The Appalachian Trail turns 80

HOT SPRINGS, N.C. (WATE) -- It's often billed as the longest hiking only trail in the world and it's right in our backyard.

Now the Appalachian Trail it is celebrating 80 years since opening to the public. More than 250 miles of the trail runs through East Tennessee and North Carolina and many of the significant landmarks on the trail are within an hour and half drive.

The idea of a trail was first introduced back in 1921 by a regional planner named Benton Mackaye. He and supporters formed The Appalachian Trail Conference and some of the first trails were carved out, but progress was slow. By the early 1930s, two other men led The Appalachian Trail Conference getting some federal support and ultimately completing trail from Maine to Georgia by 1937.

More than 80 years ago, the idea of the Appalachian Trail was difficult to conceive: more than 2000 miles, many had to literally be carved into mountainsides. Photos from the National Park Service Archives show the Civilian Conservation Corps. helping to pave the way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Just last year, more than 4,000 people were tracked as "thru hikers" in the Smokies, meaning they hiked all 70 miles consecutively through the park and 50 more miles on each side. Thousands of others do smaller sections every day. Only one out of every four people who try to hike the entire trail succeed.

The highest point on the entire trail is in the Smokies at Clingman's Dome. The elevation 6,644 feet.

"People tell us when they have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, that the Smokies is the highlight," said Dana Soehn with the National Park Service.

As the trail twists and turns through 14 states, parts of the path might take hikers to some unexpected places. There are actually just over 40 trail communities. The Southernmost one is Hot Springs, just across the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

In Hot Springs, like the name suggests there is access to hourly soaks in tubs fed with mineral water from a nearby stream, lodging to suit any budget and one of only a few libraries right on the Appalachian Trail complete with free wifi and a computer lab.

"We actually did a survey to find out what other ways we could help them [hikers] and the things they wanted were coffee, a warm place and wi-fi," said Melanie Morgan, the Madison County Public Libraries Director.

Keep in mind don't have to do all +2,000 miles of the trail to enjoy it. In fact, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is inviting families of all ages and hiking abilities this weekend for a special Family Hiking Day.

Held on National Public Lands Day, Family Hiking Day is an opportunity to introduce your family to America's premier footpath and all of the benefits that come from being active and spending time outdoors. Visit the Appalachian Trail's website to find a Family Hiking Day event.

Related: Many to celebrate National Public Lands Day

Even if you're unable to join an official Family Hiking Day event, ​participants who walk on the Appalachian Trail with their family on September 30 and October 1 are invited to share their Family Hiking Day experiences for a chance to win one of four Osprey ​daypacks.

Photos and videos uploaded to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ATFamilyHike will be automatically entered into the contest. Entries can also be emailed to Amanda Wheelock at Winners will be announced in mid-October.

For more information on planning a​ family hike ​throughout the year and suggestions of family-friendly day hikes on the A.T., visit

More than 6,000 volunteers contribute more than 250,000 hours each year to keep the Appalachian Trail available for all to use. Volunteers are active in all aspects of trail work, from basic maintenance to major projects, such as building bridges and shelters and relocating sections of the Appalachian Trail.

More: Information on volunteering

Hikes for all skill levels

It's often billed as the longest hiking only trail in the world, but there are plenty of sections of hikes that intersect with the Appalachian Trail that are good for the whole family.

For many of the trails, hikers can hike a half mile or a half day. The distance is up to you.

Max Patch

  • 1.5 miles roundtrip
  • Moderate hike
  • Dog friendly
  • Grassy bald, 360 degree views

Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail on top of Max Patch Mountain near Hot Spring.

The 4,600 foot bald mountain was cleared and used as a pasture in the 1800s. Today, it offers a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge. On a clear day, see from Mt. Mitchell on the east to the Great Smoky Mountains on the south.

Lover's Leap

  • 2 milse roundtrip
  • Moderate, along French Broad River
  • Dog Friendly
  • Rocky overlook, spectacular views

Since the Appalachian Trail goes through the middle of Hot Springs, start from the center of downtown for this fun 1.6-mile loop hike to Lover's Leap. It only takes 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on how much time you take to enjoy the views and scenery.

There are large rock promontories along the way with great views of Hot Springs. For an extra treat, soak in the hot mineral springs after your hike.

Clingman's Dome

  • 1 mile roundtrip
  • Paved, steep
  • Not dog friendly
  • Landmark on trail

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.

Newfound Gap

  • 8.1 mile roundtrip
  • Strenuous, more experienced hikers
  • Not dog friendly
  • Panoramic views

Charlies Bunion is one of the most popular hikes in NewFound Gap. Hikers will travel eastbound along the Appalachian Trail to reach the rock outcropping.

The hike offers spectacular views of the mountains to the north, Mt. Kephart and the Jump Off to the west, and Mount Guyot towards the east. Due to the extremely steep drop-offs you'll definitely want to watch you're footing in this area.

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