Appalachian Trail Update:a look at the first 400 miles

Approach Trail to Neels Gap

The unofficial starting point of the Appalachian Trail is the 8.5 mile approach trail starting at Amicalolo falls State Park in North Georgia. This is a good challenge trail with nice switchbacks which will give you an idea about what you signed up for.

Eventually you’ll find the starting point on Springer Mountain summit and there begin an undertaking of epic proportions. There’s plenty to see and adventures galore as you hike through the northern part of Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest.

You will need to come to terms with hiking a lot for long periods of time and camp life establishing habits and learning the basics of how to accomplish a major hike like this. Make no mistake this will challenge you physically and mentally on a daily basis but there are frequent places to take a break from the trail.

Summit Blood Mountain and you’re on your way to Neels Gap and Mountain Crossings Outfitters and Hostel. This is where many hikers decide to stop and get off the trail there’s a tree full of hiking shoes from those who have opted out.

Neels Gap to North Carolina

The challenges will continue as you head another 50+ miles to reach the Border of North Carolina. Featuring incredible views and fabulous wildflowers throughout this section as you head to the famous NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). A large portion of this area shows signs of past wildfires that covered vast areas of Georgia and North Carolina.

A large amount of your hiking will consist of ridge running with small elevation changes. Adding in a stay at the Top of Georgia Hostel in Hiawassee can benefit you with some experienced thru hikers  that work there. Also a fantastic place to visit with a great staff and located just a half mile from the trail.

From Top of Georgia Hostel it’s around a 9-mile push to the border and chalking off your first state. Overall this section can be a pleasant surprise from the start of the trip yet still challenge you physically and the views are amazing.

North Carolina to Fontana Dam

Shortly after you begin hiking past the North Carolina border you will begin some adventurous climbs and summit your first 5,000 foot mountain. Wildfire scars continue for countless miles and will give you an idea of the vast areas affected.

Eventually you’ll find your way to the NOC which features a fantastic hostel type setup with a general store and restaurants. Here you can apply for and print out your permit to hike in the Great Smokey Mountains at the Outfitters.

The climb in and out of the NOC consists of rugged and rocky hiking ultimately leading to beautiful Fontana Lake. The shelter at Fontana has been dubbed the “Fontana Hilton” with actual flushing toilets a shower and solar charging station as well as multiple tent pads.

Two miles past the Dam you will enter the Great Smokey Mountain National Park leaving your permit in the drop box provided.

The Great Smokey Mountains


Incredible views and breathtaking beauty await in this challenging section of the Appalachian Trail. You will cross into your third state (Tennessee) but you won’t stay long as you bounce between Tennessee and North Carolina for close to 100 miles.

The Smokies feature the highest point on the trail and also some of the best ridge running so far. Hikers must use the shelters provided with tenting allowed only if the shelter is full. The starting point past Fontana Dam is the biggest climb with long switchbacks to ease the elevation change.

Be prepared for bad weather at a moment’s notice depending on how fickle mother nature chooses to be during your journey. Spring storms at that elevation can turn into brutal winter conditions. This area is probably the windiest section due to the higher peaks and valleys and some days you’ll hike in the clouds.

When the clouds are high and clear expect stunning landscapes and majestic views of the surrounding mountains and countryside. Breathtaking and gorgeous which is a major understatement the Great Smokey Mountains will leave you in awe.

Permits expire 8 days from the day of entrance into the park. Shelters are spaced at various locations and allow for a flexible schedule even hiking two short days because of bad weather I was able to exit within the permitted time. Davenport Gap is the exit point for northern travel.

Special thanks to the Big Creek Country Store one mile from Davenport Gap for the fabulous Montezuma Lasagna yum!

Davenport Gap to mile 400

Yet another amazing section with plenty of hostels if you need a break the bouncing across State borders continues as you make your way past Hot Springs and Erwin Tennessee. Standing Bear Farm, Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky hostel, Laurel Hostel, the Station at 19E, and Boots Off Hostel (technically past mile 400) are just a few options that I personally used.

Although the border jumping will seem like it will never end it does and then the hike will circle Erwin Tennessee and Roan Mountain bringing you to the 400-mile mark. Tennessee offers more ridge running and offers amazing views as well as the bonus of rock hopping on occasion.

Final thoughts

I tried to bring a brief summary of what you can expect attempting an Appalachian Trail thru hike. I have not covered everything that you will encounter mostly just the basics. There are guides, books and even apps for mobile devices to help you along the way.

Accomplishing a thru hike requires patience and persistence. The best advice I have heard is listen to your body if something is sore there’s usually a reason. It’s also a mental challenge to endure miles upon miles of hiking so keep your brain healthy and in the right state of mind.

Thanks for taking the time to read this article and I hope you found it useful. Feel free to comment below and don’t forget to tell your friends.

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