The initial idea for the trail came to Benton MacKaye shortly after his wife committed suicide in 1921. MacKaye (pronounced mah-KYE) was a Harvard-trained forester. His grand plan was to construct a trail for city-dwellers to get away from the noise and pollution of the city. Along the trail would be a series of farms and work/study camps, and it would stretch along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.
MacKaye and several enthusiastic supporters formed the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) in 1925. As many ideas do, however, this one took a while to catch hold. It wasn't until the early 1930s that the trail began to take shape, just as the vision for the trail was reshaped into a simpler idea of a long hiking path from Georgia to Maine.
Though the Depression would cause many projects to whither, the Appalachian Trail benefitted greatly during this time. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was enlisted to help with many construction projects, as were hiking clubs in every state the trail crossed. Sections of the trail, signs and shelters were added at such an active pace that by 1937 the trail was declared completed.
It wasn't really completed, though, as there were some sections that traversed along roads or over private property. It would be decades before those problems were solved.
During this time, no one thought it would be possible to hike the entire trail from one end to the other, nor did they think anyone would want to undertake that challenge.
Large portions of the trail were severely damaged in 1938 by a hurricane, and when World War II hit, the trail suffered more from neglect.
After the war the trail received the reviving spirit it needed when Earl V. Shaffer pieced together the trail and walked the entire distance. Shaffer was a veteran of the war, and he said he walked the trail to walk off the war.
The next big milestone in the trail's history happened in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Trails System Act. The legislation named the Appalachian Trail as the first national scenic trail and placed it under the jurisdiction of the national park system.
Now with the backing of the federal government, land was acquired at a much greater pace, and finally in 2014 the last section of trail was placed under permanent ownership.
Although the state and federal governments own most of the land, the trail remains the responsibility of the ATC, now called the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the many local hiking clubs.
The length of the trail varies slightly from year to year as the trail gets relocated and improved, but it is generally just under 2190 miles long. It runs across 14 states and over most of the tallest mountains in the Appalachian chain.
Each year, thousands of people attempt to hike all of the AT, but only about 25 percent complete it in one year.
There is no official way to hike the AT. Hikers may start at one end or the other, or they may choose to start their hike from another location, then after they reach one end "flip flop" back to their starting point and hike in the opposite direction to complete the rest of the trail they missed.
Along the trail a series of simple shelters have been constructed for hikers to stop for the night. Most shelters are made of a platform with three-sides and a slanted roof, providing enough room for 6 to 12 hikers to have a dry space for sleeping. Shelters often are located near a spring or other water source, and they may have a privy and cables for hanging food away from bears and other forest animals.
Because they trail is normally in remote wilderness areas, hikers are cut off from most of society until they stop into a nearby town for resupply and recuperation.