Whenever people talk about states along the Appalachian Trail just the mentioning of the name will give you an image in your head. For those of us who have travelled the trail in those states, however, our perception of those states can be quite different. My topic today is kind of a fun one - the expectation versus reality of the states along the Appalachian Trail.
Expectation: Springer Mountain - the beginning or end of a long journey.
Reality: Well, you do get Springer Mountain. You also get the crowds of newbies and all the excited and nervous energy that comes along with that journey. It's truly a magical (albeit crowded at times) place!
Expectation: Max Patch-like views, your first/last state line to cross
Reality: Big climbs (anyone remember crossing from Georgia into North Carolina?!), your first 5000 foot peak, gorgeous southern Appalachian balds, and two trail town stops you can walk right into - the NOC and Hot Springs!
Expectation: The Smoky Mountains - this can mean snow or dreary weather to most hikers
Reality: You do get the Smokies, but we get good weather here too! You also get the Roan Highlands, more gorgeous vistas, and views of the Nolichucky River from a cliff face further north near Erwin.
Expectation: "After Tennessee, Virginia is flat! You'll make easy 30-mile days there!"; the ponies and McAfee's Knob
Reality: Virginia isn't flat, and easy 30 mile days on the AT are hard to come by. Sure, you do get the ponies, and McAfee's Knob. You also get Dragon's Tooth, Tinker Cliffs, and Shenandoah National Park. You also get the Green Tunnel and the Virginia Blues. The Blues are common for thru hikers (I even got them!) because of the Green Tunnel effect. By the time most thru hikers reach VA spring has sprung and you're constantly in tunnels of rhododendron. It can seem like endless miles in a persistent green state.
Expectation: The halfway point at Harper's Ferry
Reality: While West Virginia is a short state with the fewest miles (many hikers do a 4-state challenge and skip through it in a matter of less than an hour), the actual halfway point of the Appalachian Trail is still quite a bit further north in Pennsylvania. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy's Headquarters, however, is in Harper's Ferry and is a really cool place to stop by and kill a few hours!
Expectation: A short and easy, relatively flat state without anything to see
Reality: It turns out Maryland is one of the prettiest states on the AT. With lots of park/green space, relatively well-maintained trails, and really cool things to see, lots of hikers doing the Four State Challenge miss a really neat place. Also in Maryland are Gathland State Park with a memorial dedicated to War Correspondence and the original Washington Monument. You've also either just crossed or are about to cross the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania.
Expectation: Rocks. So.MANY.ROCKS.
Reality: Not so many rocks. With approximately 230 miles of trail in Pennsylvania (lovingly nicknamed Rocksylvania), it seemed that every time we thought it was about to get rocky we would hear that it was actually not rocky yet. We rolled into Caldonia State Park to hear that it actually doesn't get rocky until Duncannon. Then when we got to Duncannon we were told it gets rocky at Port Clinton. Then in Port Clinton we were told it doesn't get really rocky until Wind Gap. By the time we hit Delaware Water Gap everyone had mixed emotions. Many felt we never hit the rocks and others like we only hit rocks. Little did the northbounders know what rocks would await us further north!
Expectation: Dirty water, smoggy and polluted air.
Reality: It turns out New Jersey is actually a very pretty place to go on foot! They don't call it the Garden State for nothing! Walking through New York/New Jersey didn't take us over the highest peaks, but we did visit an ice cream stand, a beach at a state park, and walked through the Wallkill Game Preserve - a birding park that was absolutely gorgeous. Lots of boardwalks and tall grasses awaited us here.
Expectation: Whenever you say New York, most people only think New York City.
Reality: Well, you can actually see NYC from the trail! From West Mountain Shelter and Bear Mountain you have gorgeous views are you're only about 30 miles away from it. We also could hear cannon fire from nearby Westpoint. You also can hike from deli to deli on this section of trail, as they're close to every trail crossing. A lot of thru hikers are surprised to find those promised rocks of PA in New York instead! NoBo's and SoBo's alike complain of sore feet here!
Expectation: Snooty people who are rude to hikers.
Reality: While the town of Kent, Connecticut has a reputation for being inhospitable we found that many people who went in didn't have a bad experience. We stayed in a town called Falls Village and ate a very nice dinner at an incredibly upscale B&B and were treated very kindly. We were also allowed to camp in the backyard of a quaint cafe here. While the mosquitos were killer, the people were friendly!
Reality: Gorgeous hiking and history, phenomenal views into Vermont from Mount Greylock, and the Cookie Lady all make Massachusetts amazing. Hiking through the Berkshires region in summertime is going to give you bogs and boardwalks and rocky summits. You get a little bit of everything.
Reality: Okay, so there's a lot of mud. But there's also some incredible trail maintenance! When I hiked through in 2012 so much of southern Vermont was still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irene. When we hiked the Long Trail in 2015 it was very clear how much amazing work the Green Mountain Club had done to clean up the damage as well as drain a lot of the standing water on trail. You also get gorgeous fire tower views in more remote places than you've seen further south, breathtaking boreal forest, and glacial ponds for swimming.
Expectation: Getting your butt kicked in the Whites and freezing cold temperatures even in summer.
Reality: The Whites do in fact have some of the worst weather in the world, especially on Mount Washington - the highest point in New England. While we were here we didn't get many views, but The Whites were also known for making all the butt kicking worthwhile by rewarding you with alpine summits (meaning you're above tree line). One thing I didn't expect in New Hampshire was the fact that despite being a strong hiker I would slow my pace to approximately a mile an hour - something that does happen to a lot of thru hikers!
Expectation: Katahdin and the epicness that is the 100-Mile Wilderness
Reality: You have 281 miles to hike in Maine before you finish the trail and first you are going to travel through some mountains even harder to hike than the Whites! Southern Maine doesn't get nearly the attention the neighboring Whites do, but they're just as hard and exhausting. The infamous Mahoosuc Notch is the hardest mile of trail (or most fun depending on what you're into!) on the entire AT! Of course, you also get amazing views from those alpine summits, ponds so big they look like oceans, and then you get to cross the Kennebec River in a canoe. You'll also find out that the big, bad, and scary 100-Mile Wilderness doesn't live up to it's hype and you'll make it through unscathed for your big finish at the summit of Katahdin.
So, there you have it, the common ideas of what it's like to hike the fourteen states of the Appalachian Trail versus the reality of hiking them from someone who has. Have you hiked through any of the states listed above? What were your impressions of the Appalachian Trail there? I'd love to get your input in the comments below!