The longest and best-known hiking trail in the country, the Appalachian Trail winds from the North Woods of Maine all the way south to Georgia. While you won’t earn the same kudos driving as you would by walking, the following scenic roads come close to paralleling the pedestrian route, taking you through the almost continuous natural beauty without the sweat and blisters. Best of all, this driving route follows magnificently scenic two-lane roads all the way from the top of New England to the heart of Dixie, running past a wealth of fascinating towns and historic sites.
The Appalachian landscape holds some of the wealthiest, and some of the neediest, areas in the entire country. These contrasting worlds often sit within a few miles of one another: Every resort and retirement community seems to have its alter ego as a former mill town, now as dependent on tourism as they once were upon the land and its resources.
After an extended sojourn through the rugged and buggy wilds of northern Maine, where the hikers’ route winds to the top of Mt. Katahdin, our Appalachian Trail driving tour reaches an early high point atop windswept Mt. Washington in the heart of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. From these 6,000-foot peaks, the tallest mountains in New England and some of the hardest and most durable rocks on earth, the route winds through Vermont’s Green Mountains, taking in the idyllic charms of rural New England, with its summer homes and liberal-arts college communities. Beyond the Berkshires, the summer destination of the Boston and New York culture vultures and intelligentsia for most of two centuries, towns become even more prissy and pretty as we approach within commuting distance of New York City.
Skirting the Big Apple, our route ducks down through the Delaware Water Gap to enter the suddenly industrial Lehigh Valley, former land of coal and steel that’s now struggling to find an economic replacement. South of here, we pass through the heart of the world-famous Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where the simple life is under the onslaught of package tourism.
South from Pennsylvania, nearly to the end of the route in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail runs through continuous nature, with barely a city to be seen. Starting with Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, then following the Blue Ridge Parkway across the breathtaking mountains of western North Carolina, it’s all-American scenic highway all the way, with recommended detours east and west to visit such fascinating historic sights as Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, outside Charlottesville, Virginia; the most opulent mansion in America, Asheville’s Biltmore; the real-life town that inspired TV’s Mayberry RFD—Mount Airy, North Carolina; or the white water featured in the film Deliverance, north Georgia’s Chattooga River.
All in all, the Appalachian Trail is an amazing drive, whether or not you come for fall color.