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It turns out there's more than one way to experience the Appalachian Trail. Yes, it's true that hikers have the obvious edge - and probably better views - when it comes to navigating the legendary route that connects the peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, from Maine's Mt. Katahdin to Georgia's Springer Mountain.
The "AT" has been around long enough to amass a rather large group of fans. It was one of the very first installments in the National Trail System when it was officially sanctioned by Congress back in 1968. But the 2,144 mile-long footpath was actually forged during earlier times, in the 1920s and '30s, by volunteer hikers. In keeping with a proud tradition of volunteerism, the campsites and rugged shelters associated with the Appalachian Trail are still largely maintained today by the hikers who rely on them.
Fortunately for auto or RV travelers, the pedestrian's version of the Appalachian Trail runs in reasonably close conjunction with a series of scenic, lightly traveled, two-lane roadways stretching through the thick pine forests of Maine all the way down to Georgia's lush woods. Drivers and their passengers can take a rolling tour of the AT's regional variety and natural grandeur, visiting a whole host of interesting communities, nature preserves, and attractions along the way. It's certainly a ride to savor and remember.
New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest summit in New England, is the northern point of origin for your scenic Appalachian highway adventure. Start the journey by taking Route 16 out of Gorham, and you'll soon be driving through the wooded, White Mountain landscape of Pinkham Notch. Next, just after the signature Jackson Covered Bridge, comes the valley resort town of Jackson, a precursor to the village of Glen.
Take US 302 as it follows the Saco River up into the fresh forests of Crawford Notch. Then proceed to the 6,000-foot-plus elevation of Mt. Washington, where vistas of steep granite walls and waterfalls are simply spectacular. Cut through Twin Mountain, then follow US Highway 3 through Lincoln's shopping/skiing district, and run past the peaceful New Hampshire hamlet of North Woodstock.
Pick up Highway 118 into Warren, where the town square's novel centerpiece is a 70-foot Redstone missile transplanted from an arsenal in Alabama. Fortunately, it isn't loaded. Follow Route 25A to Orford and sprint through stately Hanover, home of the illustrious Dartmouth College. Once you make it past the quiet, appealing town of Lebanon, you'll be riding high up in the hills and down into the dales of rural Vermont.
The Green Mountain State is a great place to catch a glimpse of small-town New England. In Vermont, Highway 25A takes you through a former train hub known as White River Junction and Quechee, on the Ottauquechee River, where you just might hook some feisty rainbow or brook trout. Pick up US 4 to Bridgewater, with its medley of shops, and Plymouth Notch, where you can tour the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site. The deftly restored (circa 1920's) Coolidge homestead includes a simple schoolhouse, church, general store, and cheese factory.
After your cheese snack revival in Plymouth Notch, follow Highway 100 into Ludlow, at the base of 3,300-foot-tall Mount Okemo. If you're yearning to test your consumer skills after so many placid, countrified miles on Highway 100, check out the well-stocked Vermont Country store in Weston and browse through all the usual trappings of civilization at the popular ski areas of Londonderry, Jamaica, and West Dover.
Roll onto Route 9 from Wilmington on the Deerfield River to Bennington, where you can study a grand collection of Grandma Moses paintings at the city's museum. Head south on US 7 after this artistic pause, over the border into Massachusetts, the enchanting land of the Berkshires.
You'll continue on US 7 all the way through a western slice of the Bay State, passing by Williamstown and Massachusetts's highest point, Mount Greylock, where assorted hiking and biking trails yield inspiring views. Soon to follow is Pittsfield, site of Herman Melville's Arrowhead Estate and Berkshires farm. In Stockbridge, you can tour the former residence and namesake museum of Norman Rockwell. The Rockwell art collection at the gallery in Stockbridge is both extensive and highly entertaining.
After a short drive farther south to Great Barrington, travelers should break out of their vehicles, shake the rust off their legs, and take a leisurely walking tour of the city's unpretentious downtown shopping district.
Next comes the northwest portion of Connecticut, where your drive-by tour of the Appalachian Trail continues on US 7. In this, The Constitution State, you'll cruise through Norfolk and past the vintage New England town of West Cornwall on the Housatonic River. When you reach the town of Kent, be sure to pore over the antiques and art venues on Main Street before sprinting through Danbury, a bedroom community outside of NYC.
The ensuing phase in your AT parallel journey is the push through northeastern New York State, where you're destined to zip down the Interstate 84 corridor across the mighty Hudson River, through Port Jervis, and into Pennsylvania.
In the Keystone State, you'll head south on US 209, passing through Delaware Water Gap in the Lehigh Valley. This is a terrific spot to cast a fishing line or paddle a canoe for a close-up view of the Delaware River. After a refreshing river stopover, pick up Route 611 into Allentown and take a look at a local church's unique Liberty Bell Shrine, then follow US 222 to the city of Reading, situated on the Schuykill River.
A pass through Lancaster, on the outskirts of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, provides a glimpse of the state's rural lifestyle. All around the area you'll discover beautiful scenery complete with one-room schoolhouses and wooden, covered bridges. This relaxing atmosphere and a variety of unique attractions make the Lancaster area a favorite travel stop. Along the Susquehanna River scenic overlooks offer breathtaking views of the river below. The hills are more pronounced around the western and southern parts of the county. Although Lancaster embodies a character all its own, towns like Strasburg, Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse and Paradise offer their own individuality and a distinctive village atmosphere. One of the most popular symbols of Lancaster County is the covered bridge and there are still 28 intact examples here. The area also boasts a number of local wineries, microbreweries and, if you're interested in shopping, over 240 factory outlet stores with quality and name-brand merchandise.
A quick trip into nearby Mennonite and Amish communities reveals residents traveling in horse-drawn carts and women on front porches, sewing hand-crafted quilts. Be sure to pick up some home-baked goodies while you're there since nobody (and we mean, nobody) bakes like the Amish. If your family fancies the distinctive flavor and "goo quotient" of molasses, be sure to sample a fine regional treat like Shoo Fly Pie before leaving.
Once outside Lancaster, take Highway 222 through Hallam and over to York, a city on the Susquehanna River best recognized for its manufacture of barbells and Harley Davidson motorcycles. Before departing Pennsylvania, proceed on US 30 to Gettysburg, site of the National Military Park of the same name. Recollections of President Abraham Lincoln's masterful address, scores of monuments perched on hallowed grounds, and an expansive cache of wartime memorabilia are all part and parcel of this 6,000-acre scene. A massive re-enactment event packs 'em in every summer. Take plenty of time to check out the detailed exhibits at the park's visitor center, and consider joining a guided tour to make the most of your visit to historic Gettysburg.
Continue your road trip by following US 15 into Maryland for a brief swing through the forests of Catoctin Mountains Park, which encompasses Camp David, an Old Line State getaway for U.S. presidents. Keep driving through Maryland on Highway 77 then switch off onto Route 66 on the way to Boonsboro, home of Washington Monument State Park.
Proceed over the Potomac River and down Highway 67 into the eastern edge of West Virginia, to the charming town of Harper's Ferry. Graced by the waters of the Shenandoah River as well as the Potomac, most of the acreage of Harper's Ferry is a designated historic site. As you continue to travel through the Mountain State, pick up US 340 through Charles Town's resort area and across the border into fair Virginia.
In the state that's called "The Mother of Presidents", you'll first travel through Berryville and into Front Royal on the Shenandoah River, where the historic town center is well worth a look. Just south of Front Royal, Shenandoah National Park, a preferred destination for autumn leaf enthusiasts, is particularly well-known for its Skyline Drive running directly parallel with the hiker's Appalachian Trail. Here, the incredible scenic views are plentiful and readily accessible. Hiking paths on the Appalachian Trail are very easy to reach from the vantage point on Skyline Drive, so every visitor should don a pair of walking shoes and spend at least a few hours exploring the pedestrian trails, as well as the standard roadways.
From Waynesboro, Virginia, US 250 and I-64 take you to Charlottesville to the east and Staunton to the west. Nearby, the road to the west goes to Cave Mountain Lake, 7 miles away, in Jefferson National Forest. Swimming, picnicking, and camping are available.
Peaks of Otter has been a popular location to see spectacular views and sunrises since the days of Thomas Jefferson. A shuttle bus provides passenger service to Sharp Top.
After you exit Virginia's Shenandoah National Park at Waynesboro, continue driving south via the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway, which connects mountaintops for a total distance of more than 460 miles, all the way to the Smoky Mountain range in North Carolina. The Blue Ridge Parkway, sometimes called "America's Favorite Drive", provides both stunning scenery and close-up looks at the natural and cultural history of the southern Appalachian mountains. It is designed as a drive-awhile and stop-awhile experience, so please don't be in a hurry.
Constructed during a 32-year period beginning in 1935, the parkway follows the mountain chain and provides lengthy views of many parallel ranges connected by cross ranges and scattered hills. From Shenandoah National Park the parkway follows the Blue Ridge, eastern rampart of the Appalachians, for 355 miles. Then, for the remaining 114 miles, it skirts the southern end of the massive Black Mountains (named for the dark green spruce and fir that cover them), then weaves through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, the Balsams, and ends in the Great Smokies. The area is thick with trees and flowering shrubs and, come fall, many of them burst into rich color. Dogwood, sourwood, and blackgum turn deep red in late September. Tulip-trees and hickories turn bright yellow, sassafras a vivid orange, and red maples add their multi-colored brilliance. Various oaks display a dash of russet and maroon while evergreens fill in the blanks, completing a beautiful forest quilt.
The Blue Ridge Parkway rolls through super-scenic Blowing Rock, a site named after a stony ledge that exhibits awesome wind-induced special effects. Next comes two fun towns: Little Switzerland, with its Euro-style resort inn, gem mine, and eclectic museums, while the town of Asheville is the site of the Biltmore Estate's luxurious 19th-century mansion and gardens.
Traveling farther south in Carolina, the Parkway takes you through the foothills of the Great Smokies in Maggie Valley, then into Cherokee, home of the Cherokee Indian Reservation and tribe-owned, Harrah's Casino. Stop by the town's Main Street Visitor Center to sort through the wide variety of tourist attractions available in and around Cherokee. First and foremost, the community offers easy access to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Plan to hike the trail up to the observation tower at Clingman's Dome, the Smokies' tallest peak, while you're there.
Be forewarned that, as you continue driving south on US 23, amateur gemologists in your vehicle will likely clamor to pull over for a field trip in Franklin. At several different establishments in Franklin, a town located on the Little Tennessee River, visitors can sort through piles of mined rocks, while scouting for potentially precious sapphires or star rubies.
As you enter the final leg of your AT trip, you'll pick up US 441 on the way into Georgia, where the Appalachian Trail's southern portion originates and cuts through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Stay on US 441 as it steers past Clayton, the planet's fruitcake capital. Allow enough time to relish the dramatic views at Tallulah Gorge's scenic point overlook before concluding your Appalachian Trail adventure - in the vicinity of cosmopolitan Atlanta, Georgia.