Take a Hike: The History of the Appalachian Trail

Take a Hike: The History of the Appalachian Trail

The history of the Appalachian Trail is almost as long and winding as the path itself, which extends for more than 2,100 miles. With its roots stretching back to the early 20th century, it remains one of the biggest draws for hikers across the world.

Traversing 14 of the lower 48 states, the Appalachian Trail provides hikers and visitors with the incredible opportunity to walk from Georgia all the way to Maine, carrying them through 14 national parks and 18 national forests along the way.

From its slow start to a place where the finish line for this fantastic trail is nowhere in sight, the Appalachian Trail is truly one of America’s greatest treasures. It is truly a wonder that will continue to offer thousands of hikers from all over the world an unparalleled view of the eastern United States that cannot be experienced in any other way. The trail is a thing of awe and beauty, stirring the dreams of those who have yet to take their first step, and those who have already conquered it.

From Brain-Child to Reality (with a Few Concessions)

Benton Mackaye, a land-use planner, was a hiking and nature enthusiast. He was always on the hunt to seek out our country's beauty and nature and make it accessible to the general public. He though that perhaps, in turn, others would turn into nature enthusiasts like himself.

Mackaye graduated from Harvard in the early 1900s. Legend has it he was sitting in a treetop and thought it would be a beautiful idea to make a hiking trail through Georgia's Appalachian Mountains that would stretch north through the beautiful wilderness all the way to Maine.

In 1921, the magazine The Journal of American Architects convinced Mackaye to write an article outlining his idea. That first step ended up leading Mackaye on the adventure of a lifetime.


Mackaye wanted to ensure that it was more than just a walking trail. His hope was that the trail would be a place where the city dwellers of the Eastern U.S. could take time away from their daily lives and truly experience the wild beauty of nature. More than a simple escape, the trail was meant to allow people to experience the landscape as it was meant to be.

According to Mackaye, the goal of the trail was “to walk, to see, and to see what you see.” For lack of a better way to put it, Mackaye hoped this firsthand experience would encourage those to see his vision more intimately. They would be able to escape their “normal lives” and have ease of access to be able to simply live in the moment and be one with nature, even if for just a little while.

Mackaye’s Original Idea Behind the Trail

Mackaye originally intended for the trail to be a “utopian ideal” that consisted of self-sustaining camps. Eventually, these camps would provide travelers and hikers a taste of self-sufficient, authentic mountain living provided by like-minded souls who wanted to share their communal mountain way of living with those who wanted to taste the lifestyle for themselves.

Movers and Shakers of the 1920s

Mackaye turned to others who shared his ideals to show visitors of the trail the way of life he wished to pass along. This group eventually became what would be known as the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Still, they would not be the ones to make the dream become Mackaye’s reality. That honor would go to Arthur Perkins, a retired judge, and Myron Avery, a lawyer.

With Perkins and Avery's efforts, things began happening for the Trail at a faster pace than Mackaye could have ever dreamed of doing on his own. The two men not only became the heads of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but they also made this trail a priority, and it was through their leadership and Mackaye’s vision that the Appalachian Trail as we know it today came to be.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men

We all know what happens when there are to many cooks in the kitchen: bad things tend to happen. Such is the story of the Appalachian Trail.

During the 1930s, Mackaye and Avery began to differ significantly in their vision for the Trial. Mackaye virtually abandoned the creation of the Trail altogether, allowing the brain trust of Perkins and Avery to take over the dream he once had for the great communal route that would traverse the Eastern U.S. Just like that, the great communal ideal was abandoned.

In 1937, the Trail was open to the American public, but it was far from complete.

The Devastation of 1938

While things strolled along nicely for a bit after the Trail opened, nothing could have prepared anyone for the devastation that accompanied one of the most destructive hurricanes to hit the East Coast in history in the year 1938.

Not only did this hurricane destroy over 100 miles of the Trail, but it also happened to hit at a time when America began to enter WWII. Those two factors put the repair of the Trail at the bottom of the list in terms of priority.

1948 - Walking the Army Out of His System

The Trail continued to have its share of issues throughout the next decade. Still, it was that year that former Army man, Earl Schaffer, decided that the Appalachian Trail was precisely what was needed for his soul to “walk the Army out of his system” — and that is precisely what he did.

Schaffer is thought to be the first person to complete the Trail in its entirety and become #1 in the “2,000 miler’s club.” And that would only be the first time that Schaffer would make the trek. He walked the trail again in 1965 as well as in 1998 at an astounding 78 years old.

According to Schaffer, “I almost wished the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length.” That is an excellent testament to the healing properties that being in tune with nature can do for a person. But Schaffer was just the first of many to take the same trek and commune with nature, as the Trail was originally intended.

Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

While most hikers start off with the intention of making it into the “2,000 miler’s club,” most only make it about ⅓ of the way through.

If you're worried that your age might make you one of the two thirds of hikers who don't complete the trail, never fear. There very well may be someone older than you who has made the trek!

In 1955, a grandma with 11 children and 23 grandchildren made the hike at the ripe old age of 67, and she was one of the very first hikers to complete the entire journey! Not only was Grandma Gatewood one of the first people to complete the trail, but she also holds the honor of being the first woman in history to do so.

Since then, people as young as 5 and as old as 81 — even hikers who were blind and above-the-knee amputees — have made the journey from beginning to end.

Genevieve Hutchinson - Take Only Pictures and Leave Only Footprints

While hiking the trail, being part of it makes the hiker a piece of the trail's history. Some people have done remarkable things to ensure that the Appalachian Trail continues to be an integral part of American history.

One of those people is Genevieve Hutchinson.

While Hutchinson only walked part of the trail, she did her part to ensure that it was free of debris left by hikers and other means, keeping the Trail as pristine as possible. She opened her home to travelers, and she kept a scrapbook and memoir of her time and experiences on the Trail and titled it “Home on the Trail.”

Though Hutchinson was undoubtedly sitting on a gold mine, per se, with her tales of the trail, she refused to publish her book, leaving it only for her family so that they could eventually experience a bit of the magic she herself lived. Upon her passing in the mid-70s, it was handed down to her family as a priceless keepsake.

Speed Demons

While the Trail is meant to be taken step-by-step absorbing the natural beauty along the way, some hikers feel compelled to see just how fast they can complete the Trail. And it has been done and done again.

Currently, the records belong to:

  • Andrew Thompson completed the Trail in its entirety in 2005 in 47 days, 13 hours, and 13 minutes.
  • The female with the fastest record belongs to Jennifer Pharr Davis. In 2008, she completed the Trail in 57 days, 8 hours, and 35 minutes.

The History of the Appalachian Trail: A Life-Changing Hike

From its origins in one man's day dreams while sitting in a tree contemplating life to the trail that hikers know, love, and visit by the thousands every year, the Appalachian Trail is a piece of American history that nature enthusiasts will forever cherish.

Whether you intend to check out a small part of the Trail or you want to become a member of the “2,000 milers club,” the Appalachian Trail is a must-see for nature enthusiasts worldwide.

There is no doubt that, regardless of how much of the Trail you decide to walk, it will be a life-changing hike that will live on in your memories. Hopefully, it will be a memory you can pass on to family members, and that tradition will continue for years to come.

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