The Best Hike of the 2,200-Mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail
Unit #45 / 413 - Appalachian National Scenic Trail
It's almost by quirk of fortune that while driving through Maine this became my 45th National Park Service site.
- It isn't listed as one of Maine's park sites.
- There's no Passport to Your National Parks stamp within 427 miles.
- And there's not a NPS Visitor Center for it anywhere in the state.
Yet there I found myself, hiking to the summit of Mount Katahdin, completing the last 5.2 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.
I'd ended up there as the result of three unrelated, but fortuitous, events:
The first happened a few days after launching my 3+ year journey to all the NPS sites. I'd written a blog for the National Parks Conservation Association, and was subsequently Facebook messaged by a married couple who'd been to 182 of the 400+ parks. They had a website with some great maps of all the units, so I asked to put one on my Map page and allow my readers to see all the places I'd be going.
As I perused their map of all 400+ sites, I noticed one dot all alone in the northern tip of Maine: the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. I checked my official spreadsheet of the units and found the site listed under West Virginia, where its headquarters lay in Harpers Ferry.
I made a note of this oddly placed point, and went about planning to visit the two units officially listed as Maine's.
August 25th, the exact 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. President Obama, through the Antiquities Act, announced that a large plot of land in northern Maine was the newest NPS site. That land, after being bought and donated by Burt's Bees founder Roxanne Quimby, became:
Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument.
The day it was announced happened to be less than a month before I planned to be in Maine, so the unit now had to be added to my itinerary. Inserting it into my map, it just so happened to be near that random dot I'd seen before...so I planned to visit that dot: hiking the end of the Appalachian NST just before going to Katahdin National Monument.
I inputted Millinocket, Maine--the anchor town for this hike--into my GPS and hit the gas. Everything was set to go.
My boyfriend and I found out the only trail to the terminus was an 8 - 12 hour, 10.4 mile RT, hike to the top of a 5,267 ft. tall mountain.
Having visited 18 Historic Sites and Battlefields since our last hike-able NPS unit, both our legs weren't sure they were ready for 0 - 60.
But because it was late-September, that meant many of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (who started approximately 5 months and 2,200 miles earlier in Georgia) would be finishing and we could watch their triumphant end of this legendary hike.
That was all the motivation I needed. However, I still couldn't rally my boyfriend.
And as the most extroverted person you'll likely ever meet, I was not excited at the prospect of doing the 8 - 12 hour hike on my own.
So with a revised plan of saving the Appalachian National Scenic Trail for West Virginia, we decided to Google a safe parking spot for the night and drove to Millinocket's only source of public Wi-Fi: McDonald's.
Surveying the parking lot, I settled on a parcel just to the right of the entrance: close enough to reach the Wi-Fi, but far enough to not be stared at by customers through the windows. I turned the engine off and let my van rest with its side of stickered "400+ World Record National Parks Road Trip" phrases facing the door.
I got on the Wi-Fi to a flurry of Twitter notifications and the discovery that a National Parks Conservation Association magazine article "Great American Road Trip" had just been released. It covered my own journey to 400+ NPS sites, along with four treks to the 59 National Parks by other travelers.
Just as I got to the part where it mentioned me, I was summoned away from reading by a small female voice and a hand on my rolled down window.
"We're doing something similar!" a woman said as her husband handed me a piece of paper reading "Scott and Tiffany Sink www.pretirement2016.com".
"Well, kinda," he interjected. "We're going to some national parks, but also state parks and other places that interest us. We just did the end of the Appalachian Trail today."
"How long did it take?" I asked, my interest extra piqued.
"We did it in like 5.5 hours I think," Tiffany said looking back to a nodding Scott.
Similarly, I turned to my significant other then back and forth at the Pretirement couple enough to beg/indicate this was something we could pull-off!
"You decide," my boyfriend said, putting the choice for both our legs on my shoulders.
But also providing the opportunity to make this extended hike I'd been lusting for.
Mount Katahdin, with the terminus of the Appalachian NST at its peak
The next day, after 7 hours and 35 minutes on the Hunt Trail to the top of Mount Katahdin and back, we knew that either that couple had misrepresented their time, or their travels had kept them in as good of shape as the thru-hikers who passed us on our ascent.
Greeting us at the peak were a number of those thru-hikers, for whom I could only stand in awe.
"What made you decide to do this trip?" became my most common question.
And "I'm not really sure. I just wanted to do something different" became the prevailing reply.
Thru hikers bask at the end of their feat
One millennial hiker had worked in data management for five years in the DC area, and "just knew [he] needed a life change" (though he didn't know what that was, and unfortunately, five months of hiking the trail didn't give him the answer).
Another thru-hiker, who was one of the red headed male hikers who made up an unexplained 1/3 of all male hikers I saw that day, said he and two friends just decided now was a good time to mix things up.
And an especially fit hiker whizzed past me only long enough to reply, "Man! Why not?"
As I commended his speed he turned back and said, "But I'm still smoking too much."
It was this consistent melting pot of ambiguous answers that made this hike so interesting. Here I was, hiking 10.4 miles with very clear motivations (visit all the national parks), on a stretch others had crossed 2,200 miles to reach with seemingly no reasoning as to why.
But perhaps that's what American conservationist Benton MacKaye had in mind when he conceived of an east coast natural experience to rival the west's many options. It was his vision in the 1920s/30s that eventually led a completed trail to be fully marked in 1937 and grow in the legend it is today: a 14-state stretch of public land, administered by 75 different agencies and operated almost entirely by volunteers.
That stretch just so happens to end at the top of Mount Katahdin in Maine's Baxter State Park, a piece of land gifted by former Maine Governor Percival Baxter under the stipulation that it never become a national park.
Ironically, a national park now slices through the middle of Percival's land.
Perhaps even more perfectly, when asked what was "the most beautiful part of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail," a newly finished thru-hiker said:
"This part. Katahdin."
When considering the creation of this nation-spanning hike, one might ask "Why the Appalachian Mountains?" or "Why end at a peak in Maine when the Appalachians actually continue into Canada and beyond?" but given the uncertainty most of its thru-hikers expressed, it seems all right that this trail elicits questions.
Whether the hikers come with inquiries of how many hours it will take to do the final stretch, or wondering why they are there in the first place, the Appalachian National Scenic Trail serves as a place for people to wade in their uncertainties. To just pause at the end of a grueling hike and stare at something beautiful, and not have to think beyond those mountain ridges.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail Highlight
1. Just Do It
Honestly, just doing this hike is the highlight. Beyond seeing the thru-hikers finish, or making this trek on a fall day where the leaves were starting to change, just taking part in this quest was an honor. Don't let any misgivings about the length sway you, as that thru-hiker said, this was his favorite hike of the entire 5 month, 2,200 mile trek!
The trail is not easy though. It's mostly hard rock that will leave your feet hurting and your hands scraped* from climbing on all-fours for much of it. But twisting and turning over rocky forests and even rockier summits makes any adult, even the 65-plus-year-olds I saw, feel like a 10-year-old on a jungle gym.
*I recommend taking climbing or batting gloves for these parts, which make up at least a solid hour of the hike.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Maine to Massachusetts
-Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument *New NPS site added 1 week ago*
-Saint Croix Island International Historic Site
-Acadia National Park
-Adams National Historical Park
-Boston African American National Historic Site
-Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
-Boston National Historical Park
-Cape Cod National Seashore
-Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site
-John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
-Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site
-Lowell National Historical Park Minute Man National Historical Park
-New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
-Salem Maritime National Historic Site
-Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site
-Springfield Armory National Historic Site
The journey thus far: