WHEN I PULLED UP TO THE TRAILHEAD, I was dubious. On the tailgate of a pickup parked in the middle of the road next to the wilderness gate sat a man decked in camo and blaze orange eating Spam out of the can with a Buck knife. "You goin' hikin'?" he asked, with a friendly, brown-toothed grin. I nodded. "Be careful with them bear hunters up there."
Though I kept a close watch for gun-toting Tennesseans, I didn't see a soul on my eight-mile jaunt. I followed the new Appalachian Trailthis portion was recently rerouted for better viewswhich lumbers over rocky, airy Firescald Ridge, tracing the TennesseeNorth Carolina state line to the Jerry Cabin Shelter. I was only out for a day hike, so on the way back to the car I traveled the old decommissioned section of the AT, a fast dirt track just below the ridge. I cruised through tunnels of rhododendrons, ogled at the blue-hued Smokies from Big Firescald Knob, and savored the blissful isolation. This was the Appalachian Trail at its finest.
Conceived in the 1920s by forester Benton MacKaye as an ambitious scheme to connect the highest peak in the Northeast, New Hampshire's 6,288-foot Mount Washington, with the highest peak in the South, North Carolina's 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, the AT has since evolved into a 2,175-mile thread of wilderness that crosses 14 states, eight national forests, and six national-park units, including Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains. Along the way, a through-hike from Georgia's Springer Mountain to Maine's Mount Katahdin has also become a rite of passage for many an eastern outdoorsman.
Growing up hiking in New England, I was long entranced by the ubiquitous white blazes. But while walking the entire AT appealed in a theoretical sense, I wasn't exactly mixing tubs of gorp: The trip generally takes four to six months, approximately five million footsteps, and more than anyone's fair share of long, lonely days. Instead, I hatched my own plan: I'd experience the Appalachian Trail the easy way. I wouldn't hike it in one continuous slog, and I certainly wouldn't hike every last yard. I'd take a lazier, downright pleasant approach, tracing roads nearest the trail by car, from the backwoods hollers of North Carolina to the historic battlegrounds of West Virginia, then hiking the most scenic sections of trail by day and bedding down in snug lodges by night.
The day before Firescald Ridge, I hiked a plum five-mile section of trail from Lemon Gap to Max Patch, a large, flat, grassy bald with panoramic views of the Smokies that made me want to stretch out and nap. Ascending gently through sparse forest and blackberry brambles, I met an entertaining cross section of the trail's devotees: a family out to take their Christmas photo, a white-bearded through-hiker whose trail name was Wildcat (he handed me his card with his trail-journal Web address), a couple snoozing in the grass, and a 60-year-old hiker whose trail name was Buttons; he'd once been a clown. On other days, as on Firescald, I had sections of the trail all to myself.
AFTER MAX PATCH, I stopped in Hot Springs (pop. 640), a remote North Carolina community that has attracted tourists with its hot mineral waters since the early 1800s. Still catching up to the 21st century, it has a charming mix of down-home comfort and 21st-century luxury. I stayed at the brand-new Bright Leaf Junction Hotel, a renovated haberdashery and boardinghouse with a mix of brightly colored plush furniture and walls, vintage tin ceilings, and heart-of-pine floors. At the Bright Leaf's bar, I polished off a bottle of cabernet with Doug Hoyt, a fellow walker in his late fifties who had also adopted the more, shall we say, genial approach to AT through-hiking. "I mean, it's a tunnel of trees!" he said of hiking the entire trail, sloshing his wine in its glass. "You're ready for submarine duty after that! For moi, nuh-unh."
The following night, I leisurely made my way through a three-course meal, including a tasty spiced roasted-chestnut soup, at nearby Mountain Magnolia Inn & Retreat. Before bed, I soaked in a claw-foot tub next to the French Broad River at the Hot Springs Resort & Spa. But the next morning, I experienced the opposite end of the spectrum: grits, eggs, and biscuits with gravy for $3.99 at the Smoky Mountain Diner. Cell reception in this town? No way. The one gas station wasn't even open on Sundays. It was a subtle reminder that the AT isn't just a slice of the East's natural assets; it's also a cross section of its historical and cultural landscapes.
In Virginia, after I hiked the AT up a wooded ridge to the Chestnut Knob Shelter, the fog lifted just enough for me to see Burkes Garden, a fertile, five-by-ten-mile farm valley that looks like it hasn't changed in centuries. "People say Burkes Garden is like God's thumbprint," said my hiking partner, Karl Kunkel, whom I had met through the local hiking club. After our workout, we wound our way down dirt roads into the valley. At intersections, white signs were painted with family names and the distances to their homes, rather than street names. The only business we could find, the general store, was a perfect stop for hot chocolate, which the proprietor warmed in a saucepan while we sat next to the wood-burning stove.
As I strung together small snitches of trail with swaths of scenic highway, I realized that this is the beauty of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. True to its full name, it is not all about getting from point A to point B. It's more like a greatest-hits collection of the East's wildlands and mountain towns. For through-hikers, this means plenty of what they call PUDs, or Pointless Ups and Downs. But as a day hiker, there's no rush to tick off another 20-mile day, and the AT becomes something different: a blend of tuckering hikes, rewarding views, and creature comforts. Buttons told me that for most through-hikers the AT is an escape from normal life during a time of transitiona graduation, marriage, divorce, retirement. As for my approach, it's a normal life I'd happily live every day.
NO NEED TO PLOD through a tunnel of trees for six months to enjoy the Appalachian Trail. Pull up to any of these six base camps for view-packed day hikes, comfy inns, swank spas, and hot springs.
Hot Springs is only 35 miles northwest of Asheville, but the forested mountains make it feel a lot more remote. Hike a 12-mile loop straight north of town on the Round Top Ridge Trail and the new AT to the Rich Mountain Lookout, which offers impressive views of the Greeneville Valley. It's also worth the 16-mile drive to Lemon Gap for the five-mile hike through rhododendrons to Max Patch. The newly renovated Bright Leaf Junction Hotel and Restaurant (doubles from $69; 828-622-9358, www.brightleafjunction.com) has comfy wood-floored rooms with skylights and whirlpools. Post-hike, loosen up those worn muscles across the street in a hot tub at Hot Springs Resort & Spa ($10 per person before 6 p.m.$25 after; 828-622-7676, www.nchotsprings.com).
From Massey Gap , in Grayson Highlands State Park, hike a rocky ten-mile loop through highland meadows dotted with wild peonies along the Appalachian Spur Trail, the Appalachian Trail, and the Crest Trail. Tonight's stop is the quaint, five-room White Birches Inn (doubles from $139; 800-247-2437, www.whitebirchesinn.com), a former residence in Abingdon, Virginia, 15 miles northwest of the trail town of Damascus. Sip wine in the whirlpool tub, then raid the video library and space out over a flick. Sore? The spa at Abingdon's Martha Washington Inn (doubles from $179; 276-628-3161, www.marthawashingtoninn.com) has a full massage menu.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains , just south of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, make camp at Smithfield Farm Bed and Breakfast (doubles from $165; 877-955-4389, www.smithfieldfarm.com), a restored 1824 brick manor house. Warning: You won't want to leave after innkeeper Betsy Pritchard's three-course breakfast, including eggs and spicy pork sausage from the family's 350 acres. Pritchard is the seventh generation to work the land, part of which her grandfather donated to help form theAppalachian Trail corridor. Drive 15 minutes north and hike five miles through the historic district of Harpers Ferry, along the Shenandoah River, and up to Weverton Cliffs. You'll goggle at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.
Mountain hikes in Massachusetts are mellower than those in the Smokiesbut just as beautiful. For views of the Catskills and Mount Everett, one of the state's tallest mountains, hike a steep mile from Benedict Pond to the Ledges. After a dip back in the pond, hit the hay less than ten minutes away at Gedney Farm (doubles from $225; 800-286-3139, www.gedneyfarm.com), a renovated 1907 barn and turn-of-the-century mansion with 16 cozy rooms with wood-burning fireplaces, Moroccan rugs, and skylights over whirlpool tubs. The property's new Mepal Spa (413-229-3498, www.mepalspa.com) offers plenty of massage options.
The Green Mountains
Vermont's 150-mile section of the Appalachian Trail passes through rolling farmland, the Green Mountains, and forests of paper birch and white pine. For excellent views, drive three miles east of Wallingford and hike 2.3 miles through hemlocks to White Rocks Cliff. Castle Hill Resort and Spa (doubles from $159; 800-438-7908, www.castlehillresort.com), a historic governor's mansion, is just 20 miles southeast on Route 103. After checking in to one of the ten antique-filled rooms, grab a book and an overstuffed chair in the library.
Franconia Notch is the starting point for many spectacular hikes in the White Mountains. From Lafayette Place, just north of Woodstock, hike a nine-mile loop on the Falling Waters, Green Leaf, and Appalachian trailsyou'll be above tree line most of the time, with killer views of Mounts Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Eisenhower. In North Woodstock, bed down at the Three Rivers House (from $85, including breakfast; 800-241-2711, www.threerivershouse.com), a sprawling 13-room Victorian on the banks of the Lost River.