The Appalachian Mountains

USA – The Appalachian Mountains

The Appalachian Mountains, which comprise the great mountain ranges of the east, extend some 1,600 miles (2,600 km) from southeastern Quebec through the eastern United States down to Alabama’s coastal plain.

Running through these ranges is the Appalachian Trail, which, at 2,157 miles (3,473 km) is the world’s longest unbroken hiking path. It crosses 14 states from its origins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, to its grand finish in Mount Katahdin, Maine. Along the way, the trail winds through eight national forests and two national parks. Conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye, a forester and planner, the trail was completed in 1937 and designated a national scenic trail in 1968. Many hikers dream of walking the entire trail, planning their five- to six-month journeys meticulously. But there are over 500 access points along the way for short-term visitors, some of which take you into three of the country’s best parks. Take the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for example, situated on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Its abundant rainfall has resulted in great biodiversity. From the lowest elevations, you pass through hardwood forests, up to where pine and oak grow, then to slopes of northern hardwoods. Above these forests, many of the mountain ridges bear grassy, open areas known as balds. Higher still, you’ll find spruce and fir forests.

Maple and tulip trees dominate the park’s flora, but you will also see luxurious growths of evergreen trees and rhododendrons, plus delicate orchids, columbines, and painted trilliums.

Great Smoky is a haven for rare creatures, such as the red wolf, which was reintroduced to the park in 1991, and the river otter. Other wildlife, from wild turkeys to white-tailed deer, is more abundant, and black bear sightings are common.

To the north, the trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, a strip along the Blue Ridge of the Appalachians that is thickly forested with hemlock, hickory, and oak. Hikers come from the nearby Washington DC area, as do numerous day-trippers in cars, drawn to Skyline Drive, which runs the length of the park. Visitors come in spring to see the waterfalls and the azaleas that color the forest glades; in summer to enjoy the meadows bright with wildflowers; and for fiery foliage colors in fall.

Along the trail, away from the crowds, you may see pink lady’s-slipper orchids blooming in the forest, white-tailed deer feeding, and peregrine falcons wheeling overhead.

Continuing north, you leave the thick stands of azaleas and rhododendrons behind as you enter forests of beech, birch, maple, and cherry. Over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) later, the walk ends among the evergreens, ferns, and scrubby blueberry bushes of Baxter State Park in northern Maine. Here, Mount Katahdin rises 5,267 feet (1,606 m) amid thick pine forests. In summer, its windswept heights are carpeted with wildflowers growing in the alpine tundra. Moose feed in the marshy lowlands and there are beavers about, although you’ll seldom see them. Bald eagles, black bears, and coyotes are common, and the cry of the loon is a constant refrain. Maintenance of the trail by volunteers keeps it in top condition and minimizes environmental damage. Hikers can help by packing out trash and keeping to the trail to reduce erosion.