Driving the Appalachian Trail
By Kimberly Graf. Published on May 28, 2018
If you're here, you are likely to already know what the Appalachian Trail is. This 2,100-mile, 6-month through hike is the destination for hardcore hikers. They plan for months, spend hundreds of dollars on gear and provisions, and brave it for a huge chunk of the year.
And the reason? Besides bragging rights, it's beautiful on this trail. It cuts over the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Appalachian Mountains, before skimming the edge of the Adirondacks. You'll get a complete view of the eastern US on this hike.
Do you still want to experience it, but don't want to take half the year for some rigorous hiking? You can drive from one end to the other in as little as two days at a quick pace.
We're going to start near the southern end of the trail, in Blue Ridge, Georgia, and end in the same park as the trail ends – the Baxter State Park in Maine. This road travels over the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, two of the most beautiful drives in the country.
Your mileage may vary, of course. It might take you even two weeks to finish this road trip, if you're stopping to take in all the sights (or hanging out with some of the hikers at their resupply points). Just take it easy and enjoy the view!
We're going to start, as we said, in Blue Ridge, Georgia. It isn't the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, but it is close enough that you'll be able to see the same views and experience the same excitement as the hikers as they start out.
From Blue Ridge, it's an 85 mile drive to the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway. You might have heard of it, as it's one of America's most famous scenic drives. You'll skim the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is a gorgeous display of trees and flowers that are unique to this area.
Once you reach the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, you've reached the unofficial start of the Blue Ridge Parkway. From here, you'll follow it for the next 470 miles as it winds through the Nantahala National Forest, over scenic pull-offs and views of the major peaks in the southern Appalachian range.
Your first major stop is Mount Pisgah, 46 miles away. It's part of the Pisgah National Forest, a smaller part of the Nantahala that extends up along the length of the Parkway. Another notable stop is Asheville, North Carolina, which is known for its various attractions, including Biltmore Estate, a gilded age mansion that you can tour.
There are so many places up through the Blue Ridge Parkway where you can stop and take in the sights. It's always less than 100 miles from the Appalachian Trail, and close enough that you can take a detour to one of the many resupply points in North Carolina to meet with the hikers as they come through.
(You can acquire a full list of resupply points and stops along the Appalachian Trail at their official website!)
The Trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway just north of Roanoke, Virginia and weaves through and over it for the remainder of your time on this particular road. This includes the path through George Washington National Forest.
After the 470 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway drive, it turns directly into Virginia's Skyline Drive. This driving path goes mile-for-mile with the Appalachian Trail for almost its entire length. It's a 105-mile drive that covers the entirety of Shenandoah National Park.
There are so many scenic overlooks and places to pull over and enjoy nature on this drive. It's all mountain roads and will exactly mirror the experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Skyline Drive will take you away from the trail near its northern terminus, which is at Front Royal, Virginia.
Hagerstown, Maryland is the next major stop that is close to the AT. This route is allowing you to run parallel to the trail, as close as possible without driving directly on it. Because of the remoteness of some parts of the Trail, sometimes as close as you can get is still pretty far. But you're still seeing the same sort of countryside and experiencing it in the same way!
From Hagerstown, you're going to want to skirt around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both you and the AT are going to travel northeast from this point, and we will briefly cross into New Jersey before we find ourselves in Beacon, New York.
From the end of Skyline Drive to this point is about 352 miles of green trees and sweeping mountain views. It's truly unlike anything you've ever experienced before. Since you aren't hiking, you have the freedom to take this journey during the fall. If you aren't going out of your way to meet the hikers undertaking the trail, we would definitely recommend going with the leaves changing.
From Beacon, you're going about a hundred miles north to the next major stops. During this time, you'll cross over rivers and parts of the country that make New England so gorgeous and coveted so fiercely. You'll spend a few miles in Connecticut, before crossing into Massachusetts.
In North Central Massachusetts is Pittsfield, which is also a stop for the Appalachian Trail. When you leave Pittsfield, you're going to head north until you hit Rutland in Vermont. You'll pass through the Green Mountain National Forest on the way, a beautiful stretch of forested wilderness. This part of the road again crosses the Appalachian Trail for most of the way up to Rutland.
When you leave, you're going to go East for a while, and then turn North again. You're going to want to be shooting for The Sandy River Plantation, which is another resupply point that directly crosses the Appalachian Trail. From here on out, you're going to be driving very close to the last leg of the Trail.
It's less than four hours from Rutland, Vermont, to the Sandy River Plantation in Maine. It's a gorgeous trip, and you'll have the benefit of not being exhausted when you get there! When you get ready to leave this place, you're going to be headed northeast for the final 150 miles of the Trail and your drive.
We're going to end as close as we can to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, at Baxter State Park in Maine. The traditional last part of the trail is atop a peak, but since you obviously can't drive up it, you'll have to settle for enjoying the lower elevations of the State Park. If you come during the Fall, you might even have the opportunity to see some exhausted, accomplished hikers finishing up their long, long journey.
The Appalachian Trail is an incredible feat for hikers – and only a few that start finish it. When you drive alongside it, you'll get to experience the same landscape and take part in the exhilaration of the best part of some hiker's lives. Enjoy your journey! It will take a total of 25 hours of drive time, and span nearly 1,500 miles of mountain roads.