the Max Patch Bald trail near Hot Springs. You’ll find views of the Smoky Mountains as well as Grandfather Mountain, the highest peak in the Blue Ridge. Take exit 7 off I-40. Head east on Cold Spring Road for six miles, then turn north on NC State Road 1182 until you reach the trailhead parking lot (on left).
If you’re up for something more strenuous, go for Little Rock Knob trail near Buladean. This 4.6-mile roundtrip hike climbs 900 feet, but the views are worth every step up. To find it, take NC 226 toward Buladean, north of Burnsville, to Hughes Gap Road. Follow this for four miles to the parking lot at the ridge crest (on left).
Pennsylvania Day Hikes
Take the 4.2-mile roundtrip Table Rock trail near Dauphin for some great views in any season. The outlook presents an easy challenge, yet rewards you with a memorable picnic spot to make a day of it. Follow US 22/322 north out of Dauphin to Pennsylvania State Road 225. Turn onto the dirt road at the crest of Peters Mountain to get to the parking lot.
In contrast, Blue Ridge Summit trail is a strenuous 3.0-mile roundtrip hike because of the steep climb. It promises great views and — if you plan ahead and make reservations — cabins to rent for the night. Take Pennsylvania State Road 16 north from Blue Ridge Summit. At Rattlesnake Run Road, turn right. When you get to Antietam Road, turn right and look for the trail.
Tennessee Day Hikes
Laurel Fork Gorge and Falls trail is a moderate 5-mile roundtrip hike near Hampton with many highlights, especially on a gorgeous day. You get the waterfall, the gorge, and lots of pools to cool you off. To get there, turn east on US 321 from US 19E. After you cross the bridge over Laurel Fork, look for the parking lot on the right.
A shorter but more strenuous hike is the Cliff Ridge trail near Erwin. This 3.6-mile roundtrip trek offers many views along the way, but you’ll have to do some trail climbing. Take I-26 south from Erwin to Jackson Love Highway. Turn south onto Tennessee State Road 36. Turn east onto Chestoa Pike for a half mile. Park in the lot across from the church. Walk across the bridge to the trailhead.
Virginia Day Hikes
Mary’s Rock trail in the Shenandoah National Park near Luray is a moderate 4-mile trek with panoramic views and lots of wildflowers, even in autumn. This is a popular hike during the fall hawk migration. Take US 211 east from Luray to Skyline Drive. Park in the lot on 211 -- you don’t need to enter the National Park. The trailhead is beside the Panorama Restaurant — maybe for your return meal?
If you prefer a waterfall to hawks in flight, Comers Creek Falls trail is the answer, although this easy 2.2-mile roundtrip hike may not take all day, depending on your pace and how much time you linger at the waterfall. Take exit 45 off I-81 and follow the signs to Sugar Grove. Pass through the town and continue five miles on Route 16 to Route 650. Turn right and park. The trailhead is across the street.
West Virginia Day Hikes
C & O Canal Towpath trail near Harper’s Ferry can be an easy 1-mile stroll or a still easy 5.4-mile roundtrip hike. The highlight might be crossing the Potomac River on the Appalachian Trail’s Goodloe E. Byron Memorial Footbridge. Access to the trailhead is from the parking lot in the historic area of the Harper’s Ferry National Park.
For better views but a strenuous hike, try Weverton Cliffs trail near Point of Rocks, MD. It’s only two miles roundtrip, but you’ll have to climb a steep trail for most of it. Take US 340 in Maryland to State Road 67. Follow it north to Weverton Road, the first right. The trailhead is about a mile down. Park along the road.
Remember it’s always a good idea to bring a map and know the route before you start. Also, make sure someone knows where you’re going and when to expect you back. Always hike with a buddy or family member. Be safe and enjoy the sights!
Picture credit: Roadtripper.com