More than six decades after the first thru-hike, America's most famous trail retains its singular allure. Whether you're looking for a weekend trip or planning a 2,178-mile odyssey, here are the highlights of the Appalachian Trail.
The Longest Stretch Above Treeline
The AT runs above treeline for a rock-strewn 12 straight miles along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains, offering continuous panoramic views from Mount Pierce to Mount Madison.
The Best Hut
With the modern trend toward building simpler (and fewer) shelters, Carter Notch Hut, which was built in 1914, is a rarity. Maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club (the oldest conservation group in the country, it runs nine backcountry lodges with four-course meals and breathtaking views), this stone cabin is the oldest on the AT, with views of Carter Lake, Wildcat Dome, and reportedly the ghost of former caretaker “Red Mac” MacGregor ($94; outdoors.org).
The Toughest Climb
It's a special kind of cruelty: The final five miles of the AT are also its toughest, an unbroken 4,292-foot climb. Many hikers then descend by way of the precarious Knife Edge Trail; in places the rocky path is only two feet wide, with a 2,000-plus-foot drop on either side. All told, the peak has claimed the lives of 14 hikers.
The Best Deli
Take a break from ramen and oatmeal with a half-mile detour into quaint Falls Village for huge burgers and sweet potato waffles at Toymakers Café, where they’ll let you camp in the backyard. Don't go crazy stocking up – you can actually buy a deli sandwich every day of the week you spend hiking through Connecticut.
The Best View from a Lean-To
Although the treeless ridge West Mountain Shelter perches on is prone to frequent fires and has no reliable water source, the shelter faces southeast toward the Hudson River, with the Manhattan skyline sparkling 40 miles in the distance.
The Best Lookout
This picture-postcard view of the AT is a cantilevered rock shelf that juts out some 2,000 feet above the valley floor. From this point north through most of Virginia, the trail is dotted with wild blueberry bushes that ripen in mid to late summer.
Most Scenic Stretch
Skip the bused-in tourists at Clingmans Dome (at 6,643 feet, the trail's highest point) for the Highlands of Roan. Seven straight miles of grassy balds above 5,000 feet – the longest on the trail – offer summits carpeted in purple Catawba rhododendron (June) and flame azalea (July), giving hikers the illusion of walking on a sea of color. The best spot to camp is on Grassy Ridge, the only true 360-degree view above 6,000 feet on the entire trail.
The Best Ecolodge
As the name Len Foote Hike Inn implies, this 20-bunk lodge requires a five-mile trek from Amicalola Falls, but rewards hikers with warm showers, rocking chairs on the porch, and hearty family-style meals. The inn has also recently been certified LEED gold for such conservation practices as a rainwater collecting system and worm beds that turn organic waste into natural fertilizer for the inn’s garden. [$97, includes meals; hike-inn.com]