The Appalachian Mountains is a low mountain range in the east of the United States. One of the most famous long-distance hikes in the world, the Appalachian Trail, extends the entire length of the mountains. A thru-hike is a huge challenge that takes four to six months to cover the 3,500 kilometers. For those who don't like six months of hiking, or just want a different challenge, there is the Alternative Appalachian Trail (AAT), a triathlon of hiking, cycling and canoeing. It is an ultimate combination of nature and culture, right through the eastern states of the US. The Appalachian Trail takes you far away from civilization, surrounded by green nature. The bike brings you back among the people and is the perfect way to sniff the culture in the rolling landscapes of Pennsylvania and New York. The apotheosis is The Northern Forest Canoe Trail on ancient trade routes used by indigenous people. You will see the United States in a way that not many people have seen and when you finally arrive in Fort Kent, in the northernmost tip of Maine, you are in top condition, both physically and mentally. Ready for the adventure?
The Alternative Appalachian Trail is an adventure with three major building blocks. You can adjust those building blocks in the way you want. For example, we hiked 1,000 kilometers and we cycled 1,200 kilometers, but you can easily play with this. On the Alternative Appalachian Trail you complete the entire Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It is possible to start the canoe trip at a different starting point, but we recommend starting from the starting point in Old Forge. The first part is one of the most beautiful parts of the entire trail.
Part 1: Hiking, the Appalachian Trail, 1,000 kilometers
The adventure starts at the starting point of the Appalachian Trail, Springer Mountain. It is the official start of the full Appalachian Trail where more than 3,000 hikers start their thru-hike every year. The southern part of the Appalachian Trail is mountainous and remote. From the first day you hike on the narrow path from mountain top to mountain top. Your muscles will be tested, as well as your mental resilience. After ten days you develop hiking legs and 20 kilometers a day becomes a normal daily distance. If you follow the trail 1,000 kilometers, you will end up in Paerisburg, Virginia. You will find all the information for the Appalachian Trail in the summer in this blog.
Part 2: Cycling, Virginia to New York, 1,200 kilometers
With a trained body and hiking legs you jump on the bicycle in Virginia. Whoever thought that the hiking is a good training for cycling, will be disappointed. You immediately start with the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Skyline Drive with long and tough climbs. The legs will hurt and you will have a sore but. After the Shenandoah National Park the hills are lower, but you get a rolling landscape with infinite small hills. You cycle through the industrial landscape of small farms and red barns. The states of Pennsylvania and New York feel a bit more European and you will regularly see Amish and Mennonites on the way to Old Forge.
Part 3: Canoe, the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, 1,200 kilometers
Old Forge is the starting point of The Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 1,200 kilometer long canoe trail, once the trade routes of the indigenous peoples. It is the longest mapped canoe trip in the US and a unique mix of culture and nature. It is also one of the toughest canoe trips in the world with 250 kilometers of upstream travelling and nearly 150 kilometers of portages. But don't worry, after cycling and hiking, canoeing is relaxing and enjoying. Physically you are in top condition and mentally you have had enough difficult moments to overcome the trail. On the way you will pass Mount Kathadin, the official end point of the Appalachian Trail, but the end of the canoe trip and the Alternative Appalachian Trail is in Fort Kent in northern Maine.
The AAT has no exact distance because there are so many different options with the cycling part. We covered the following distances:
- Hiking: 1039 kilometers, 46 days. On average more than 25 kilometers per day. These are tough and long walking days.
- Cycling: 1170 kilometers, 11 days. On average more than 100 kilometers per day. This was too much, but because we didn't want to start the canoe trip too late, we were in a hurry. Take at least an extra week for cycling.
- Canoe: 1161 kilometers, 52 days. A normal average with occasional long days. According to many, the ideal time to start the NFCT is June, but we are convinced that starting the NFCT in August is the best option.
In total we covered 3,370 kilometers in 109 days. We took three rest days between walking and cycling, while we needed nine days between cycling and canoeing. The preparation for canoeing took much more time because it was completely new to us. We recommend a minimum of four months for the Alternative Appalachian Trail.
To complete a thru-hike within six months, most hikers start in March or April. The start date for the Alternative Appalachian Trail is not that strict. The end date is determined by the start of the winter in the north. From October the temperature drops with nights below freezing and the chance on snow. We got out of the canoe on October 7 and had a very cold last week. It is possible to be in the water until the end of October, but you will need more winter clothing on the last part.
Our starting date was 9 June, so we started hiking late and with time pressure. We had long and tough days while hiking and cycling to start the canoe trip in time. Our advice is to start no later than the end of May.
The Alternative Appalachian Trail is not only a physical and mental challenge, but also logistically it is not easy. We arrived in Georgia by bike and changed our bikes for the backpacks. Thanks to the help of a number of trail angels, our bikes were waiting for us in Virginia, so we could quickly cycle to Old Forge.
The start of the AT in Springer Mountain is only accessible by private transport. There are enough taxi services that offer this trip. After 1,000 kilometers you will arrive in Paerisburg where the trail almost goes through the village, a lot easier. If you don't have your own bike, you can buy a second-hand bike in Paerisburg or Blacksburg, which you can later sell in Old Forge. Once in Old Forge, Mountainman Outdoor Supply Company is your address. The outdoor company has a huge range of canoes and all the gear you need. You can buy a new canoe or a second-hand one. They always have a whole series of canoes on offer for great prizes. Once in Fort Kent you can try to sell your canoe at Pelletiers Campground.
A large group of thru-hikers are hiking the Appalachian Trail from north to south. For the Alternative Appalachian Trail we would never recommend this. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is not really suitable to do in the other direction. Until now there is only one person who has done the canoe trip from north to south. Unless you want to paddle 450 miles upstream...
On our WeLeaf Youtube channel you will find all our videos about our hike, the cycling and the canoeing.