5 Amazing Appalachian Trail Day Hikes

Enjoy quick access and highlight-reel scenery on these classic routes.

Adventurers from all over the world dream of thru-hiking the storied Appalachian Trail—the original long-distance hiking trail and the longest hiking-only trail in the world. It stretches for more than 2,000 miles and traverses 14 states, and it’s been around for almost 100 years. But don’t let the numbers be intimidating. The good news is that you don’t have to take six months off work to enjoy the whole trail. In fact, more than half of America’s population is within a day’s drive of the AT, and there are hundreds of amazing sections that you can reach in just a weekend. Here are five amazing AT day hikes to give you a taste of America’s favorite trail. 

Charlies Bunion, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN

Twelve million people a year can’t be wrong: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited preserve in the entire National Park system, and for good reason. In addition to its proximity to city centers like Atlanta and Knoxville (which is just a half hour away), the park provides a classic Appalachian Mountain experience. Think dense forest, thousands of miles of rivers and streams, A-list wildlife, and views that go on forever. One of our favorites routes: The eight-mile out-and-back hike along the AT to Charlies Bunion, starting from the Newfound Gap parking lot. Add in great spring wildflowers, an AT shelter, and a panoramic view from the rock outcropping that is Charlies Bunion, and you’ll be glad you huffed it up 1,600 feet in elevation to get there. Fog can sock in that view, though, so check the weather before heading out. (Note that pets aren’t allowed on most national park backcountry trails, including this one.) Details: There are no fees, and the trail is open year-round. 

Grayson Highlands State Park to Jefferson National Forest, VA 

What’s there to say about the AT through Grayson Highlands? In a word: ponies. Southern Appalachia is famous for its so-called “balds,” or open grassy summits where you would otherwise expect to see a forest. Wild ponies were introduced here in the 1970s to maintain the balds through their grazing, and today some 100 of them mingle with hikers. For spectacular views of the scenery and ponies alike, start at Massie Gap and take the Rhododendron Trail to the AT. From there, head north into Jefferson National Forest to Wilburn Ridge. This out-and-back hike is four miles total. There are many contiguous trails here, so loop hikes are also possible. Do not approach or feed the ponies and be sure to leash your pets. For day use, the park is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and there’s an admission/parking fee (up to $10).

Split Rock, Harpers Ferry, WV

The “psychological halfway point” of an AT thru-hike is Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It’s also home to the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a nonprofit that helps maintain and advocate for the AT. A great day hike starts at the ATC Harpers Ferry Visitor Center, where thru-hikers register their arrival and get their photos taken (the halfway point by mileage is some 75 miles north of here but with no such fanfare). From the ATC headquarters, head south through the town and historical park that is Harpers Ferry. Cross a bridge over the wide, riffling Shenandoah River. Then ascend into Loudoun Heights to Split Rock, an outcropping where you can turn around for a view of Harpers Ferry at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. This out-and-back hike is seven miles. Here you’re just an hour upriver from Washington, D.C. but amid scenery like this, you’d never know it. Leashed pets are allowed. Trails are open daily during daylight hours; an entrance pass to Harpers Ferry required ($20/vehicle).

Lemon Squeezer, Harriman State Park, NY

The AT isn’t all views from mountaintops. Get a totally different experience hiking through the Lemon Squeezer at New York’s Harriman State Park, where the AT passes through a narrow rock hallway and requires a little bit of scrambling. Even better? It’s just an hour north of New York City by car or train. (Note: If you take the train, you’ll need to use a car-sharing app or another method of transportation to get from the station to the AT, though there are closer trails within walking distance.) Start at the Elk Pen parking lot and hike the AT east (going “northbound,” in AT parlance) through the woods and past Island Pond. Run up the spur trail to soak in the view, then retrace your steps and continue to mile two where you’ll hike through the Lemon Squeezer. To make a loop, take a right at the Lemon Squeezer onto the Arden Surebridge (AS) Trail and loop back another 3.5 miles to the trailhead. There are 200 miles of trail in this park, including many that intersect with the AT, so options abound. The park is open daily from dawn to dusk. Depending on where you park and when, there may be a parking fee (no fees at Elk Pen). Leashed dogs are permitted.   

Mount Lafayette, Franconia Notch State Park to White Mountains National Forest, NH

This 9.3-mile portion of the AT, which summits three peaks by way of a narrow ridge with expansive views of the Presidential Range, is a New England classic. And that’s before you even get to waterfalls, an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, and other points of interest that make the surrounding Franconia Notch State Park a popular destination just two hours north of Boston. Park by the start of the Falling Waters Trail. Follow the trail up the mountain and past its namesake waterfalls. At the summit of Little Haystack Mountain above treeline, pick up the AT and continue north to Mount Lincoln and then Mount Lafayette. Return by way of the Greenleaf Trail to the Old Bridle Path Trail; the AMC Greenleaf Hut is on the way down. (“Hut” is sort of a misnomer—the Greenleaf is a solar-powered, staffed refuge that sleeps 48 and offers breakfast and dinner during the summer to fall season). If you come on a summer or fall weekend, beware of limited parking. If the lots are full, park at I-93 exit 34C and pick up a shuttle bus to the trailhead. Leashed dogs are permitted, but make sure yours can handle some serious elevation gain.

Be a Good Steward

Like what you found on the Appalachian Trail? Help keep it that way. Approximately 3 million people hike along the AT every year, so Leave No Trace practices are imperative. Consider going a step further and volunteering in order to keep the AT going for the next 100 years. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.