Trail Blazing

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There are few better ways to commune with nature than to use our God-given modes of transportation – our legs. That’s just what Western North Carolina-born Jennifer Pharr Davis did, hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,160 miles in record time. The iconic trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia, all the way up to Mount Katahdin, Maine, has some of the most stunning vistas and scenery in the United States.There are few better ways to commune with nature than to use our God-given modes of transportation – our legs. That’s just what Western North Carolina-born Jennifer Pharr Davis did, hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail’s 2,160 miles in record time. The iconic trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain, Georgia, all the way up to Mount Katahdin, Maine, has some of the most stunning vistas and scenery in the United States.

Despite growing up in North Carolina, Jennifer’s first personal experience with the trail was at 21 years old. “My first night on the trail was the start of my 5-month thru-hike,” she says. “Even though I was inexperienced and a novice backpacker, I knew that I wanted an adventure.” Adventure was precisely what she got, catching a passion for the woods. She went on to set the women’s record for completing the trail in 2008 and the overall record for the fastest time in 2011.

For a novice hiker, shorter trips can whet your appetite for multi-day hikes. “Day hikes and short overnight trips are the best way to prepare for a long-distance hike,” she explains. “Practicing will hopefully increase your passion for the trail and make you realize that you can do more than you think.” Here, Jennifer shares some of her favorite shorter stretches along the trail in the Southeast, perfect for experiencing it without committing to a thru-hike.

Max Patch to Hot Springs, North Carolina, 20 miles
This section of the trail starts at Max Patch, where, on a clear day, hikers will experience one of the best views on the entire A.T. Past Max Patch, the trail travels through dense hardwood forests and thick rhododendron tunnels before climbing to the top of Bluff Mountain. Past Bluff Mountain, there is more downhill than uphill as the trail descends to the quaint town of Hot Springs on the banks of the French Broad River.

Carver’s Gap to 19E, North Carolina/Tennessee Border, 13 miles
If you are lucky enough to have time off in June to go hiking, then this is the place to go. The mountain laurel, flame azalea and rhododendron up on Roan Mountain are breathtaking. The trail travels across scenic balds at Big Hump and Little Hump. There is a rocky section past Little Hump leading to Doll Flats, and from there the trail travels a steep downhill incline to reach 19E. If you plan to hike this stretch as a point-to-point journey from Carver’s Gap to 19E, then I recommend packing hiking poles to help take some of the pressure off of your knees. If you hike from 19E to Carver’s Gap, give yourself plenty of time – you will be hiking uphill almost the entire way.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Southwest Virginia
Located near Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia, Grayson Highlands State Park is a preserve for wild ponies, and it offers views that are unlike anywhere else on the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. travels several miles through the park, but the network of trails inside the property can be combined into a series of day hikes or an overnight. If you go in the late summer or early fall, you’re likely to spot plenty of blueberries.

Springer Mountain to Neels Gap, Georgia, 30 miles
This is the first 30 miles of the A.T., and in March – May it is teeming with thru-hikers. It offers a gentle and rolling start to the trail, and there are hostels and outfitters nearby. Signing into the trail register at Springer Mountain is a wonderful tradition, regardless of how far you plan on hiking, and the views at the top of Blood Mountain make the climb to the summit worthwhile.

Jennifer Pharr Davis has penned two books about her experiences on the trail and runs Blue Ridge Hiking Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, which offers guided hikes.

Photo courtesy of the Virginia Department Of Conservation And Recreation

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