Westerners who hike Oregon's Columbia River area can enter a gorge up to 1200 feet deep and see dozens of scenic waterfalls pouring down the cliffs. Wonders like the Grand Canyon and the Great Sand Dune attract travelers from all over the world. Perhaps the most famous hiking destination, though, is the Appalachian Trail.
Stretching for more than 2000 miles from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia, the Appalachian Trail is the longest continuously marked foot trail in the world.
The "A.T.," as it's known, traverses fourteen states and challenges approximately 2,000 hikers every year to try to "thru-hike" the trail, which is to start at one end, usually Georgia, and hike to the other end in Maine. This requires considerable advance planning and a good support system.
To help the backpackers, more than 250 shelters are maintained along the way. These tend to be simple structures with raised floors and three enclosed sides with the fourth one open. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I've seen shelters with heavy gauge steel across the open side to discourage the large black bear population from trying to share the shelter with you.
It's thrilling enough to see these animals while you're out in the open, but you wouldn't want to share your bed with them.
These shelters contain logbooks in which A.T. Trail users can share pretty much whatever they want. One entry in a log book located at a shelter in the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area in Virginia provided some comic relief. A young woman hiking solo had somehow locked herself in the outhouse. Trying to get out, she had climbed up on the door, which moved the outside latch enough to allow the door to swing open with her clinging spread-eagled to it. What a sight that must have been!
An estimated total of two to three million hikers hit the Trail annually to engage in anything from short day hikes to weekend backpack trips to "section" hiking, where hikers do the entire trail, picking different sections to do each year until they've hiked the whole thing.
While hiking along, you may run into volunteers from a local chapter of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, headquartered in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, doing maintenance work. They do everything from pulling out invasive plant species to rebuilding bridges and shelters as well as arguing about the best outhouse design.
Those arguments can get quite heated and help spice up otherwise dull meetings. Recently it seems, the federal government has been requiring these outhouses to be handicapped accessible. Now how many handicapped people, do you think, hike the A.T., bearing in mind that it tends to be quite rugged, rocky and steep in many places?
I've never encountered any such hikers, although I have run into male hikers in kilts. They claim the kilts are more comfortable. Speaking of comfortable, I've also run into totally naked hikers, except for their backpacks and boots. One young and naked couple I passed one time claimed that it was "Naked Hikers Day." Yeah, right.
One of my favorite sections of the Trail passes through Grayson-Highlands State Park in southwestern Virginia. This park was created to show off some fine examples of southern "balds," treeless summits that have elicited considerable debate as to how they got that way. Dramatic views can be seen from these balds as well as wild ponies that are fun to encounter while you hike along.
I was lucky enough to come across a small group of them once that included young foals as well as adults. They don't seem particularly shy and it's very tempting to try to get close enough to touch them, but the park rules say not to. However, they are a welcome sight while plodding along.
The A.T. is a remarkable trail with some pretty remarkable people using it. Numerous access points exist, making it easy to hike whatever section you want. Often other local trails intersect it, creating some interesting loop hikes.
Backpackers can't always bring enough potable water with them to last long trips, and thus need to depend on natural sources along their route. Sometimes they may come across good spring water that is safe to drink, but that can't be counted on.
Since much water in the wild is contaminated from animal, sometimes even human, waste products, it must be purified before being fit to drink. Drinking it without first purifying it can make you very sick. Now boiling works fine but involves quite a bit of effort and resources, such as a fire and a pot. Easier and quicker solutions involve the use of water treatment tablets.
One type of tablet is made from chlorine dioxide to kill the germs. Another type uses crystallized iodine that destroys pathogens that filters may miss. And then you have filters that combine carbon and antimicrobial particles to kill those nasty little critters that you can't see but can have unfortunate effects on your body. These particular methods are nice in that they are inexpensive and quite portable. A supply large enough to treat all the water you'll need on an extended camping trip can easily be carried in your backpack.