The 2,190-Mile Appalachian Trail -- And the Grueling Hike to Get There

My nephews, Brandon and Bryan, paid a visit to ring in the New Year. When they were making their plans, I had thrown out the idea of spending a day hiking the Appalachian Trail. Brandon quickly jumped at the opportunity, most notably because he'd read Bill Bryson's hilarious take on in the AT, A Walk in the Woods, which I had highly recommended. Bryan, a senior in high school, was equally as eager to explore the trail, ignoring the fact that actually witnessing the trail would require nearly 20 miles of hiking in one day. In fact, Bryan actually mocked the task at first, mumbling references to some Lone Survivor who got shot, fell down a cliff, and still managed to crawl to safety under enemy fire. His hero could do this blindfolded, so "what's the big deal about walking 20 miles?"

Our plan was to start out from the Visitor's Center, hike past beautiful Amicalola Falls, and continue on the AT Approach Trail for another 8 Miles until we reached the start of the famed Appalachian Trail. Then we'd walk a mile or two on the trail itself and turn around to hike home. Applying a liberal understanding of our current physical shapes, we anticipated hiking roughly 2 miles an hour, and knew we'd have 10 hours of hiking in front of us. With that in mind, we set out for Amicalola Falls State Park at about 6:00 in the morning. Stopping shortly for biscuits and gravy, as lord knows we needed the energy, we arrived at the park around 7:15, paid our $5 entrance fee, and stepped out into sub-40 degree overcast weather. The kind of weather that makes you immediately wonder why you're on a mountain so early in the morning. Would my nephews be okay with turning back now? Is there a Biscuit Barn nearby? Can we get biscuits and gravy and then take a nap in the warm car? Thankfully Brandon and Bryan were already getting their gear on, so these thoughts were never vocalized.​

The first mile of the hike covers a good deal of elevation and helps set the mood for an adventure filled day. At the beginning you pass a peaceful, trout filled pond and listen to the rushing water which seems to encompass you. You're hiking on an incline until you can glimpse Amicalola Falls through bare trees. Then you get to the really steep parts of the climb, as indicated by the never-ending staircases built into the trail. The first couple hundred steps bring you to the Falls, which are breathtaking. A railed bridge takes you from one side to the other and allows you to get up close and personal with the rushing water. Even if you're not a fan of waterfalls, you stop to take it in. After all, it provides a great opportunity to take a break and hydrate before you hit the remaining 400 or so stairs.

At the top of the falls, there are helpful signs pointing towards the AT Approach Trail. This trail isn't technically part of the 2100-plus mile Appalachian Trail, but it's the only way to get there from the Visitor's Center. As such, most purists – people who think the Appalachian Trail should be hiked from end to end without taking any shortcuts – point out that a true AT thru-hike should include the Approach Trail. Purists we are not, but it's good to know we'll be knocking out this section of trail with a hard lead step.

The Trail winds through various nondescript forests. You know you're on a mountain because of the steady elevation changes and popping ears, but there really aren't any great views in the first few miles. We put these miles down quickly and average about 2.5 miles per hour through 10:00. Then we took a break, ate a couple granola bars, beef jerky, and completely exhausted our water supply. It's amazing how much water and food you can go through in the first few hours and it's a testament to the grueling nature of the hike. The good news is that water sources are abundant on the trail, as there are several creeks and springs dotting the landscape. Just bring your handy water filtration system and you'll find sparkling fresh hydration every few miles.

The next couple hours of our hike took us through endless forests and offered fantastic views as we wound through the mountainside. We kept a good pace and made it about a half mile from the start of the AT. I wish I would have known how close we were, or I wouldn't have suggested we stop and devour our sandwiches.

Food. Energy. Water. Pee. Your caveman senses kick in after 5 hours on this trail and that's how you think and speak. Your reptilian brain is in control. Nevertheless, we attacked our sandwiches and climbed another 1/2 mile to catch a second wind.

It's funny how busy the actual Appalachian Trail is. Despite only seeing two other hikers on the ascent, we found a half-dozen folks congregating around the start of the AT on Springer Mountain. Most were obviously not purists. There were day hikers making the most of some photo opportunities, a couple with their dog, and an actual AT thru-hiker, Red Beard, who was showing his dad where he started his journey. It was a diverse group to put it kindly.

We went on the AT for about a half mile. We decided to turn back there, as we hit the 5-1/2 hour mark of our hike and wanted to get back in daylight. An all-day adventure, and we officially traversed 0.5 miles on the Appalachian Trail. The trail humbles you.

The trip back was just as grueling, but not as exciting. I suppose there's anticipation about reaching your destination, but that wears off on your return trip. Still, we kept each other going and tried to maintain a steady pace. We were completely worn down, utterly exhausted, and yet we still had several hours of hiking ahead of us.

For what it's worth, I don't remember hearing anything else about the Marcus Luttrell on the trip back. I think Bryan had met his match on the trail -- all three of us had -- and he had given up on defending his heroes.

We polished off the last of our food, a total of 12 sandwiches, a dozen Be Kind bars, and 2 bags of beef jerky – enough to make us think we’d never run out as we packed it the night before – before we made it back to the falls. We made it back to the car as dusk was setting in and congratulated each other on a job well done. Even though we found that we didn't have American hero-like strength, we all felt like we accomplished a great feat. I'm happy we pushed ourselves and I'm thrilled to have shared the experience. To me, that's what the trail is all about. Companionship, nature, and mutual accomplishment.

Maybe we'll tackle another section of the AT to ring in 2016...

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