Adventurers from all over the world dream of thru-hiking the storied Appalachian Trail—the original long-distance hiking trail and the longest hiking-only trail in the world. It stretches for more than 2,000 miles and traverses 14 states, and it’s been around for almost 100 years. But don’t let the numbers be intimidating. The good news is that you don’t have to take six months off work to enjoy the whole trail. In fact, more than half of America’s population is within a day’s drive of the AT, and there are hundreds of amazing sections that you can reach in just a weekend. Here are five amazing AT day hikes to give you a taste of America’s favorite trail.
Charlies Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN
Twelve million people a year can’t be wrong: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited preserve in the entire National Park system, and for good reason. In addition to its proximity to city centers like Atlanta and Knoxville (which is just a half hour away), the park provides a classic Appalachian Mountain experience. Think dense forest, thousands of miles of rivers and streams, A-list wildlife, and views that go on forever. One of our favorites routes: The eight-mile out-and-back hike along the AT to Charlies Bunion, starting from the Newfound Gap parking lot. Add in great spring wildflowers, an AT shelter, and a panoramic view from the rock outcropping that is Charlies Bunion, and you’ll be glad you huffed it up 1,600 feet in elevation to get there. Fog can sock in that view, though, so check the weather before heading out. (Note that pets aren’t allowed on most national park backcountry trails, including this one.) Details: There are no fees, and the trail is open year-round.
Grayson Highlands State Park to Jefferson National Forest, VA
What’s there to say about the AT through Grayson Highlands? In a word: ponies. Southern Appalachia is famous for its so-called “balds,” or open grassy summits where you would otherwise expect to see a forest. Wild ponies were introduced here in the 1970s to maintain the balds through their grazing, and today some 100 of them mingle with hikers. For spectacular views of the scenery and ponies alike, start at Massie Gap and take the Rhododendron Trail to the AT. From there, head north into Jefferson National Forest to Wilburn Ridge. This out-and-back hike is four miles total. There are many contiguous trails here, so loop hikes are also possible. Do not approach or feed the ponies and be sure to leash your pets. For day use, the park is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and there’s an admission/parking fee (up to $10).