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Your Guide to an Appalachian Trail Road Trip

Reader's Digest logo Reader's Digest 9/9/2020 Erinne Magee, Melissa Klurman
a close up of a map © Emma Kumer/rd.com

Conquering the Appalachian Trail isn't just achieved by lacing up and hiking the 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine over the course of several months. Growing in popularity is an Appalachian Trail road trip, where travelers cruise the Eastern seaboard taking in the sights from the comfort of their own vehicle, especially any of these top road trip cars.

Fast facts

  • Most hikers travel Northward from Georgia to Maine not just because of weather, but the trail's most strenuous parts are in the Northeast and at that point, hikers have built the strength to endure.
  • Only 20 percent of those who attempt a through-hike actually finish the Appalachian Trail.
  • The Appalachian Trail stretches across 14 states.

Route history

  • The Appalachian Trail started to come to life in 1923 but no one attempted a through-hike until 1948 due to gaps in the trail because of things like a New England hurricane and the installation of a parkway in Virginia.
  • Most of the trail is not of the original path. In fact, 99 percent has been moved or rebuilt over time.
  • On average, the trail crosses an actual road every four miles.
  • Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia (not Springer Mountain) marked the beginning of the trailhead until 1956.

Roadside attractions

  • Storyland in Glen, New Hampshire: This theme park was inspired by giant dolls, making visitors of all ages feel like they stepped into a fairytale. The whimsical rides and one-of-a-kind setting make this theme park a must-see stop on your road trip.
  • Red Caboose Motel and Restaurant in Ronks, Pennsylvania: Whether you're looking to snap some photos, have an affinity for trains, or need a quirky place to crash or grab a bite, this Amish country stop will take you back in time.

Know before you go

a close up of a rock © kellyvandellen/Getty Images

Because much of the 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail runs through towns with spotty cell service, it's best to gas up and pack your road trip snacks and meals in the event your only food option is the local convenience store (which can be quite charming, actually).

 

Maine

This part of the Appalachian Trail crosses over a very remote part of the state, known for its fall foliage. One of the more populated areas is Sugarloaf Mountain in Carrabassett Valley, where travelers can rest their heads at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, which is about halfway through the state's Appalachian Trail coverage of 282 miles. These photos of other picturesque mountain towns around the country will inspire you to hit the road.

New Hampshire

a field with a mountain in the background © DenisTangneyJr/Getty Images

More than 160 miles of the trail traverses The Granite State, including the towering peaks of the White Mountains. The Mount Washington Auto Road is the most famous car-climb in New Hampshire and sees 45,000 vehicles annually on the 7.6-mile stretch. Visitors will be head-to-head with the clouds when reaching the 6,288-foot summit. This road trip stop is fitting considering New Hampshire has more above-the-treeline miles than any of the 14 Appalachian Trail states. The Glen House is a boutique hotel at the base of Mount Washington, which was first converted from a farmhouse to a hotel in the early 1850s and makes for a lovely place to stay. Here's your complete guide to a White Mountains road trip.

Massachusetts

The trail slices across 90 miles of western Massachusetts through natural highlights such as the Green Mountains and Mount Greylock (the mountain that purportedly inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick) as well as the arts-filled enclave of the Berkshires. The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge is in the heart of the bucolic Berkshires has been a mainstay of the area since 1773 and is one the super cozy inns to visit in fall foliage season. Sit on the front porch and relax in rocking chairs after a day spent outdoors soaking up the fresh air surrounded by picturesque forests as you hike the local access paths of the Appalachian Trail.

Connecticut

Rolling through the far northwest corner of the Nutmeg State for 50.5 miles, elevations of the Appalachian Trail here are mostly mild, and include one of the most accessible stretches, the universally accessible 3/4 mile path along the Housatonic River in the town of Falls Village. Nearby you'll find the Mayflower Inn & Spa, Auberge Resorts Collection located in the idyllic town of Washington, an exquisite country retreat nestled in 58 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and woodland.

New York

The Appalachian Trail passes through New York State for 90 miles, close enough in some spots to actually offer views of Manhattan rising like Oz in the distance. You'll get the best vistas from the section that passes through Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks, also the oldest section of the trail dating back to 1923 (extra bonus, the trail passes through a Zoo here, too!). Complete your day in the wilderness with a stay the Bear Mountain Inn. Find the best state park in your state.

New Jersey

The trail crosses the Garden State for 72 miles on the far Northwest tip of the state, passing near the ski mountain resort town of Vernon Valley as well as the Wallkill National Wildlife Reserve, a popular stop with bird watchers. There are several easily navigatable trails for day hikers, including a well-maintained Pochuck Boardwalk for an easy 2-mile hike. Stay at the aptly named Appalachian Motel, which places you right on the slopes of Mountain Creek Resort and has a heated outdoor pool perfect for a soak in any season.

Pennsylvania

The trail extends for 229 rocky miles through Pennsylvania (earning it the nickname "Rocksylvania") and escalating to scenic heights along Kittatinny Ridge. In addition to the challenging terrain, the trail also traverses hunting areas as it travels south, so be sure to plan ahead and pay attention to area safety warnings. One area that's great for a road trip stop and is safe year-round is the Mount Minsi area near the Delaware Water Gap, which offers great views and easy access to the water activities, too. Stay at the gorgeous glamping cabins at Cedar Lakes Estate, a former sleepaway camp reimagined as a modern getaway right over the border in Port Jervis, New York. Cedar Lakes is also one of the best hotels in the U.S. for social distancing.

Maryland

One of the shortest sections of the Appalachian Trail is in Maryland, just 41 miles long, but it takes in several historic sites and offers gentle terrain, which is some of the easiest hiking on the entire trail according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The trail in Maryland meets up with and mirrors the historic Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Towpath along the Potomac River, a flat 3-mile stretch that makes a perfect day hike. You can pop just across the border in Loudoun, Virginia, to explore watery thrills at the Harpers Ferry Adventure Center including whitewater rafting, tubing, kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Then head to one of the most beautiful main streets in America, Frederick where views of the Blue Ridge Mountains is one of the major attractions. The beautiful main avenue, Market Street, offers a hip-meets-historic vibe with stores such as The North Market Pop Shop, which sells 400 types of vintage sodas. Just 10 minutes south is the state's largest brewery, Flying Dog, for adult beverages. Spend the night at one of the cozy bed and breakfasts in town such as 10 Clarke set in an elegant 18 century Victorian home.

West Virginia

Just 4 miles long, the trail in West Virginia may be "blink and you miss it" short, but there's still one major attraction here: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters and Visitor Center. Known to through-hikers as the "psychological halfway point" of the Appalachian Trail, you'll find lots of full-trail hikers taking their photos here. And the trail goes through the Civil War historic site of Harpers Ferry where John Brown led an abolitionist raid. The town is one of the safest vacation spots in the country. It's also where to find one of the most charming bed and breakfasts in the U.S, the Tudor-style mansion known as Hillbrook Inn located on 30 acres on President George Washington's first land purchase in 1750, only a few miles from Harpers Ferry.

Virginia

a view of a mountain © Charles Johnson/500px/Getty Images

Skyline Drive runs 100 miles between I-66 and I-64, following the crest of Shenandoah National Park. A popular roadside attraction along this route is the quirky Dinosaur Land in the town of White Post, featuring more than 50 of these prehistoric beasts for your Insta story. Quirk Hotel in Charlottesville is newly opened this year gives guests a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains while offering a contemporary vibe, if looking for a contrast from trail life. Looking for a quick A.T. hike? Try the 2.7 mile Loft Mountain Loop. You'll also traverse Virginia on a scenic Atlantic Coast road trip.

Tennessee

At first glance, it seems as though the trail only traverses Tennessee for 94 miles, but on closer inspection, it also follows along the border with Tennessee for 224 miles, allowing ample time to enjoy the friendly Volunteer State. Although there are some challengingly tall mountains here (up to 6,000 feet) the scenery is worth the climb. In fact, the trickling waterfalls, verdant forests, and expansive views helped earn the hiking's path's congressional designation as a National Scenic Trail. Gatlinburg is known as the gateway to the Smoky Mountains and is set right along the trail. You can experience outdoor activities such as horseback riding, explore the charming downtown, or head to the old-fashioned amusement thrills of Dollywood. You can choose to stay at the large resort-style accommodations at Dollywood, or in the fully outfitted cabins with views of the mountains.

North Carolina

The Appalachian Trail unwinds in North Carolina along 96 mountainous miles that partially follow the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border (the trail runs for 224 miles along the state borders). Even though travelers have their sights on an Appalachian Trail road trip, stopping in trendy Asheville is an easy detour. A stay in Asheville also offers convenient access to another driving experience: the opportunity to drive Land Rovers through mud and various off-road terrain at the famed Biltmore, Just outside the entrance to the estate grounds is The Grand Bohemian, a cozy getaway with modern hunting lodge style.

Georgia

a large waterfall over a rocky cliff © JoeRosh/Getty Images

The Appalachian Trail starts at Springer Mountain but visitors to the state may want to spend their time eyeing Tallulah Falls from US-441. For those who want to get up close, Tallulah Gorge State Park is full of trails, including a suspension bridge over the river and gorge. If you're looking to overnight, Glen Ella Springs Inn and Restaurant is a mix of luxury and charm with awe-inspiring views of the Georgia Mountains. Next, read on to discover more about the best road trips in the U.S.

For more on where to go and what to see around the country, check out our Ultimate American Road Trip Guide.

Some sites listed here may not be open or may have limited hours or other restrictions due to COVID-19. Please check with them before you go.

 

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