Town stopsWhen Earl Shaffer completed the first thru-hike of the AT in 1948 he spent only one night off the trail. Making that feat even more impressive is the fact that he didn't have a tent, and shelters were few and far between. Then again, Earl, didn't mind sleeping on the ground, wrapped up in an army surplus poncho and sheltering under a fallen tree.
I'm not so tough.
|A real bed, a shower, TV, and a Subway next door! Near Atkins, VA, 2013.|
On my longer trips I've found that getting off the trail every 4th night or so is a welcome break. It gives me a chance to take a shower, wash your clothes, and sit down and eat a meal that isn't in a 1.5-liter titanium pot.
But where to stay? Fortunately you're never really that far from a town on the AT. Even with a modest pace, you're likely to encounter an opportunity to make a town stop every 4-5 days -- or even more often in heavily populated areas like the mid-Atlantic.
Sometimes the trail leads directly into town, and lodging options, meals, and other services are in easy walking distance. In other areas you may need to hitch a few miles or call for a ride to get into town. The trail cuts right through towns like Hot Springs, NC and Damascus, VA, and they're very popular stops with AT hikers.
|Hiking into Damascus, VA, 2014.|
LodgingWhen you're tired of sleeping in the woods, you've got options. In larger towns and near many road intersections there are motels, both local and chains. Many offer reduced hiker rates, and they're often near other services, like restaurants and stores. Motels have the advantage of privacy and a higher level of amenities, like endless hot showers, TV, and a free continental breakfast. I fondly remember hunkering down on a comfy bed with a pile of junk food in Atkins, VA, watching the "Indiana Jones" trilogy on TV, recovering from 5 days of hiking while washing/drying my gear and recharging for the next section. And in the morning I demolished the breakfast, plus packed enough for my lunch...
Likewise, some hikers choose a local Bed and Breakfast for their stay off the trail. Generally that's a somewhat more pricey option, though some B and B's in trail towns offer special rates for hikers.
A more genuine "trail experience" is to stay at a hiker hostel. Hostels can be hard to classify, since there's no real standard as to what a hostel is, or what it offers. Expect bunk rooms, shared bath rooms, and common areas which may include kitchen and laundry privileges, and varying levels of housekeeping. But you can always count on them to be cheaper than a motel -- I've spent as little as $5 (suggested donation), or as much as $30 for a "Hiker's Special" -- bunk, shower, towel, a frozen pizza, a pint of Ben and Jerry's, and a Coke. Money well spent in the latter case.
On the high end, there are hostels like Bears Den in northern Virginia. Run by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), Bear's Den is a beautiful old stone vacation home, converted into accommodations for hikers.
|Bears Den Hostel, 2010 -- every bit as nice as it looks!|
One the other end of the spectrum you'll find a variety of establishments of varying quality and very different vibes. These can range from a legendary trail stop in Tennessee that's an absolute dump (no names mentioned), to Woods Hole Hostel, a working organic farm (amazing food and company!) There are plenty of AT forums where you can get the skinny on hostels and other lodging options. A good place to start is this list at whiteblaze.net -- investigate the forums for other hiker's experiences to see if your lodging choice is a good fit for you.
|Hikers relaxing on the porch at Woods Hole Hostel, 2013.|