5 Great Sections Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is the gem of the Eastern US. The “AT” as it is known is a magnificent footpath that stretches over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine, winding through scenic landscapes, lush forests, and rugged mountain terrain. As someone who’s experienced the magic of the trail firsthand, I want to share a bit about section hiking, a way to enjoy the trail without committing to a through-hike, which can take months to do. Section hiking allows you to explore the trail in manageable pieces, experiencing the beauty and challenges on your own time.

Each section of the Appalachian Trail has its own unique character and challenges. Over the years, I’ve tackled sections ranging from the rolling hills and piedmont of the South to the rocky pathways of the North. The diversity of the trail means there’s something for every hiker – whether you’re looking for a serene forest walk or a strenuous mountain scramble. What’s constant, though, is the camaraderie amongst hikers and the sense of accomplishment with each section completed.

Because of the steady foot traffic the AT gets, the entire trail is relatively well-worn and easy to navigate. That doesn’t mean the trail itself is easy – many parts can require a really good workout.

Planning section hikes involves careful consideration of the time of year, gear, and logistics like transportation and resupply points, but I think the preparation is part of the adventure. You learn to adapt and prepare for what the trail throws at you, and there’s a wealth of knowledge to be gained from the hiking community. Every successful section hike boosts your confidence and beckons you back to the trail to see what’s beyond the next ridge.

Good AT Section Hikes

Embarking on section hikes along the Appalachian Trail offers a unique opportunity to experience some of the most remarkable landscapes and challenges on the East Coast. Below, I share my first-hand encounters with each of my favorite sections, highlighting the natural beauty and the hiking specifics that I’ve found especially compelling.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

clingman dome appalachian trail

Starting my journey at Fontana Dam, I entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and was immediately captivated by the vast stretches of wildflowers that seemed to go on forever. Hiking through the park, which spans around 75 miles, the sights at Clingman’s Dome and the historic Shuckstack Fire Tower were memorable. I recommend stopping at Newfound Gap for some of the best day hikes. Just remember, if you’re planning to stay overnight in the backcountry, securing a permit and shelter reservation is crucial.

You will be straddling the Tennessee – North Carolina border during this entire stretch of the trail, and it is all pretty rugged. Elevation is relatively high — much of the trail is above 5,000 feet and Clingman’s Dome gets you all the way up to 6,600 feet.

I like to weave this stretch of trail in with a night in nearby Asheville, one of my favorite Smoky Mountain towns anywhere.

Shenandoah National Park

shenandoah appalachian trail

In Virginia, the Appalachian Trail meanders through about 100 miles of Shenandoah National Park. Less mountainous than the Smokies, this area is adorned with lush forests and panoramic rock vistas. My personal break at a wayside for a hearty meal and a cold drink was a delight and helped fuel the miles ahead. To catch a sunrise from Mary’s Rock is a must-do, and with a $30 vehicle entry fee granting a week’s access, you’d want to explore as much as possible.

One thing to know about Shenandoah — it is a long national park, and where you are in it dictates the type of hiking you will have. I prefer the North part of the park, between Luray and Front Royal. It just feels unique to me, and you will walk by several abandoned farmhouses from the 1800s along with having some great views, many of them West toward West Virginia.

While the park’s most popular trail – Old Rag Mountain – is not part of the AT, you can access it from the AT with a little planning. It is worth the trip. Old rag is a challenging hike with some of the best views in the entire Blue Ridge mountains.

The White Mountains

white mountains NH

The experience of hiking through The White Mountains in New Hampshire is simply awe-inspiring. The elevations can soar above 4,000 feet, and the terrain can be quite challenging with steep inclines and rugged footing. Despite the difficulty, views from peaks like Mount Lafayette are absolutely rewarding.

The White Mountain stretch – about 80 miles – is considered by many to be one of the hardest sections of the AT. So it can be worth a try if you are up for it, but if you are just looking for a nice easy hike to get acclimated to the AT, this might not be the first one you should tackle. Footing can be tough, inclines can be steep, and you will actually spend some time above the treeline, exposing you to weather.

Be sure to tackle the notorious Presidential Range, but prepare well, as the weather can be unpredictable. It can change on a dime, especially in the seasons that border winter in April-May and October-November.

4 State Challenge

Harpers Ferry

This 43-mile odyssey traverses Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and finally into Pennsylvania (why they call it the 4-State Challenge), offering a thrilling journey through diverse landscapes and rich historical sites. While many hikers aim to conquer this stretch within 24 hours, I chose a different approach, savoring each moment and immersing myself in views and cultural heritage along the way.

One of the highlights of the hike was undoubtedly the historic town of Harper’s Ferry, nestled at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Stepping through its quaint streets felt like stepping back in time, with its well-preserved buildings and fascinating tales of the past. Taking the time to explore this iconic landmark added a layer of depth to the journey, reminding me of the trail’s profound connection to American history.

As for the trail itself, expect a medley of terrains, from gentle meadows to a few rugged mountain passes. The shelters in Maryland, in particular, stand out for their cozy ambiance and welcoming atmosphere, providing a welcome respite after a day of trekking.

100 Mile Wilderness in Maine

100 mile wilderness appalachian trail

For those seeking complete immersion in nature, the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine is a pristine and remote stretch. This section demands more careful preparation than other parts of the trail, as resupply points are nonexistent. You’ll want to pack plenty of camping meals and a small camping kitchen along with you. The terrain is a mix of serene lake shores and demanding mountain ascents.

Maine obviously can get cold early in the season – by October, the lows are typically dipping down into the 30s pretty regularly. Plan accordingly for your hike, but know that as long as you have the right gear, you’ll do fine.

The rugged peaks of the 3,700-foot White Cap Mountain are a highlight, and the random ponds along the trail are fun and interesting. One of the highlights was reaching the summit of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail, where I was greeted by sweeping views of the vast wilderness below. The trail itself presented what I would say is a strong challenge level, with steep ascents, rocky descents, and unpredictable weather.

I found the solitude profound, with only the rustling leaves and distant calls of loons as my soundtrack.

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