Appalachian Trail Histories


Browse Exhibits (6 total)

The Appalachian Trail came into being as the result of the labor of hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers who toiled ceaselessly to survey routes, break trail through the mountains, negotiate rights of way from private landowners, and build shelters along the route. However, several individuals deserve particular credit when it comes to the history of the creation of the Trail. Benton MacKaye had the vision and Myron Avery had the relentless drive to complete the Trail, but many other lesser-known volunteers contributed countless hours to the design, building, and maintaining of the Appalachian Trail.


The Appalachian Trail as we know it today is the result of both private and initiative and governemental action. While the original version of the Trail was created largely by volunteers, they made extensive use of federal and state land creating the Trail, especially in the region south of the Susquehanna River. As early as 1945, members of Congress took an interest in the Appalachian Trail as a national cultural and recreational resource, but it was not until 1968 that the Appalachian Trail entered the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. This exhibit charts the history of the migration of the Appalachian Trail from a volunteer project based largely on private land to a National Scenic Trail under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior.


An overview of the history of the Appalachian Trail from its earliest beginnings as an idea hatched by Benton MacKaye to the present trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine, passing through 14 states and over approximately 2,190 miles. The Trail, which began its life in 1922 with the first sections blazed in New York state, was originally a project of volunteer trail clubs. In 1968 the AT was designated as a National Scenic Trail and thus became part of the National Park system. Today, more than 3 million people each year set foot on the Trail for a few hours, a few days, or to hike from one end to the other--a trip of around 5 million steps. This exhibit provides a brief summary of how a crazy idea first proposed in 1921, turned into America's most iconic hiking trail. 


Since the beginnings of the Appalachian Trail in the 1920s, tens of millions of hikers have set foot on the Trail for a few hours, a few days, a few months, or to hike it from one end to the other. In doing so, they pursue Benton MacKaye's goal of developing a new form of outdoor community life to, as he said, help solve "the problem of living" in modern industrial society. Of the millions of hikers who have spent time on the Trail over the decades, we know only a little about a very few--those who chose to sit down and write about their experiences. Many of those who wrote about their hikes were long distance hikers and so the story of the day hiker is much more difficult to tell. This exhibit offers glimpses into the experiences of some of the best known hikers, but also into those less well known hikers who also shape the history of the Appalachian Trail.

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More than 250 shelters line the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. The oldest of these shelters date from the 1930s, while the most recent have been built in the past decade. They vary in construction and design from simple Adirondack style lean-tos made of logs cut and peeled in the nearby forest, to more elaborate structures with more than one story, or a front porch, or other novel features. Like the Trail itself, these shelters are maintained by the network of volunteer clubs responsible for the upkeep of the Trail. They are intended for use by long distance hikers, but are open to all hikers seeking shelter along the Trail. Almost all are located close to a consistent water source and almost all have their own privy.


From 1930-1952, the Appalachian Trail followed a very different route between Roanoke and Damascus, Virginia than today's version of the trail. Instead of passing southwest from Roanoke toward Blacksburg, the trail turned due south into Floyd County, and from there passed down into Patrick Country, crossed briefly into North Carolina at Fisher's Peak, then hooked back northwest through downtown Galax, Virginia, before crossing the New River at Dixon's Ferry. On the west bank of the river, the trail then turned north until it reached Byllesby Dam, at which point it climbed up onto the Iron Mountain ridge, which it followed all the way to Damascus. In 1952, the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) pulled the trail more than 50 miles west to its current location, abandoning the original route in Southwestern Virginia, a route that encompassed 300 miles, or 15 percent of the entire trail at the time.