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Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, generally known as the Appalachian Trail, is a 2,160 mile (3476 km) marked hiking trail in the eastern United States, running (in the direction in which the whole route is most often attempted) from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Along the way, the trail also passes through the states of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

The trail is currently protected along more than 99 percent of its course by federal or state ownership of the land or by rights-of-way. Annually, more than 4,000 volunteers contribute over 175,000 hours of effort on the Appalachian Trail, possibly the largest volunteer effort on Earth, coordinated in most part by the Appalachian Trail Conference organization.

In the course of its journey, the trail crosses the tops of several of the Appalachian Mountains, running, with only a few exceptions, almost continuously through the wilderness.

Trail hikers who complete the entire trail in a single season are termed "through-hikers" (commonly spelled "thru-hikers"). Completion of the trail generally requires five to seven months, although some unusual individuals have done it in shorter periods. Because of the trail's rugged terrain and cold weather conditions during the spring and fall, through-hiking is a fairly demanding experience. In addition, Baxter State Park, in which the Maine terminus of the trail is located, closes from October 15 to May 15 each year. Only about 20% of those who make the attempt actually succeed in completing the entire trail.

Some hikers and naturalists believe that the emphasis on hiking the entire length of the trail is misplaced. Nearly all of the trail is open to local use, although there are some rules and regulations that favor "through-hikers."

History of the Appalachian Trail

The trail was originally conceived by Benton MacKaye, a forester who wrote his original plan shortly after the death of his wife in 1921. MacKaye's utopian idea detailed a grand trail that would connect a series of farms and wilderness work/study camps for city-dwellers.

In 1923, the first section of the trail was opened by groups of enthusiastic volunteers. To maintain forward momentum, MacKaye called for a two-day Appalachian Trail conference to be held in March of 1925 in Washington, D.C. Although this conference resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Trail Conference organization, little progress was made on the trail for several years.

At the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, a retired judge named Arthur Perkins and his younger associate Myron H. Avery took up the cause. Avery, who soon took over the ATC, adopted the more practical goal of building a simple hiking trail. He and MacKaye clashed over the ATC's response to a major commercial development along the trail's path (Avery was willing to simply reroute the trail), and MacKaye left the organization.

In August of 1937, the trail was completed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. The ATC shifted its focus toward protecting the trail lands and mapping the trail for hikers. From 1938 to the end of World War II, the trail suffered a series of natural and man-made setbacks. It is said that a group of Boy Scouts from the New York metropolitan area, with exceptional support such as trucked-in supplies, covered the whole trail (at least among them) some time in this period. It may not be clear whether any individual covered the whole route, nor whether contemporaneous records exist, and it appears any surviving participants are not pursuing credit. At the end of the war, the damage to the trail was repaired, and the first documented through-hike, by Earl Shaffer of York, Pa, brought a great deal of attention to the project.

In the 1960s, the ATC made real progress toward protecting the trail from development thanks to a number of sympathetic politicians and officials. The "National Trails System Act" of 1968, paved the way for a series of "national scenic trails" within the national park and national forest systems. Trail volunteers worked with the National Park Service to map a permanent route for the trail, and by 1971 a permanent route had been marked (though minor changes continue to this day). By the close of the 20th century, the Parks Service had completed the purchase of all but a few miles of the trail's span. Completion of all purchases is currently scheduled to occur in 2004.

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