Best American Landmarks to Visit with Kids: The Appalachian Trail

America’s natural landmarks represent the diversity and beauty of this country’s natural landscape and a visit to any of them will inspire a child’s learning. Whether visiting a historic landmark to see firsthand the documents our nation was built on, or gazing in awe at the beauty found in our national parks, visits to these places are an opportunity for memorable family bonding and can bring history to life for a powerful learning experience. This series includes tips and educational resources for visiting some of the most amazing landmarks our country has to offer with your kids. Some may be in your backyard, while others require a longer trip, but all are well worth a visit.

In October 1921, Benton Mackaye, a regional planner, introduced the idea of the Appalachian Trail in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. The original plan for the trail focused on work camps along the Appalachian Mountains from New Hampshire to North Carolina. These camps were intended to provide people a retreat from the industrial cities and an opportunity to study and work in nature. The trail itself wasn’t so much intended for the joy of hiking, but rather for the purpose of connecting the camps. However, the hiking community quickly took interest in the project.

In 1925, the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was formed as the organization responsible for making Mackaye’s vision a reality. However, it wasn’t until three years later when Myron Avery, a lawyer and hiking enthusiast, got involved that real progress began. By this point, the focus of the AT, as hikers often call the trail, had shifted from the original plan for work camps to a more hiker-centric trail intended for recreation. Mackaye had taken a less active role in the project by this point.

Under Avery’s leadership, work crews of volunteers labored for the next several years, blazing a trail through the wilderness. They worked tirelessly, clearing and mapping the route, publishing guidebooks, and negotiating with parks and local governments to secure land rights to protect the path they were creating. These crews eventually became regional trail clubs, each responsible for a particular section of the trail. To this day, these clubs are the AT’s caretakers. The Appalachian Trail was first completed on August 14, 1937. It ran an estimated 2,000 miles from Mt. Oglethorpe, Georgia, to the peak of Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

That was just the beginning. The trail is ever changing and today looks quite different from its original form. Whole sections have been rerouted to offer better views, move the trail to protected lands, or simply provide a more pleasant hiking experience. The southern terminus moved to Springer Mountain, Georgia, from Mt. Oglethorpe. Now a continuous 2,181 mile path running through 14 states, the AT conquers mountains and delves into deep secretive valleys. It strolls through fields and small towns and travels across bridges to find the other sides of streams and rivers. While the original work camps never came to be, there are shelters—typically a three-sided log building with a sleeping platform and fire pit—all along the trail to offer hikers a convenient place to unroll their sleeping bags for the night.

Hikers come from all over the globe and all walks of life to spend time on the AT. Some come for a day, some for an epic six month “thru-hike.” No matter how long or short their journeys, however, all hikers share in the same basic philosophies that fueled the original visions of both Mackaye and Avery—a respect for and love of the natural world.

My Trail Adventure (so far)

Back in 2007, I took a six-mile hike along the AT from Keys Gap to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, near my home. I was so enthralled by the adventure and solitude of this trek, that I set forth on a challenge to myself that I would hike the entire trail. My job and home life can’t quite accommodate a six-month absence, so I am what’s known as a “section hiker.” I am trying to finish the trail in sections. As of this writing, I have hiked 82 hikes (mostly day hikes). Most of them are solo hikes but some are with friends. I’ve hiked sections as far south as Tennessee and as far north as Massachusetts. I’ve covered 767.8 miles, just over 35 percent of the trail. I’ve got 1,416.4 miles to go.

I’ve seen plenty of snakes, turtles, and deer, and even a couple of bears. Some of my favorite memories are picking wild blueberries as I hiked along a ridge in New York, camping in a shelter all to myself near Delaware Water Gap, and sitting at the top of a random mountain overlook in the middle of winter with silent snow blowing up from the valley instead of down. Adventures I look forward to are conquering the top of Mt. Katahdin, testing my resolve in the “100-mile wilderness,” and hiking through fields of wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia. I hope to be able to finish the trail by 2028 and look forward to all of the challenges and adventures to come on the way to that goal.

You can check out my hike journal at

Interesting Facts about the Appalachian Trail

  • The trail is marked by 2 x 6 inch white rectangles called “blazes” that are painted on trees and rocks and sometimes structures.
  • There are approximately 165,000 blazes on the trail.
  • Famous “thru-hikers”
    • 1947: Earl Shaffer, the first person to ever thru-hike the trail
    • 1952: Mildred Norman, the first female thru-hiker
    • 1990: Bill Irwin, the first blind person to complete a thru-hike
    • 2013: Neva “Chipmunk” Warren, the youngest person to complete a solo thru-hike (15 years old in 2013)
  • In 2014, of the estimated 2,864 attempted “thru-hikes,” only 799 hikers reportedly completed it (many drop out in the first quarter; others simply run out of time or money).
  • Thru-hikers stop in towns for resupplies of food and to replace broken gear.
  • Hikers often have trail names, typically given to them by other hikers along their journey. For instance, Mildred Norman’s trail name was “Peace Pilgrim.”
  • There are wild ponies along the AT where it passes through Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park.
  • There are more than 250 Shelters along the AT.
  • It’s estimated that it takes about five million steps to complete a thru-hike.
  • Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smokey Mountains is the highest point on the trail at 6,643 feet.

Books and Related Resources

 Questions for Discussion

  • What do you think you’d need to take on a “thru-hike”?
  • What sort of challenges do you think hikers face?
  • If you were planning a hiking trail, where would it go and why?

Educational Places to Visit Near the Trail

All of these locations are either right along the trail or within 1/4 mile of it.

Harpers Ferry / ATC

Considered the spiritual center of the Appalachian Trail, this town is rich in history and natural wonder.

Trailside Museums and Zoo

A zoo and museums are right by the trail in Bear Mountain State Park, New York.

Washington Monument State Park

The first ever monument in honor of George Washington (long before the one in Washington D.C.) sits about 50 yards with a beautiful mountain top view.

Appalachian Trail Museum

This museum in Pennsylvania’s Pine Grove Furnace State Park is home to artifacts from the early days of the trail and exhibits about its history.

Image Credit – Robert Jagger / CC by 2.0

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