Best Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail

Grayson Highlands State Park trail

Grayson Highlands State Park trail


Above photo: Hikers head toward Grayson Highlands State Park.

Story by Jesse Hirsch; photos by Getty Images

Jesse is an editor for Pursuits with Enterprise, as well as for Los Angeles-based GOOD magazine. He lives in Brooklyn, where he writes about food, agriculture and travel.

Find out which part of the Appalachian Trail is calling your name.

OK, let’s say the Appalachian Trail bug bites you, but you don’t have five to seven months of free time for the full 2,200-mile trek. Maybe you don’t feel like you have the endurance (only 20 percent of thru-hikers make it to the end.) Perhaps you’re bringing your kids, and you don’t want something too punishing. Or maybe you already live on the East Coast, and you just want a quick dose of fresh air on the trails.

That’s the beauty of the Appalachian Trail. With its exceedingly well-mapped terrain and a multitude of easy entry points, planning shorter “section hikes” is a breeze. We’ve suggested some of the finer examples here, but feel free to choose something closer to home. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy boasts a wealth of resources for the aspiring section hiker, allowing them to map out something manageable and fun. Happy hiking!

Best “Sound of Music” Hike

OK, so it’s not an exact replica, but the 75-mile stretch of trail between northern Georgia and Dick’s Creek Gap in North Carolina — the trail’s southernmost section — can bear a remarkable resemblance to the grassy peaks in “The Sound of Music.” This is a lengthy stretch; you’ll want to budget at least a week. It’s also a good section for beginning hikers, especially in springtime. Bonus: The AT footpath, the original path that blossomed into the full trail more than 75 years ago, is contained in this section.

Best Hike for Swimmers

The popular hiking blog “The Trek” conveniently lays out where the best swimming holes are along the trail. The grand champion is Upper Goose Pond, located in the southwest corner of Massachusetts. The pond will require about a half-mile of hiking off the main path but seasoned thru-hikers sing the praises of this secluded lake. Did we mention there is a cabin you can rent from the Appalachian Mountain Club for just a few bucks? “The Trek” does note that you should exercise caution when swimming on the trail, as hidden dangers can lurk underwater, and cramps can occasionally be deadly.

Best Hike for Kids

There are plenty of kid-friendly sections of the trail, but a surefire winner is a section that runs parallel to the Housatonic River in Connecticut (near Kent). This is the longest flat section on the hike, making it perfect for little legs. Plus, the river views are quite scenic, and kids can splash around a bit along the way. This section is especially pretty when wildflowers are in full bloom; plan your hike accordingly!

Best Wild Ponies Hike

If you thru-hike the trail, you’re sure to witness an abundance of wildlife: deer, bears, hawks, etc. But there is a stretch in Virginia, where the Grayson Highlands approaches Mount Rogers (the state’s highest peak), that allows visitors to see wild ponies running free. At last count, over 100 ponies were there — a rare opportunity!

Best “Big Apple” Hike

OK, technically the Appalachian Trail doesn’t run through New York City (can you imagine?) But the section of the trail that passes through Bear Mountain State Park, dipping down next to the Hudson River, comes pretty darn close. This section is the lowest point on the AT, and it runs through a museum and zoo — making it another good hike for kids.

Best Confessional Hike

DePriest Mountain in central Virginia, lovingly referred to as “The Priest,” provides one of the AT’s most colorful traditions. The trail up is not a terribly long stretch, yet it’s challenging and provides great views of the Tye River Valley. But the true legend of The Priest is the makeshift “confessional” someone made out of a shelter log at the peak’s summit. The confessions made there are a hilarious boost to send weary hikers along their way.

Best Hike to Brag About

You’ve likely seen a “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker. It’s a testament to the challenges of journeying up New Hampshire’s tallest peak (the second-highest elevation on the whole trail). Well, the bumper stickers just might be a cheeky tourist gag, but climbing the mountain by foot is no joke. Not only is it steep and tall, but the weather can be incredibly inclement and unpredictable. For 76 years, this mountain held the record for strongest wind gust on earth. Word to the wise: Check weather forecasts before heading out.

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