Someday I’ll finish all these posts. Someday. It’s like a thru-hike, no step is individually hard, and all you have to do is just keep on doing it.
(6.3; 494.3 total, 1679.7 to go; -8.7 from pace, -225.7 overall)
I take the opportunity to sleep in a bit; by the time I wake up, Ranan is offering several of us breakfast. It’s hands-down the best breakfast I’ve had on the trail so far — stuffed French toast with eggs , homemade yogurt, and orange juice, among other things. We eat downstairs in the cafe itself — because it’s a Saturday, we have the place all to ourselves. Conversation meanders everywhere; Mr. F. Gentle Spirit probably plays the greatest hand in determining where conversation goes. He’s an ex-marine, and I get his views on army training (you have to break down the barriers to reality introduced by American mollycoddling, because the kid you’re fighting might have seen his father killed on the streets and be that much tougher, and you have to have no hesitation to pull the trigger when it’s either you pull or a fellow soldier dies) and a bunch of other things. I also learn that yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as non-alcoholic beer, and at least some bars actually do have it, although you might have to specifically ask for it.
Next stops are the library for Internet and Wal-Mart for food. The library has time limits on use, so I have to move quickly; in the end I don’t get a whole lot typed. On the way back I notice a poster from a jewelry store that I think is kind of amusing (if still absolutely wrong):
Wal-Mart is, as always, a breath of fresh air and selection. Aside from the usual foodstuffs, gorp ingredients, and some loaves of raisin bread to carry on the trail and to snack on immediately, I also pick up a travel-sized tube of toothpaste to replace the full-sized one I’ve been carrying since the start of the trail. (No, I’m not kidding, I actually had a full-sized tube. However, at no time was it actually full! I may be less sensitive to pack weight than many, but I’m not stupid. It was just the tube I had as I was leaving MIT, and it seemed like it’d work just fine even if it weighed a little more in the short term.) Next it’s back to the hostel; I pack up my stuff and otherwise move at a leisurely pace, attempt to call home and any number of other places but fail to reach anyone, and then head out to the bus back to the trail to head south further.
After all this slow moving it’s nearly 16:45, and I have to move if I want to make it to the shelter, Cooper Lodge, where I intend to stop for the night, before it gets dark. The trail immediately gets interesting as I head up the side of Killington, the local mountain best known as a skiing spot. The shelter itself is actually a tenth of a mile or so from the summit, a nice day hike for tomorrow perhaps. It sprinkles a touch at times, but otherwise it’s clear sailing up to the shelter, and I arrive just before dark. This shelter is an old stone cabin with bunks and a picnic table inside it, and there are half a dozen other people there when I arrive. There’s one northbounder who’s planning on hopping off the trail soon as he’s running out of money (an experience common enough to not generally be noteworthy, although I’m fairly sure it’s not particularly common) and several Long Trail thru-hikers heading north, including one guy hiking with a dog. The dog is friendly and makes excellent company, although he has a habit of wanting to get up on the picnic table. He’s also great for scaring away mice. The thru-hiker mentions an upcoming hostel south of where I am that opened very recently, and best of all it’s free! (This has since changed, not entirely surprisingly; it takes a fair amount of effort to keep the hostel, particularly including sheets, clean, and Jeff was reeallly accommodating.) Some people just like being nice that way, I guess (or they do the work-for-stay or donation route, as Back Home Again did). I grab a phone number as apparently the guy’s particular about the exact number of people he can host so I can call it sometime soon (somehow; I abhor phones and cell phones in particular and am not carrying one).
(13.8; 508.1 total, 1665.9 to go; -1.2 from pace, -226.9 overall)
As usual it’s a slow start out today. I make a quick trip up to the top of Killington, which is only a tenth of a mile away or so, before heading out for the day. It’s windy and cloudy, so there’s not a whole lot to see. Today’s hiking is initially slow progress; I only make about four miles before lunch, which I take at the infamous Governor Clement Shelter. I really do mean infamous; quoting from the 2007 Companion, emphasis in original:
Due to its close proximity to a public road, this shelter has a long history of visits by local partiers creating serious problems with vandalism and hiker harassment. For the safety of all hikers, ATC strongly discourages any overnight use of the Gov. Clement Shelter site. ATC and the Green Mountain Club are working toward a long-term solution for the site. GMC is working with the USFS and the town of Shrewsbury to limit inappropriate use. Move on if you encounter problems.
Yikes. I’m only in for lunch, but my observations couldn’t agree more with the above; it’s made of stone, and the inside has hundreds of pieces of graffiti from people looking to mark it up, and they seem to be black permanent marker rather than something that at least demonstrates some effort needed to be made to create it (like carving the name). I don’t see anyone else there, but it is only lunchtime, of course.
Heading further south (but strangely only very slightly further south) I run across a note which directs me to another shelter that isn’t plagued with the problems of Governor Clement. I hear rave reviews of it in shelter logs, but it just doesn’t meet my schedule, so I pass by the side trail to it.
I’m making much better time by midafternoon when I stop at Clarendon Shelter, about ten miles into the day, to use the privy there. As with pretty much all the shelters in Vermont, it’s a pretty awesome one. There are two sets of bunk and a picnic table inside the shelter, and it looks awesome all around, if only I were stopping for the night. The maintainers have even installed some flower plantings in feeding troughs to liven up the place! I also grab more water from the nearby stream before continuing on. Next up is Vt. 103 and the Clarendon Gorge Suspension Bridge, which travels a good fifty feet at least over some impressive water. Supposedly the swimming is good as long as the water’s not too high (which it might be, given recent weather), but I don’t have the time to try it out if I’m to reach my destination for the day, three miles down the trail. It’s strange; I’m taking relatively “short” days now because I’m slowing down to make Bennington for the hiker feed, but my short days are only slightly under fifteen miles a day — off my intended pace, but still for the most part longer than any days of backpacking I’ve done before. Thru-hiking really skews one’s sense of distance and backpackability.
Before reaching Minerva Hinchey Shelter I pass by this nice vista of the surrounding lands:
This picture actually has an interesting back story to it, because there was a very real chance I never would have gotten it. After taking the picture I put the camera in the top compartment of my backpack; when turning around, however, the camera fell out of that pocket and down the hill a ways. There’s nothing to do but to scramble down and search for it. I find the camera without too much effort inside the ziploc bags in which it had been stored, but now an even worse problem manifests: the bags had opened, the battery compartment on the camera had sprung open, and the camera is battery-less! Good luck finding two batteries on the side of a hill like that. One turns out not to have fallen too far, but the other eludes me, and eventually I give up and climb back up the hill to my backpack — only to find that that last battery is a mere foot or so below the top of the cliff! I pack everything up, sample the blueberries noted during the climb back up, and head on to Minerva Hinchey Shelter, passing by a large number of small orange salamanders (newts? something?) along the trail in the process.
Minerva Hinchey Shelter doesn’t have the bunks of Clarendon, but it does have a picnic table, which I use while eating my meal. There’s also a bit of atypical reading material, Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, of which I read half a dozen pages or so before continuing on to the shelter register. (The book seems like it might be an interesting read, but I haven’t picked up a copy since then.) The register’s entries are mostly unmemorable excepting two. The first is an entry from The Four Sisters, a set of four girls (not sisters) just out of high school doing a thru-hike together. I was first told of them back at Guyot in the White Mountains, and I think I passed by them the next day. Their entry draws the obvious comparison between the name of the shelter and the name of a certain schoolteacher in a certain series of seven books which recently enjoyed some notoriety and of which the last book was published in summer 2007; I leave the precise determination of the latter end of the connection as an exercise for the reader. The second is a colorful (judging by his entries here and all the rest of the way south on the trail) character named Thought Criminal, a 9-11 troofer, atheist, Chimpy McBushitler hater, and all-around earnestly (or so I presume) wrongheaded individual. Sadly, he’s heading north, so I probably unknowingly hiked past him today — as I lament in tomorrow’s shelter register, it would have been awesome to talk to him and watch the sparks fly. I think I do a reasonable job of not allowing people whose views I don’t share to unhinge me, but from the sounds of his entries I suspect the same could not have been said of him, and it would have made for great entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, this is the first night in which I stay alone in a shelter — what’s up with this? I’m in Vermont right in the middle of northbound thru-hiker season (and early in southbounder season), and I’m staying in an otherwise-empty shelter? It feels a little odd, but there’s more to come, particularly once I get past all the northbound hikers.
(13.2; 521.3 total, 1652.7 to go; -1.8 from pace, -228.7 overall)
I sleep in today since I don’t have that far (comparatively) to hike and wake to see a few other hikers heading north passing through. Morning hiking is even more sluggish than usual, and I stop at Greenwall Shelter for water and lunch. Another southbounder also shows up shortly after me; his name is Turbo (of future Moose-Duckie-Turbo fame, to be noted in future entries), gained for his initial rapid pace, although because he’s sped up less than most southbounders he’s no longer quite so comparatively turbo as he once was. Also, he’s questioned why he makes himself take such an elevated pace, so he’s taking it easier for a bit. I ask if I can borrow his phone to arrange a reservation at the hostel mentioned by the northbounder at Cooper Lodge; he’s willing, so I call and arrange a stay for the following night. Turbo arranges for the night after, taking it really slow (actually not my observation but rather that of the hostel owner). That done, I head on, since I have eight more miles in the day. It starts to drizzle a little as I head on (note the light-ish spot on the picture), but it’s really not bad at all, hardly worse than the sweat I already have.
Today’s trail enters the second series of for-pay shelters along the trail, these ones managed by the Green
Money Club. The story here is that the trails in the past saw enough use and neglect by clueless campers that they had to start charging money to keep things in good shape. That might well be; in any case, I actually don’t mind it much for a few reasons. There are four pay sites scattered along the next thirty miles, and with some care it’s possible to hike through, camp off-trail, and avoid all of them if one wishes — so the choice to pay is avoidable if one chooses to expend the effort, which really wasn’t possible in the White Mountains. Also, instead of $8 a night it’s $5 a night, so it’s cheaper, but even that doesn’t capture the real difference: when you pay, you get a receipt which can be used to stay at one of the other fee sites within the next week. With a little care, then, it’s really $5 for two nights, you don’t have to carry around extra bills to pay, and the fee’s actually less than it had been in the past ($6). Coming after people night after night as in the White Mountains isn’t that effective; the people who make messes of the trails and shelters are less likely to be out for multi-day excursions, so paying every night mostly hurts the people who actually do behave well. The receipt reuse idea is a good one, because it subjects offenders to as much cost as non-offenders while not imposing higher fees on both.
I continue on down the trail, passing by the first two pay sites as well as by northbounders Peanut and Wrong Way (why I remember these names I really couldn’t say; after a certain point northbounder names all blend together, yet strangely I still remember these two). Little Rock Pond makes for nice scenery along the way (the sites are roughly on its shore). The end of the day lies at Big Branch Shelter inside a so-called “wilderness area”, which according to signs means that trail maintainers (of whom I pass a few) use only hand tools and will occasionally leave smaller treefalls that cross the trail in place, so long as they can be easily passed. Big Branch is notable for being next to a river in which good swimming is to be had, although I only use it as a water source (purified, of course). The shelter is further memorable for having the smallest register of the trail — a mere notebook about three inches by four inches, because the maintainers forgot a full-size one and only had that available when they passed through. I note the previous passing through of Spanky, Silver Potato and Cracker, and The Honeymooners and resolve to catch up to them when possible — not by rushing, note, but by moving continuously without over-dallying. Even stranger than the register, however, is that I again spend the night alone, which makes even less sense because this shelter is free and lies nestled in among several pay sites; I’d have expected it to be more crowded with thru-hikers given that. I go to sleep to the ever-present noise of the rapids in Big Branch itself.
(16.5; 537.8 total, 1636.2 to go; +1.5 from pace, -227.2 overall)
The first stop in today’s hiking is the infamous Lost Pond Shelter, although not quite for the same reasons as Governor Clement Shelter, quoting again from the 2007 Companion:
Rebuilt in 2002 by GMC volunteers after the old shelter burned down in 2001; was burned down again in Nov 2006. Tentsites provided.
All that remains of the shelter now are the concrete posts which supported it; the tent sites and privy yet remain. Continuing on I get some nice views from Baker Peak, along with some wild blueberries that I notice when I stop to get a bite to eat:
I’ve been told that I should make my way into Manchester Center, get the usual errands done, and then call the hostel owner for a ride, so I don’t spend much time today stopping along the trail, save at Peru Peak Shelter for register reading, and not much sticks out in memory. The day is close to complete when I reach the last major landmark in today’s hiking, Bromley Mountain, roughly just as Turbo catches up to me. If it wasn’t obvious from the video, the mountain is known for wintertime downhill skiing opportunities:
There’s a ski patrol building at the top of the mountain in which thru-hikers may stay, and it looks excellent all around, but I have a reservation at the hostel, so I can’t stay. Turbo, incredibly, still has another day left to reach Manchester Center, which is three miles from the top of the mountain, but I only have hours, so I head south past Bromley Mountain Shelter (his destination for the day) to the road into Manchester Center. It’s 5.5 miles to the city, which means it’s again hitchhiking time. I stick out a thumb and bare seconds later a car stops to pick me up — incredible! (I later learn this spot is renowned as perhaps the easiest hitch on the trail; I would have to agree.) The guy who drives it says he used to pick up hitchhikers in the past but got ripped off by one and hadn’t picked one up for ten or twenty years until he saw me and thought I didn’t look too dangerous. As I have observed before (perhaps not in these pages but certainly while on the trail), the backpack I carry makes for an excellent signaling mechanism; bums looking to steal aren’t going to go to the trouble of carrying one, so if you see someone with a hiking backpack looking for a ride it’s a very good indication that he’s only there to get a lift.
He drops me off in downtown Manchester Center by an EMS and a grocery store. I first go to EMS to pick up the long-awaited pack cover, then I drop my things (the store’s cool and will watch your stuff) and head next door to get groceries, including some delectable yogurt, which I eat before moving on. It’s approaching dinnertime, and I haven’t had Mexican in awhile, so I feel compelled to sate myself at what the mini-map in my Companion says is a “Mexican Rest.”. The food (and margarita) is indeed excellent, but in retrospect it wasn’t actually a good choice for precisely that reason. It’s a restaurant that serves excellent food, and it serves it in small portions — not exactly what the doctor ordered for thru-hikers. Nevertheless I enjoy the food (at outside seating, as I take pains to make happen for the sake of other diners), read a little of the Federalist Papers, and head across the street to a pay phone to call for my ride to the Green Mountain House.
The owner, Jeff Taussig, set up the hostel because, as I recall, he retired and was trying to decide what to do with the extra building he and his wife Regina owned (now empty of kids) when she suggested opening a hostel. It only opened very very recently, and it’s in tip-top shape. I arrive to find Spanky and Sweet Sweet there along with a few new faces, which may be seen at the above link. I call home and talk to family for a bit, use the computer, wash laundry and take a shower, and get some sleep.
In the interests of full disclosure I note the following paragraph from the above link:
Another hiker told me Mercury’s claim to fame was that he carried a bear cannister through Maine. I have never seen another hiker carry one on the eastern trails. He got the hint as there was nothing bulging from his pack here at Green Mountain House.
I wasn’t previously aware this was a claim to fame, but you learn something new every day. If you’re ever thinking of backpacking the A.T., you have no reason whatsoever to worry about bears beyond (in some areas) making sure you have rope sufficient to hang a bear bag if necessary. The bears are uniformly more afraid of you than you are of them, and the worst areas will have bear boxes, bear cables, or bear poles (in Shenandoah only) to make it easy to safely store smellables. In fact it’s generally the case that mice are a bigger concern than bears, as they can nibble through stuff sacks with ease, and they’re rather easier to miss at close range.
(10.6; 548.4 total, 1625.6 to go; -4.4 from pace, -231.6 overall)
Today starts out very leisurely as Jeff shuttles us to the trailhead. I have roughly three days and forty miles left to reach Bennington, so I’m in no rush at all. Sweet Sweet and I hike together for the first couple hours or so, then I head on a little further to eat lunch. My options for destination are roughly ten and twenty miles out, and I’m feeling sleepy still after not getting enough sleep the previous night, so I decide to aim for ten miles, which allows me to take a brief nap along the trail and mosey in to Stratton Pond Shelter around mid-afternoon. The shelter’s going to be crowded, but it’s huge and fits 16 people (easily more in a pinch). I cook a meal and marvel at a Long Trail hiker carrying a huge frying pan, sausages, and generally quite insane (insanely good, insanely heavy) food. I also meet a Long Trail thru-hiker who is on either his fifth or his tenth thru-hike heading north, which accompanies an equal number heading in the opposite direction (twice five being ten to explain why I can’t remember which it was).
Spanky walks in later expressing surprise that I stopped. The caretaker comes around to collect fees, and I head to sleep quite early, intending to wake up very early and start hiking as soon as it’s light with the half-insane idea that I’ll head to Melville Nauheim Shelter for the day, 27.9 miles south.
(19.4; 567.8 total, 1606.2 to go; +4.4 from pace, -227.2 overall)
A long night’s sleep leaves me refreshed for a long day of hiking, and I wake up on time, cook, and am hiking south by 5:50 as day breaks. First stop for the day is Stratton Mountain, which may or may not have been the place where Benton MacKaye first imagined what would become the Appalachian Trail (he was self-contradictory and perhaps deliberately vague on the point). There’s a nice observation tower, but the summit is covered in trees and, more importantly, fog, so there’s little to see. The Honeymooners yet remain ahead of me, as do others, and I quickly continue on.
I stop for lunch at Story Spring Shelter and meet, among others, Medicine Man again, who says (when I express disbelief that he’s not way further down the trail) he took a bunch of time off the trail. I also meet a father and son also heading south to Bennington, and they offer Medicine Man a ride, so they head south fairly quickly. Spanky catches up just as I leave to head south again to Kid Gore Shelter, which I discover is completely overtaken by a camp group — and a misbehaving one at that, in that at the barest noise by one person another yells at him to “shut up” repeatedly as I sit and read the register. I’m feeling great today, and I dash off a few lines of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” as my entry, then continuing south to Glastenbury Mountain.
Just south of there is Goddard Shelter, yet 8.5 miles from Melville Nauheim should I choose to hike it. It’s 17:30, tho, and I don’t really feel like hiking further, so I stop to read the shelter and be “convinced” by section hiker Amoeba (whom I met north on the trail at some point) to stay and not hike further. Melville is reachable, but I’d be walking in near dark, and I’ve already put in a good day anyway, so I stop. Spanky later catches up, and a hiker named Glenn Mangold walks in a little later. It turns out the latter also went to MIT, graduating in 1984, and we discuss courses a little (he was 8, I was 6 — which to the uninitiated means he was a physics major and I was an electrical engineering-computer science major) before we all head to sleep.
(10.1; 577.9 total, 1596.1 to go; -4.9 from pace, -232.1 overall)
Onward to Bennington! It’s a longer walk than I’d intended two days ago, but the 10.1 miles fly, especially when Turbo catches up to me and I hike at his pace for awhile until I’m no longer capable of keeping him in sight. Even the miles after that go pretty fast, and I descend down into the valley through which the road to Bennington travels. I hitch in and scout out the downtown area, where the hiker festival is going to be, where the outfitter (host of the festival, also which supplies me with a phone to use with calling card to talk to family, plus a canister of fuel since I’m moderately close to needing one; many others purchase kilts to wear while hiking, but I do not) is, where the library is (I type some of these entries, but I don’t get far — their wacky filtering system seems to be messing up my posts as I edit them, changing “Cracker” [referring to the southbounder further down the trail!] to ” racker”, so I give up), and so on. It’s still early afternoon, so I hang around until the hiker feed starts, eat, and sit back to watch the summer music festival that’s happening that night. It’s a pretty eclectic mix of music, and it’s an enjoyable difference from the usual hiking on the trail. I also meet a number of other thru-hikers: Moose again (met while hiking the last day out of Maine), Spanky again, Medicine Man again, Not Mother (suffering knee problems for the past week, unfortunately), Slowpoke and Asgask again, and sundry northbounders. Once that finishes I set up my tent in the park with other thru-hikers and head to sleep.
Tomorrow I head out of Vermont, the last of the large states for awhile, and head into Massachusetts. The hiking through the state’s been great save for the rain, and I’m sad to see it go — but glad to be into another state. It’s amazing just how much of a morale booster crossing a meaningless line can be.
I was recently asked by a friend considering hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail for suggestions regarding which section to hike. Judging by search queries which hit this site it seems reasonable to think that a response might be generally useful to a general web audience, so I’m posting mine here for the benefit of all. Everyone who backpacks does so differently, with an eye to different things, so keep in mind this is a very biased view toward what I remember and what I liked, colored by my experiences meeting people on the trail and in nearby hiker hostels. I’m sure there are some masochists who would love to backpack for a week in Maine if they were looking to backpack a section of the A.T., but I doubt the average reader is one of them. Also keep in mind it’s a thru-hiker’s reminiscences; don’t expect to cover the ground I did with the ease with which I covered it. That said, I do think Massachusetts through the start of Virginia really is pretty flat and don’t think that’s bias except in the sense of having the experience of seeing the rest of the trail.
Maine is pretty rugged and remote, which makes it more of a pain to travel through. Maine also doesn’t know about switchbacks. No, I’m not kidding; the first one I remember seeing was about 350 miles into the trail out of Maine and in the White Mountains. Mainiacs and the Maine Appalachian Trail Club just don’t care (or, more likely, they just don’t know that the idea of a switchback even exists ) — they like their trails to go straight up the sides of mountains. That said, if you’re willing to put up with constant elevation changes in short distances, there are some nice views and summits through it. You can’t get especially far through it in a short hike, tho, so I’d probably avoid it.
New Hampshire has the White Mountains; they’re cool, but the trail goes through an area in which the Appalachian Mountain Club has a monopoly on camping space, and they charge you for it. The spots aren’t well spaced, either, so it takes a bit of effort to get from site to site if you’re backpacking. They cater to, er, “rich weekenders” who then stay at their “huts” with minimal amenities and food provided at $100+ a night, hiking between huts during the day; backpackers are second-class citizens at best (especially if you’re not a thru-hiker). South of Glencliff and the end of the Whites is kind of nice, but it’s nothing special; my best memories of it were for the Dartmouth Outing Club that maintains that section. They were awesome, but the trail through there isn’t very noteworthy otherwise.
Vermont was my favorite state of the trail. It was a bit muddy and rainy when I went through, but otherwise you have nice forests to walk through, good views, and reasonable trail without the ridiculous inclines of Maine. Depending how far or much you want to hike, another alternative to hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail is to hike the Long Trail (or a section of it), which goes ~280 miles from the MA-VT border up to Canada. The first hundred miles of that heading north are shared with the A.T. (so you could hike a section of both!), and I suspect someday I’ll head up to VT and hike it in a long vacation.
Massachusetts has good blueberries around mid- to late-summer, but it’s not a very remote section of trail. Upper Goose Pond Cabin is not to be missed, particularly if you’re a thru-hiker, the Shays Rebellion monument is cool, and the last ten miles or so along a ridge has a great view, but it’s not that much of a state for the A.T. overall. It’s also hyper-paranoid about campfires and camping, so you’re stuck to camping only in designated sites rather than having the flexibility to bivouac — and no campfires in the state along the trail.
Starting with Massachusetts and going through into Virginia is the flattest section of the trail with especially easy hiking. It’s also not a very remote section of the trail, so if you want to get away from civilization it’s not the best way to do it. That said, you’re away from most people and most civilization, so it’s not at all bad; I never felt I was around too many people.
CT doesn’t have much trail, and it has the same camping/campfire paranoia. The only real noteworthy thing I saw there was a rattlesnake, but those are easy enough to find in other sections of trail at the right times of the year. Again, as mentioned previously, it’s also pretty flat.
New York is pretty short; most of it felt like walking over rolling hills with large, sparsely placed rocks. It restricts camping to sites and campfires to established spots at designated campsites (only the latter of which I find reasonable). I didn’t think NY was that great for its A.T. section, personally. If you arrive during business hours (my guidebook said I did, the employees said I didn’t, guess which suit was trump) you literally walk the trail through a zoo, but that’s a novelty, not a selling point for choosing to hike there.
New Jersey is also short and very flat. The highest point in the state is just off the trail, around 1500 feet or so. This is where the trail starts to get really rocky, and it’s not much fun walking over it — makes footing difficult and impedes usual walking progress. The best part was a stop off the trail at a local mayor’s house (he opens it to thru-hikers), a stop which I had been anticipating since hearing of it nearly 700 miles previously from the first group of northbounders I met (so incredibly noteworthy), but I mention this only to say that NJ wasn’t entirely uneventful.
You don’t want anything in Pennsylvania because the trail is so rocky. As I recall the explanation was the trail area was clear-cut way back, topsoil got washed away, and all that was left were rocks — rocks with little elevation of any sort and not many views. I enjoyed various non-trail parts of the state (perhaps most notably the Doyle hotel in Duncannon and 501 Shelter where you can order delivery pizza — I kid you not), but that’s probably because I have a hard time really disliking things; I’m usually quite apathetic.
I don’t know much about Maryland; I walked through it in a day with barely a stop. There’s nothing special to it in terms of trail that I recall, although I wish I’d been able to stop at the George Washington monument (not that one) and the backpacker campsite replete with a bathroom with showers and flush toilets just a few tenths of a mile from a restaurant (no, it wasn’t a mirage).
West Virginia’s section of trail is short and not too featureful as far as the hiking goes. You walk past Harpers Ferry and that’s about it, excepting a stretch where you basically follow the state line with Virginia for ten or so miles, and that’s not too memorable except for being termed “the roller coaster” for having a series of ten hills to climb and descend without any views, due to the narrowness of the trail corridor in that section.
Virginia’s a huge state trail-wise; you can get pretty much anything you want in the way of trail through there save above-treeline hiking.
The first fifty or so miles are uneventful save for the Blackburn Trail Center (summer home for a caretaker who makes thru-hikers feel welcome) and its accompanying camping/shelter and the Bear’s Den Hostel, both awesome places (only wish my schedule had allowed for staying overnight at both places as they’re about five miles apart; I heard of others who did). Next is Shenandoah, which I passed through fairly quickly; its claim to fame is a preponderance of black bears (they’re vastly more afraid of you than vice versa) and hordes of near-tame deer due to stupid tourists feeding them. (I had an encounter with a deer on the trail where it wouldn’t move off the trail when I was ten feet away from it shouting at it.) You need a permit to hike through, but I don’t think it costs anything as long as you walk in (but I don’t recall exactly the details or how that applies to section hikers). I’d not hike through Shenandoah as it’s too full of people.
South of Shenandoah you hit real elevation (this side of the Mississippi) again (4000+ feet) for the first time since either Massachusetts or Vermont; there are some great views and climbs around The Priest in that area. You’re hiking in the vicinity of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and unfortunately hitchhiking is prohibited along that road, so travel to resupply is slightly more difficult if you’re going far enough to need to do that. Fall apple season is pretty good as you walk by a lot of wild apple trees.
South more past Daleville and beyond the BRP is a nice section with the Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, and Dragon’s Tooth — a very nice section of trail with some good scenery, but there’s elevation change to deal with. It’s not Maine, so there are switchbacks, and it seemed pretty nice overall to me, if slightly tiresome. South of that thirty or forty miles is mostly unremarkable down to Pearisburg, VA.
South of there is nice but not particularly memorable until you hit Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. There’s about sixty miles from there south to Damascus, VA and the border with Tennessee that’s pretty nice — good views, feral ponies to keep you company (I kid you not), and still a bit of openness. Damascus is super-friendly, and a church in the area runs a hostel for hikers (they ask $10/night donation as I recall).
Damascus south into TN has a very nice stretch of trail where, for about 100 miles, there’s a hostel every 25 miles. Whether this appeals or not probably depends to a good extent on whether one is a thru-hiker or not; a group a bit ahead of me stayed at all four on consecutive nights, but I delayed for a long time at the first one (Kincora, vaguely near Hampton, TN) for too long talking to Bob Peoples, the guy who owns it (extremely well-known trail maintainer, awesome guy), so I only stayed at three of them, with one skipped and those “two” days covered in three. There’s some nice trail in this area passing through the Roan Highlands, a series of treeless balds at reasonable elevation (not above treeline, just covered in grass for unknown reasons). Down from there to Hot Springs is decent — you get nice sidewise views of mountains and such — but not great. Hot Springs to the Smoky Mountains was unmemorable, but that’s probably partly because I did it in roughly a day to get to a hostel just outside it.
The Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains aren’t all that fun. Maybe if you visit during the week it’s okay — if you’re a thru-hiker, and only in the fall — but the system they have is very rigid and structured because they can’t handle people showing up whenever. You have to get a permit and make reservations to stay at specific sites, and it’s not at all conducive to just hiking what you choose to hike. It’s also crowded; I’d avoid it.
The pure North Carolina section (the Smokies and a bit previous follow the border more or less) is pretty nice, but it has elevation. I’d say Sassafras Gap Shelter south to Siler Bald Shelter is a nice thirty or so miles; that’s probably influenced by my having hiked them during spring break previously, so it was fun to look at what I’d hiked previously (and laugh at how much time it took to do it).
Georgia’s decent — you pass over several mountains and have good views — but at least when I was there it was pretty windy, excepting my very last day, thankfully. It’s only 70 miles, so there’s not a whole lot of it, and I was eager to finish (for more than just finishing, too, as I’d scheduled a plane flight earlier than I should have and ended up hiking 32.1, 29.9, 17.8 [through constant rain], and 30.5 miles my last four days to make a plane flight out of Atlanta — not exactly a leisurely end to it all). Also, Springer Mountain at the end is in the middle of nowhere, and it takes a considerable amount of effort to get back to civilization from it.
I think Vermont was the best state of the trail. It had good hiking, mountains, views, not too many people, and friendly towns and hostels off the trail. I’d recommend hiking there, personally, but if something else here strikes a fancy, go for it. As they say on the trail, Hike Your Own Hike.