The historic Appalachian trail is the world's longest continuously-marked trail. It starts in Maine and then winds down through fourteen states, and officially ends in Georgia. Though it's meant to be walked, a hike from end to end can take between five and seven months-- and only 20% of those who set out to conquer it actually complete the journey. People prepare for months to actually hike the entire length of the trail, which has been around since the 1920s, and is a permanent part of America's hiking heritage. But, it's also pretty fun to drive the Trail, which is divided into three major sections: New England, Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern Appalachians. The New England stretch of the trail takes you from Maine to New Hampshire, though a bit of Vermont, and into Connecticut. The Mid-Atlantic states include New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland. Then you'll hit the Southern Appalachians, which include Virginia and West Virginia, then over to Tennessee and down to North Carolina and Georgia.
Beginning in the New England section of the Appalachian Trail, a few breathtaking highlights include Baxter State Park and the White Mountain National Forest. The trail picks up again in eastern Vermont and goes up to the New York-Connecticut border: this section of the trail is much less difficult for hikers than the northernmost segment. Expect to see many stone walls from previously existing structures such as farm buildings. This section also contains some hiking through gorgeous farmland and lovely pastoral views. Consider resting your legs at the waterfalls in Gifford Woods State Forest Park or Kent Falls State Park. Maine's Grafton Notch State Park is a major highlight of this section, and actually the perfect place to start your Appalachian Trail road trip, surrounded by beautiful waterfalls and gorges.
After Grafton Notch, plan on driving the Mt Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire, which is a seasonal byway up the highest peak in the Northeast, along which you'll find mountain tours, a gift shop, a cafe, and ever-changing panoramic views. It's especially gorgeous at sunrise... and once you've completed the drive, you'll earn a "This Car Climbed Mt. Washington" bumper sticker!
While in New Hampshire visit Story Land, a super quirky theme park that was founded by Bob and Ruth Morell after purchasing large, whimsical dolls from Germany. Their park is based on these massive storybook dolls, and has all kinds of rides and attractions, from swan boats to vintage cars to an antique carousel, and tons more.
Next up is Crawford Notch State Park. This 5,700-acre park has loads of hiking trails, a few waterfalls and some insanely gorgeous mountain views. There's also a campground onsite. And a little ways down the road is Gifford Woods State Forest Park, which also features Appalachian trail camping-- if you can't hike it, you can at least camp out the way a hiker would!
The New England portion of the Appalachian Trail offers plenty of delicious places to eat. There's Polly's Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, NH, which is famous for its pancakes, obviously, but also its ambiance, as it's set in an early 1800s building that provides fantastic mountain scenery. A little drive away is the Sunny Day Diner in Lincoln, NH and the Blue Benn Diner in Bennington, VT, which is a classic 1945 railcar diner, where you can play some tunes on the jukebox while you eat all-day breakfast.
When you're ready to call it a day, head to Crawford Notch Campground in the White Mountain National Forest, or lakeside Loch Lyme Lodge, which offers cabins and cottages. Inn Of The Six Mountains in Killington is another great choice. The resort is surrounded by the Green Mountains, and if you're visiting during winter for skiing, they provide free shuttle service to the slopes.
Or you could spend the night in luxury at the Four Chimney's Inn in Bennington, VT, which is housed in a beautiful 1913 mansion, on 11 acres, and is just a few minutes walk from The Bennington Museum and the Bennington Battle Monument. Lastly, the Maple Terrace Motel in Williamstown, MA will make you feel right at home with simple rooms decorated in a charming country theme.
Over in Hancock, MA is the historic Hancock Shaker Village, which was established in 1791 and has been turned into a living history museum where you can listen to interpretive talks on history, see demonstrations on how the Shakers farmed and danced, and even meet some cute baby animals. Nearby, you'll also find Bash Bish Falls State Park, home to Massachusetts' highest single-drop waterfall.
The Mid-Atlantic section of the Appalachian Trail weaves in and out of some heavily populated urban areas, but the trail retains a feeling of remoteness as it passes to the west of major cities like Philadelphia and New York City. For hikers traveling through this section, the Mid-Atlantic makes it easy to resupply considering its proximity to so many cities. Dig the beautiful scenery at New York's Bear Mountain State Park and Pennsylvania's stunning Pinnacle Overlook. Also plan to make a stop at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, NY. It's a fun outdoor, open-air sculpture museum where you can easily spend an afternoon wandering around exhibits.
Next you'll come to Bear Mountain State Park in Tomkins Cove. It's 5,000 acres of scenic beauty located on the Hudson River. Also, the nearby Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area is one of New Jersey's best-kept secrets. It's forty lush miles of the middle Delaware River, surrounded by shady forests, rolling hills and peaceful river inlets.
For a history kick, head over to the Friends of The Daniel Boone Homestead in Birdsboro, PA, where it feels like you've stepped back in time. It's a fantastic place to learn about the culture of Oley Valley during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Also nearby is the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in Elverson, where you can learn about the industrial revolution at an actual "iron plantation", and the Ephrata Cloister, in Lancaster County, PA: here, you'll find an old, 18th-century religious community that's been beautifully preserved.
For a quirkier place to sleep, there's the Red Caboose Motel & Restaurant in Ronks, PA, which is located on 10 acres in Amish Country. Here you can sleep in a historic train car and caboose-- but since this is the 21st century, they come with flat-screen TVs, and some even feature their own private deck. There's also an onsite country restaurant and petting zoo and you can even catch a buggy rides. Keep in mind, the Red Caboose Motel closes in winter.
Next along the route is the Haines Shoe House in Stonybrook. This is a great place for a photo op. The house was initially built by a shoe salesman as an advertisement for his business, and today it's a quirky, but iconic, roadside attraction.
Next up is the Appalachian Trail Museum in Gardners, PA, which has been dedicated to protecting the legends and stories of the community of hikers who work to preserve and protect the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail, since its creation in 1923. The museum is located along Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The museum building was built over two hundred years ago, and at that time was used as a grist mill. Today it’s across from one of the most famous points of the Appalachian Trail, the Pine Grove General Store, which is traditionally the half-way mark along the hike. It's also where hikers stop to attempt the famous ritual of trying to eat half a gallon of ice cream in one sitting. Today the museum currently exhibits over 13,000 images of hikers who have passed though the area over the years, and they also have a trail shelter built by famous hiking legend Earl Shafer. In 1948, Shafer was the first person to hike the entire trail and has gone down in hiker history as one of the first great adventurers.
From Gardners, head south to Gettysburg. Gettysburg National Military Park is probably the most important battlefield in America, commemorating the turning point of the Civil War. There are so many exhibits in the visitor center, as well as a fantastic driving tour of the park. Plus, Gettysburg is a beautiful historic town to spend the day exploring.
If you want to get out to stretch your legs, head to Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, MD, which is home to a 78-foot tall cascading waterfall, Maryland's largest. Washington Monument State Park in Middletown features a 34-foot tall monument, and is just 4 miles from the town of Boonsboro, another great town to visit while on the Appalachian Trail.
While in Virginia, don't miss the Luray Caverns, which has drawn visitors along the Appalachian trail since its discovery in 1878. The caverns have a wishing well, a "stalacpipe organ", and tons more underground oddities.
Definitely plan to spend at least a day at Shenandoah National Park. The park is 200,000 square miles, offers 500 miles of trails, and encompasses part of eight counties, with exposed rock that dates back over 1 billion years. Here are a few of the best spots to hit up: Old Rag Mountain is one of the most popular of all the trails and with good reason. At dusk you can see an insanely beautiful view of the Blue Valley. If you’re looking for a hike with a more refreshing surrounding, try hiking to Crabtree Falls. This waterfall is the highest vertical-drop cascading waterfall east of the Mississippi River, and its beauty draws spectators from all over. Before finishing your visit, explore the Shenandoah Caverns, which offer mile-long tours that take you past strange and beautiful rock formations.
The historic Big Meadows Lodge in Shenandoah National Park and the stately Natural Bridge Hotel are two great choices for lodging along this stretch of the Appalachian Trail. For more budget accommodations, the Mayberry Motor Inn in Mount Airy, NC is a retro-kitschy Andy Griffith Show-themed courtyard-style hotel just off US Route 52-- it's less than two miles from the Andy Griffith Museum, naturally.
Next hiking stop is McAfee's Knob in Catawba, which offers a breathtaking scenic overlook in Roanoke County. The view from the overlook is a highlight along the Appalachian Trail for many, and the 6-mile roundtrip hike to the knob is doable even for those driving the route.
The Chalet Restaurant & Switzerland Inn in Little Switzerland is a very unique lodge and restaurant. It's been in operation since 1910, and is located right on the mountain top by Asheville and Blowing Rock. The rooms are large, the mountain views are stunning and the on-site restaurant serves food all day long. It's located at milepost 334 along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
For a more refined stop along the Appalachian Trail, there's the Biltmore Estate in Asheville to give you a taste of the finer things. The Biltmore Estate was built by George Vanderbilt in the style of a Châteauesque mansion-- with 250 rooms inside, it's America's largest house. Basically, you get to tour America's version of Downton Abbey.
The best time to drive down the Appalachian Trail is in the fall. Many places are seasonal along the route, and some are closed in winter, also some roads will be closed seasonally as well. Summer can be hot and muggy, but autumn is pretty much perfect. From September through mid-November the leaves will be changing and provide a gorgeous backdrop to your journey. Spring is lovely as well, with wildflowers in bloom and mild temperatures, although you might run across the occasional April shower.