7 Best Places to Day Hike the Appalachian Trail
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the longest foot-path in the world at 2,193 miles. It crosses 14 states and lumbers over 464,500 feet of elevation gain and loss. Not all of its more than 3 million visitors are there to complete the long-distance thru-hike, though. Most Appalachian Trail hikers are exploring its rich abundance on shorter backpacking trips or even just for the day, which is much more accessible for most people. So we’re taking a look at the 7 most popular places to experience the best the AT has to offer.
1. Blue Ridge Mountains
The Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia are home to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the top of Springer Mountain. Part of the greater Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, the area is replete with picturesque creeks and waterfalls as well as stunning mountain-top views.
From Springer Mountain, follow the Appalachian Trail for about a mile past the intersection with Forest Road 58 at Three Forks to reach Long Creek Falls, one of the most popular waterfalls in Fanning County. This roughly 12-mile out-and-back hike can be cut down to 2 miles if you start at Three Forks.
Another favorite Appalachian Trail hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains of northern Georgia is to the summit of Blood Mountain, the highest point on the AT in Georgia. For a pleasant 4-mile round-trip day hike, approach the summit from the east where the AT crosses Highway 19 at Neels Gap about 12 miles south of Blairsville, GA. For a decent backpacking trip, tackle all 30 miles from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap.
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is as rich in history as it is in waterfalls and scenic mountain views. If you have a week, go all-in and hike all 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail that crosses the length of the park along its highest peaks. You’ll be spellbound by the majesty of the Smokies. For a memorable day hike, though, you won’t want to miss Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire AT at 6,612 feet.
The Clingman’s Dome parking area can be accessed via Clingman’s Dome Road off of Highway 441 at Newfound Gap. From the parking area, the Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower is only a half-mile hike up a paved walkway, offering sweeping views of the Smokies from above the tree tops.
To get more than just wide-angle views of the Appalachian Trail, head southbound from Clingman’s Dome for about 4 miles to a wildflower meadow atop Siler’s Bald. The views from here won’t disappoint either.
3. McAfee Knob Overlooking Roanoke Valley
Perhaps the most photographed location on the Appalachian Trail, McAfee Knob overlooks the Roanoke Valley in Virginia. Only 25 minutes from downtown Roanoke, its ease of access and expansive views make it a favorite day hiking destination.
From the trailhead on top of Catawba Mountain, McAfee Knob is an 8.8-mile out-and-back hike northbound on the AT. The route will take you past both the Johns Spring Shelter and the Catawba Shelter.
4. Shenandoah National Park
With over 500 miles of hiking trails that rarely exceed 1,000 feet in elevation, Shenandoah National Park is a favorite destination for day hikers and beginning backpackers. The Appalachian Trail stretches nearly the whole length of the park, offering over 100 miles of hiking opportunities easily accessible from the scenic Skyline Drive.
One of the most popular Appalachian Trail day hikes in the Shenandoah National Park is the Hawksbill Summit, the highest peak in the park. From the Hawksbill Parking area on Skyline Drive, make it a loop by ascending on the Lower Hawksbill Trail to the summit, then take the Salamander Trail down to the Appalachian Trail and follow it back to the parking area. The whole loop is about 2.5 miles.
5. White Mountains National Forest
You can almost guarantee that the White Mountains of New Hampshire will be on top of any Appalachian Trail thru-hiker’s favorites list. From the 4,803-foot Mt. Moosilauke to the 6,288-foot Mt. Washington and surrounding Presidential Range, the White Mountains comprise some of the most rugged terrain along the Appalachian Trail in the northeast.
The AT follows the Beaver Brook Trail to the summit of Mt. Moosilauke at the west end of the forest. This is a challenging hike of almost 4 miles one way. The descent can be especially tricky if it has been raining. The Gorge Brook Trail, which departs from the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge on Ravine Road, offers a more moderate approach, but it’s twice as long as the Beaver Brook Trail.
Mt. Washington can be found to the north near Gorham, NH. The Appalachian Trail joins the Crawford Path north of Mt. Pierce and follows it for about 5 miles or so to the summit. Established in 1812, the Crawford Path is the oldest continuously used and maintained trail in the United States, and it offers amazing views of the surrounding White Mountains.
Of course, if hiking the oldest trail up to the home of the “world’s worst weather” isn’t really your style, you can always drive to the top on the Mt. Washington Auto Road and do a little day hiking out-and-back along the Appalachian Trail instead.
6. Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness
Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness is the longest wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. It passes over 3,000-foot peaks, past beautiful lakes, and through miles of Maine’s fabled forests. Autumn is a favorite time to hike this region as it comes alive with vibrant colors.
The Appalachian Trail enters the 100-Mile Wilderness area from Greenville Road at Spectacle Ponds near Monson, ME. This makes for convenient day hiking through some of the more moderate wilderness terrain.
Various backcountry dirt roads can take you deeper into the 100-Mile Wilderness to explore other destinations and even summit White Cap Mountain, the highest point in the wilderness, but care should be taken to go prepared with the proper equipment, area knowledge, and a backup plan.
Another great way to explore Maine's 100-Mile Wilderness along the Appalachian Trail is to start off from Golden Road at the north end near the Baxter State Park boundary. Head south through the hills of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area and along the shores of both Rainbow Lake and Nahmakanta Lake. This is the heartland of Maine.
7. Mount Katahdin
At 5,269 feet, Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, is the tallest mountain in Maine as well as the northern terminus for the Appalachian Trail. Needless to say, it’s a popular destination for day hikers and thru-hikers alike.
Starting at the Katahdin Stream Campground on the west side of the mountain and following the Hunt Trail, this is a moderate to difficult, 5.2-mile ascent that passes a multi-tiered waterfall a mile in and offers excellent views of the surrounding wilderness.
Head back the way you came to complete a 10.4-mile round-trip, or cross the infamous Knife’s Edge (1.1 miles) and descend the east side of Katahdin along the Helon Taylor Trail (2.8 miles) to the Roaring Brook campground.
With over 2,000 miles to explore across 14 eastern states, there’s a favorite Appalachian Trail hike just waiting for you to discover it.