chatting with a few friends the other night when our conversation shifted to my time on the Appalachian Trail this year. The questions I heard ranged from typical to downright silly, and almost without thinking, I gave well-rehearsed, hasty replies to those I had been asked over and over: “Yes, I actually went to the bathroom in the woods every day,” “I lived primarily off of protein bars and Ramen,” and, my favorite, “No, I didn’t carry bear spray — and let me tell you about the guy who got his Trail name after accidentally using his inside a hostel, causing an ill-timed evacuation.”
But then I was asked one question I hadn’t heard before: “Do you believe the A.T. is a single trail?” I hesitated. The obvious answer was, “Yes, of course. That’s the whole point,” but then my mind began racing back to those moments on the Trail when I would cross a state line. Each time I left one state behind and entered another, I was left in suspense; I was heading away from something familiar to step into the unknown. Those who have experienced the different regions of the Trail know what I mean: Maryland, for example, certainly doesn’t feel like Maine.
As the A.T. winds its way through the Appalachian Mountains, it traverses 14 states. Every state is unique, and the insightful hiker will notice things like landscape, terrain, and land management practices contribute to a diverse user experience. So yes, while the A.T. is continuous, there are often times when the footpath seems to change before your eyes. That’s part of the beauty of the Trail — it always keeps hikers guessing.
The 14 State Challenge embraces the diversity of the Trail while also putting more control into the hands (and feet) of the hiker. At its most basic level, the challenge encourages participants to experience some of the A.T.’s most accessible places in small, manageable ways. Yet, it is about more than touching at least one white blaze in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It allows people to harness their energy and put it toward the goal of experiencing what the Trail has to offer, while also reveling that the experience will be different every time. It is the answer for those who cannot, or do not want to, commit to a thru-hike or a 2,000-mile-long journey. The A.T. is a single footpath, sure. But that doesn’t mean users have to experience it that way.
Left to right: New Hampshire – northbound after summiting Mount Washington; Massachusetts – near the summit of Mount Greylock;
New York – near the New Jersey/New York state line
Laurie Potteiger, information services manager at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), says the 14 State Challenge was inspired by those who stopped by the ATC’s Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. On one hand, many visitors were in awe of those who had hiked all 2,000-plus miles of the Trail, but mixed in with that awe was a bit of yearning for their own A.T. adventure. On the other hand, Potteiger noticed some visitors would come by and share stories about hiking parts of the A.T. in different regions or even all 14 states. “Often they would come in after they had completed it, and they would just be beaming,” she said. “It was clear the journey was a great deal of fun for them, and they had seen some unforgettable and beautiful sights — and there were always stories about some of the people they had met.
They had created some wonderful memories for themselves, and there was also a sense of accomplishment.” Hikers had already created the 14 State Challenge — but it was time to officially give the concept its name so the A.T. community could rally behind the idea.
Washington, D.C. resident Uma Hiremagalur can often be found with her camera, hiking parts of the A.T. and other trails in the area on weekends. She recently purchased a car, and one of the things that excites her most about her purchase is that it enables her to drive to trailheads along the A.T. for more exploring. “I have always felt at peace being outdoors,” she said. “When I moved to D.C. from Colorado, I was pleasantly surprised at the proximity to trails and mountains.” Hiremagalur was at the ATC’s Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry in December for the annual holiday party when she found out about the 14 State Challenge. She realized it fit in with her goals of hiking parts of the A.T., taking pictures, and visiting the small towns along the way that make the Trail community so special. “Laurie [Potteiger] gave me a 14 State Challenge Patch, talked to me about it, and I was hooked,” Hiremagalur says, explaining that although she has already hiked on the A.T. in several states, she is beginning the challenge anew. “I started right there in Harpers Ferry, and I got one state down — 13 more to go! I’m already planning all the places along my A.T. map that I want to see.”
As she tackles the 14 State Challenge, Hiremagalur hopes to inspire friends and family members to share her journey. She believes it is a great way to talk and walk, enjoy nature, destress, and rejuvenate the body — overall, enriching people’s lives. “I like having a goal — to share my experience and motivate people to get up, get outdoors, and breathe,” she says. “To me, the 14 State Challenge is an amazing way to keep my life and routine and have a great adventure to be excited about.”
Clockwise from above: Jim Baker in the tunnel under PA 944 near Carlisle, Pennsylvania; On the Pochuck Boardwalk near Glenwood, New Jersey; Uma Hiremagalur in West Virginia with her 14 State Patch; Crossing the Iron Bridge and the Housatonic River near Falls Village, Connecticut
Because there is only one rule in the 14 State Challenge — that you have to experience a portion of the A.T. in every state it traverses — there are numerous ways you can tackle the challenge. The ATC’s website has plenty of information on getting started, and it lists hikes by state and also provides helpful info about each hike. The hikes are suggested destinations though, so if you want to plan a hike around a vacation or work trip, there are many different ways you can do that as well.
Vermont – view from the fire tower on Stratton Mountain
The ATC has created what it calls an “aspirational” patch in honor of the 14 State Challenge, and if you’re aspiring to complete the challenge and haven’t made it to all 14 states yet, you can still grab one to display on your pack. (Don’t worry — it doesn’t weigh much!) Hiremagalur plans to take a photo with her patch every time she checks a state off her list. It makes a fun photo prop, but it is also a reminder of an adventure that is tailor-made, by you and for you. And that is something to be proud of.
For more information and to start the 14 State Challenge visit: appalachiantrail.org/14StateChallenge. If you’re a social media user and you enjoy sharing your time on the A.T. with your followers, be sure to use the hashtags #AT14challenge or #14StateChallenge to connect with other 14 State Challenge participants
❚ Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion: Don’t let the title deceive you. This book is most definitely not just for thru-hikers. The ATC and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association produce this official guide that features elevation profiles, points of interest, Trail town maps, and more. It’s the perfect “all-in-one” resource.
❚ Best Hikes of the Appalachian Trail: South: This guide features 45 day hikes in the Trail’s southern region (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia) and includes Trailhead coordinates, maps, Trail “ratings,” and more.
❚ Best Hikes of the Appalachian Trail: Mid-Atlantic: This guide features 45 day hikes in the mid-Atlantic region of the Trail (West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York). Trailhead coordinates, maps, Trail “ratings,” and more are also included.
❚ Best Hikes of the Appalachian Trail: New England: This guide features 45 day hikes in the Trail’s northernmost states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) and includes Trailhead coordinates, maps, Trail “ratings,” and more.
All books are available at the Ultimate A.T. Store at: atctrailstore.org
Join Anne on a winter hike in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia at: annewritesfor.me/hikeharpersferry
Anne Baker hiked more than 1,300 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 2017 alongside her father (they go by “Shivers and “Shivers’ Dad”) during a flip-flop thru-hike attempt. Because she can’t imagine not having more of the Trail to look forward to, she plans on finishing the rest of the A.T. as a section hike. Anne lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia and has the best support team in the world: her fiancé, Ben, who proposed to her on Katahdin, and their two dogs, Bella and Odin. Connect with Anne at: annewritesfor.me