Something as massive and popular as the Appalachian Trail is bound to have an interesting origin story and, as it turns out, this 2,190-mile trail certainly does. What started out as a somewhat simple idea has now grown into a monster of a thru-hike, with its trails seeing upwards of thousands annually.
Despite its name, the Appalachian Trail snakes its way through a majority of the East Coast, not just the Appalachian Mountains. The trail received its name due in part to the fact that it begins in Georgia before winding its way through Appalachia, before ending at the summit of Katahdin, Maine. So, how did this incredible trek become conjured into existence? As it turns out, with a lot of perseverance and vision for the future.
The Beginnings Of A... Rural Community?
Initially, the idea for the Appalachian Trail was nothing of what exists today. The man responsible for the brainchild went by the name of Benton MacKaye, who hadn't originally suggested a thru-hike. Rather, it was his idea to create what The Trek referred to as a 'utopian ideal' that would feature self-owning community camps. The idea was to set up these camps near the trail, and they would be entirely reliant on their own agricultural means of living. Eventually, the idea was to allow people to appreciate authentic mountain living while having the support of a like-minded community.
In time, MacKaye found those like-minded people who started out as the Appalachian Trail Conference but would eventually go on to become the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, known as the ATC. While the Appalachian Trail was only one part of the plan, this was the first step - the communities were planned to start after its creation. Unfortunately, the Appalachian Trail was an incredible feat in theory but proved tough to get off the ground - no pun intended. Well into the 1920s, the AT was still not completed and McKay found that the Southern states were struggling to make progress. In response, a man named Arthur Perkins, who was a retired judge, took over the completion of the trail. This also garnered attention from a man named Myron Avery, who was a lawyer in Washington. With these two now leading the charge, Avery became the head of the ATC over Perkins, while the team continued mapping out plans for the Southern states.
As time went on, Avery and MacKaye began to butt heads, with MacKaye's more rustic, traditional vision of mountain trails falling short of Avery's more modern approach to mountain trail construction. By 1935, MacKaye backed off the AT project almost entirely, focusing on other things, while Avery continued with what was now his vision for the final result. By August of 1937, the trail was finally finished, spanning from its intended point of Georgia all the way to Maine, but that doesn't mean it was finished.
It should be stated that during this time, the 1940s was seeing somewhat of an industrial revolution when it came to roads and transportation. The general public had a heightened interest in travel which meant that bridging the gaps between states was a priority, thus interfering with the simpler methods of travel - such as thru-hiking. The start of the Appalachian Trail's tougher years began with the hurricane of 1938.
Only a year after its initial trail completion, this hurricane not only devastated the East Coast but also damaged parts of the trail in the northeast. To add insult to injury, an extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway was built in the same year, making progress even more of a challenge. While 120 miles of the AT were now displaced, arguments over private land sectors soon began with - the final blow - World War II beginning, which halted progress for decades.
The Completion Of The AT, Finally
Those familiar with their AT history will likely know the name Earl Shaffer, who was the first thru-hiker to ever complete the Appalachian Trail from start to finish. This not-so-simple achievement seemed to reinvigorate the efforts to fully complete the trail in 1948. By 1951, the AT was officially declared to be open, and additional thru-hikers were permitted on the trail to complete the longest intentional hiking trail in American history.
Work continued through the decades and most recently, in 2014, the trail became part of federal lands after Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Trails System Act back in 1968. After nearly a decade - 91 years, to be exact - the Appalachian Trail was finally recognized, and protected as federal land. Today, it continues to see thousands of thru-hikers each year who complete it over the course of four to six months.