By Kristen Laine
If someone says "Appalachian Trail" to you, chances are you think of trail-hardened hikers carrying 40-pound packs, covering 15 or 20 miles a day on steep and gnarly paths, day after day after day. These are thru-hikers, the small number of people each year who hike all 2,170 miles of the trail between Georgia and Maine.
You probably don't conjure up a picture of families carrying day packs and hiking moderate, easy-to-follow trails. But numerous spots along the trail offer opportunities for kid-friendly hikes. Try any of the following 10 day hikes in the AMC region to introduce your children to the joys of hiking the Appalachian Trail. Each hike has been selected for ease of access, walking, and navigation, and for destinations and other attractions that appeal to children, such as waterfalls and ice cream. All of the hikes are under 8 miles round-trip. Their level of difficulty ranges from short river walks to a challenging but moderate hike to a summit above treeline.
Most thru-hikers start in Georgia and hike north with the spring. We're giving you the hikes below in "flip-flop" order, from north to south.
Where: Penobscot River and Baxter Ponds
What: Walks along a river and to tumbling cascades
Why we chose it: Two options for enjoying Maine's wild water
The traditional end point of the Appalachian Trail is the summit of Katahdin, in Baxter State Park. These two hikes focus on another aspect of the Maine wilderness, its water. For one, follow the West Branch of the Penobscot River, where massive log drives once fed Bangor's sawmills, north nearly 4 miles from Abol Campground on level ground. Or for a shorter hike on the same trail, traveling in the opposite direction, start inside Baxter State Park at Daicey Pond Campground and walk south less than a mile downhill to thundering Big Niagara Falls and a rock overlook.
Where: Mount Moosilauke
What: The first summit above treeline on the northbound AT
Why we chose it: A classic introduction to alpine hiking
Northbound thru-hikers consider Mount Moosilauke (4,802 feet) on the southwestern edge of the White Mountains the first truly alpine summit on the AT. White blazes mark the Glencliff Trail up to South Peak and on to the summit. The roundtrip is 7.8 miles and 3,300 feet of elevation gain—a full day with young hikers—and should not be attempted in poor or uncertain weather. Nonetheless, the moderate grade and nearby Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, which offers rooms and cabins for rent and family-style dining in season, make it a favorite with families ready to tackle the higher ranges.
Where: Little Rock Pond
What: A classic Green Mountain hike to a mountain pond
Why we chose it: Granite boulders, swimming, and fishing
For 95 of the AT's 146 miles in Vermont, it shares the path with the Long Trail, which covers the length of the state. This hike on the shared trail is 2 gentle miles to one of the most-loved of the mountain lakes in the Green Mountains, which makes it a perfect AT hike for children. Alas, it's perfect for nearly everyone else, too, so don't expect a wilderness experience. Little Rock Pond, elevation 1,850 feet, is stocked with trout; there are several camping options at the pond.
Where: Upper Goose Pond between Tyringham and Becket
What: A pristine pond in the heart of the Berkshires
Why we chose it: So many options—a day hike, a paddle, an overnight, part of a stay in the Berkshires
Upper Goose Pond is tucked between two state parks (October Mountain and Beartown) and only a mile from Interstate 90, but 700 acres around the pond is protected as part of the Appalachian Trail corridor. The 0.5-mile spur trail to the pond can be reached from the north (begin at a trail crossing at US 20) in 2.5 miles, and from the south in 2.7 miles, starting from Goose Pond Road. A seasonal thru-hikers' cabin at the northern end of the pond is staffed by AMC Berkshire Chapter volunteers; tent platforms are open to other hikers. The upper pond is easily accessed from the more developed lower pond, opening up the possibility of two groups covering the distance to the cabin on foot and by paddle and switching for the return. The cabin, which has been called "the Hilton of Huts," makes a good destination even if you're not spending the night. Or picnic on the lawn and watch a performance at nearby Jacob's Pillow, one of the country's most prestigious summer dance festivals.
Where: Housatonic River near Kent
What: A river ramble
Why we chose it: The longest flat section on the AT
This level path along the Housatonic River is also the AT's longest river walk, according to the authors of AMC's Best Day Hikes in Connecticut. René Laubach and Charles W. G. Smith recommend a 3-mile section along an old roadbed, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy suggests a 1-mile loop. This is a great introduction to the Appalachian Trail for small children, with water play as an option all along the path.
Where: Bear Mountain State Park and Harriman State Park
What: A summit hike
Why we chose it: The "Lemon Squeezer" on some of the first AT trail miles ever built.
In April 1922, six months after regional planner Benton MacKaye first proposed the building of the Appalachian Trail, members of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference scouted possible trails in Bear Mountain and Harriman state parks. The trail up from the Ramapo Valley to the summit of Island Pond Mountain (4 miles roundtrip, 550 feet elevation gain) includes 2 of the first 6 miles of the AT ever blazed. It also includes the "Lemon Squeezer," a narrow passage through split rock a tenth of a mile from the summit. If the squeeze is too much, make lemonade with an easy bypass to the top.
Where: Wawayanda State Park
What: A level loop hike on a wild plateau
Why we chose it: Rhododendron and hemlock groves, a lake, and ruins
About 20 miles of the Appalachian Trail run through 34,000-acre Wawayanda State Park in northern New Jersey. The park incorporates both recent history (a preserved 19th-century mountain farm and old iron mines) and ancient history, in some of the oldest bedrock along the length of the AT. The New York-New Jersey Trail Conference recommends a 6-mile loop on the AT and several side trails. The loop passes through thick groves of hemlock and rhododendron, skirts the shoreline of Wawayanda Lake, and passes ruins of the Wawayanda iron furnace.
Where: Pine Grove Furnace State Park
What: A summit hike
Why we chose it: History and the AT's halfway point
From Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the summit of Piney Mountain, elevation 1,450 feet, makes a fine day hike, at 7.6-miles roundtrip. For thru-hikers, an even more important point comes at 1.8 miles along the trail: a sign and trail register marking the halfway point of the AT. The trail also intersects with various points in American history. Next to the park, the Ironmaster's Mansion, now a youth hostel, is said to have operated as a stop on the underground railroad, where a false floor in a first-floor closet hid fleeing slaves. Ice cream, including the thru-hiker's "half-gallon," is available at the park's general store; the Appalachian Trail Museum is just across the street.
Where: Crampton Gap
What: Pleasant ridgetop walk south or north
Why we chose it: Civil War history and historic Harpers Ferry
Out-and-back hikes heading north or south from a mountain gap offer pleasant ridgetop walks and Civil War history. To the north, a gentle 700-foot ascent leads to the ridge and White Rocks, whose quartzite cliffs are a pleasant lunch spot and turnaround point for a 7-mile roundtrip. To the south, an even mellower 250-foot climb leads to a "green tunnel" along the ridgeline of South Mountain, site of an important Civil War battle. You can follow the trail all 9.8 miles to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and home to several museums. Or turn around before a steep descent of Weverton Cliffs begins at 5.8 miles.
Where: Big Flat Mountain, Shenandoah National Park
What: A child-friendly introduction to the AT
Why we chose it: Easy access, gentle terrain, and numerous loop and side-trail options
For the approximately 100 miles that the Appalachian Trail runs through Shenandoah National Park, it seldom strays more than a mile from Skyline Drive, the park's main road. This makes for unusually easy access to the trail, and dozens of blue-blazed side trails make for a completely customizable hiking experience. To take advantage of the numerous opportunities, stay at Loft Mtn. Campground, where the AT follows along the edge of the campground. A 3.4-mile roundtrip hike south from the campground takes you to the Doyles River gorge; hiking north from the campground (between 4 and 5 miles roundtrip) takes you to Big Flat Mountain's spectacular overlooks.
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Tip of the Day
Buy a simple net for catching butterflies and head for a meadow. Bring crayons and paper to draw your own butterflies (and if you do catch any real ones, free them after a quick look).