Stretching from Maine to Georgia through 14 states and over 2,100 miles, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is as historic a trek as any other national park walk east coast or west. Conceived in 1921 as a path to connect mountain work paths, the AT was completed in 1937. Becoming distressed by fallen trees and other heavy brush during World War II, the AT was repaired to working order in 1951. In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act to protect national park trails form any commercial development. The AT was the first trail to fall under the new act.
Today, the trail is cared for and nurtured by the Appalachian Trail Conservatory (tel. 304/535-6331; www.appalachiantrail.org), a non-profit group that tends to the AT's rivers, streams, fields, and keeps the AT in impeccable, appealing condition. The group has a large store selling AT gear, and it also has a "Hiking the Trail" section that gives the low-down on planning a hike, camping locations on a hike, and even bringing your dog along. An important section on parking and shuttle locations to trail entrances is also available through the Conservatory.
The Planning a Hike section includes a pictorial in "Following the Blazes." The AT is marked by a white strip of paint on an eye level rock, tree, or post. Hiking the trail is that easy. When entering territory where sighting the "blazes" can be difficult do to poor weather such as fog or snow, the trail is marked by a rock cairn or a pile of rocks shaped like a lanky pyramid. There are 250 shelters scattered along the AT. They get crowded during rain. Tents can be pitched at certain AT locales. A "leave no trace" advisory applies to the trail, meaning don't start fires. (Using a backpacking stove is recommended.) Safety advisories are also printed online. While no fees are required to trek the trail, permits in some locations like the Great Smokey Mountains in North Carolina, the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Thru-hiking, or the experience of hiking the entire AT, can take five to seven months depending in your speed. Hikers say it's a once-in-a-lifetime hike. An FAQ in thru-hiking can be found at the Conservatory's site as well.