Terrain By State
The Appalachian Trail spans the diverse terrain of the Appalachian Mountains. Though the typical landscape is wooded—hence the nickname “the green tunnel”—the Trail passes many scenic overlooks. There are short stretches through farmland, along rivers, over southern balds and through swamps on boardwalks or “bog bridges.” In New Hampshire and Maine, the trail climbs across exposed areas above treeline. By design, the A.T. is primitive and routed away from developed areas, but it does go through roughly half a dozen small towns where it passes through valleys or gaps, and there are a few, short wheelchair-accessible sections. Hikers may encounter graded switchbacks, steep climbs, undulating ridges or rocky scrambles. The path is often rugged and narrow. Flat sections are infrequent, and seldom last long. Many areas are rocky, especially in the northern half of the Trail. Almost every state has some steep or long climbs, but every state has some easy or moderate sections too. All offer rewarding experiences for those who are well prepared.
Difficulty Ratings for A.T. Sections
Because the A.T. spans a great variety of terrain, ranging from relatively flat and easy, to extremely difficult, the following scale was created as a general guide:
1 = Flat and smooth
2 = Flat terrain but uneven treadway, or slight elevation change
3 = Moderate elevation change, but well graded trail, or flat trail with very rough treadway
4 = Strenuous climbs, but of moderate duration, or short but steep climbs
5 = Lengthy graded climbs, alternating with easier sections
6 = Extended climbs that may last hours or shorter climbs with difficult footing
7 = Includes rock scrambling that is relatively easy and of short duration
8 = Includes rock scrambling that is somewhat challenging
9 = Rock scrambling that is difficult and extended
10 = Use of hands required for extended periods of climbing, footing precarious, and leaping may be required — not recommended for those with fear of heights and not in good physical condition. Shorter hikers may be at a disadvantage
These ratings are listed by state.
Northern New England
Between central Maine and western New Hampshire, this section offers some of the most rugged hiking and most challenging weather conditions of the entire A.T. The path is often steep, rough and slippery. Parts are above treeline, where weather is especially severe. It includes Katahdin, the Trail's northern terminus in Maine, the wild country of the “Hundred Miles,” the Mahoosuc Range, and the White Mountains.
Southern New England
Between eastern Vermont and the New York-Connecticut border, much of this section runs along glacier-scraped mountain ridges such as the Green Mountains and the Berkshires, and rocky New England river valleys. Though less strenuous than the northern section, it offers a challenging hike through deep forests and lies within easy driving distance of major cities such as Boston and New York City.
Between eastern New York and the Potomac River on the border of Maryland and West Virginia, this section of the A.T. runs between the glacial hills of the Hudson Highlands, and the northern reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It follows long, rocky ridges only a few thousand feet above sea level—ridges that often seem like islands of wild country above bustling valleys. Hiking is mostly moderate, but parts can be very rocky and strenuous.
Between Harpers Ferry at the tip of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia and Damascus, Virginia, near the Tennessee border, the Trail runs along the Blue Ridge of Virginia and the Great Valley of the Appalachians. This section includes Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, and MacAfee Knob. The almost 200 miles of central and southwest Virginia west of I-81 are some of the least-travelled portions of the entire A.T. The state’s highest mountains (and the coldest climate) are found in the Mt. Rogers High Country, in the southernmost part of the state.
The Trail runs between northeastern Tennessee and the southern terminus at Springer Mountain in Georgia. It passes through several of the vast national forests of the South, and crosses the Trail's highest mountain, Clingmans Dome, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though mostly well-graded, the Trail through this section is remote, with long, strenuous climbs. The high ridges along the North Carolina-Tennessee border are prone to winter weather similar to parts of New England.