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6 Toughest Sections of the Appalachian Trail

The Appalachian Trail is one of the most recognizable footpaths in the entire world. Covering more than 2,000 miles from Georgia all the way to Maine, the route passes through 14 states, climbing the equivalent of Mt. Everest 16 times and taking approximately 5 million steps to complete. While no section of the Appalachian Trail is easy, some are downright challenging. Whether you’re rock hopping for days at a time, crawling through boulder fields, or descending peaks at less than one mile per hour, these sections of the Appalachian Trail are not for the faint of heart and are sure to test even the hardiest hiker.

Up for the challenge? Here are the toughest sections on the entire Appalachian Trail.

Note: Most people thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail head northbound, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and hiking toward Maine, so we’ve used the mile markers based on this reference. Keep in mind that the trail changes over time, so mile markers will vary slightly year to year.

1. Southern Maine

Mile Marker : 1,909 Distance : Roughly 100 miles

For hikers heading north, hitting Maine is a significant milestone, and they are rewarded with this section that’s arguably the most challenging on the trail. Hikers are slowed to a near crawl as they clamber up steep, eroded sections of trail, shove their packs around boulders through the one-mile Mahoosuc Notch, grab tree roots to stabilize on climbs, and depending on the season, battle clouds of gnats and black flies. This section of trail is mentally taxing as well since hikers have reached the final state and are ready to be done. Never fear though, Maine becomes a lot friendlier as the trail winds north. Check out the Maine Appalachian Trail Club for more info.

2. White Mountains, New Hampshire

Mile Marker : 1,792 Distance : Roughly 100 miles

Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have waited a long time to stay consistently above treeline and enjoy incredible panoramic views. New Hampshire’s White Mountains provide just that, you’ll have to work for it. Switchbacks are pretty much nonexistent, and the trail becomes little more than marked rock slides. In this section, the climbs and descents are slippery and exposed, with hikers often gaining or losing more than 1,000 feet per mile. However—those views!—plus the feeling of accomplishment make it all worthwhile. The sheer beauty of the White Mountain National Forest is something that everyone should see.

3. The Roller Coaster, Virginia

Mile Marker : 995 Distance : 13.5 miles

This is the shortest section listed here, but don’t discount it. It’s not called the “Roller Coaster” for nothing. In just over 13 miles, this section includes 10 climbs and descents of several hundred feet each. It’s a relentlessly up and down with steep, quad-busting grades. Stop for a rest afterward at the Blackburn Trail Center and give yourself a huge pat on the back.

4. Northern Pennsylvania

Mile Marker : 1,150 Distance : Roughly 150 miles

Looking at a cross section of Northern Pennsylvania, it’s tempting to write this section off as a low-elevation, flat cakewalk. But hikers beware: the footing in this section is what gets you. For more than 100 miles, hikers will be traversing the rockiest part of the entire Appalachian Trail, staring at their feet, trying to avoid small pointy rocks that bruise the soles, larger rocks just waiting to roll an ankle, and boulders that are first entertaining, then become exhausting to climb. Some miles in this section don’t even look like a trail, just an expanse of rocks sticking up in every direction with the occasional white blaze to let hikers know yes, you are (somehow) still on the trail.

5. Mt. Katahdin, Maine

Mile Marker : 2,186 Distance : 10 miles round trip

The summit of Katahdin is the northern terminus of the AT, the finishing point for northbound hikers. It’s also the longest climb on the entire trail. The Katahdin Stream Campground sits at 1,088 feet of elevation, with the summit of Katahdin five miles north at a lofty 5,268 feet. Hikers use their arms to haul themselves over boulders, grab rungs drilled into rocks to scramble up sheer faces, and enjoy the final, windswept plateau before reaching that iconic wooden sign marking the end of the Appalachian Trail. While the elation (and ridiculous fitness) of thru-hikers at this point means the climb and descent won’t feel like much, to the average hiker, this climb is grueling and exposed but entirely worth the effort. Current conditions on Katahdin can be found here.

6. Southern Virginia

Mile Marker : 466 Distance : Roughly 150 miles

Virginia does level out as hikers head north, but Southern Virginia is home to ridge climb after ridge climb—1,000 feet up, 1,000 feet down. As the trail winds around another switchback, it might look like you’ve gained the ridge, only to have the trail turn to reveal more climbing. The mental impact of this section is also severe, as Virginia contains the longest section of the trail, more than 500 miles. Hikers have become accustomed to crossing state lines and the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies this, so spending a solid month in one state can feel defeating.

Written by RootsRated Media for Catoma.

Featured image provided by Ben Kimball

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