How to Plan the Perfect Trip to the Appalachian Mountains — Home to the 2,194-mile Hiking Trail and Gorgeous Small Towns

·7 min read
Fall in Shenandoah National Park
Fall in Shenandoah National Park

Courtesy of Appalachian Trail Conservancy

Let's quickly get this out of the way. Yes, you should plan a trip to the Appalachian mountains this year.

"Millions of people from across the globe visit the Appalachian Mountains each year," Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, shared with Travel + Leisure. "These ancient mountains contain some of the world's best recreational experiences and awe-inspiring conservation areas, including the 2,194-mile Appalachian Trail we are so fortunate to manage and protect. Hundreds of historic towns and destinations are found throughout the region, providing gateways for people to explore these landscapes for just a day or even months on end — and to help protect them for a lifetime."

And, as Marra noted, with many of America's largest cities a short drive away, the Appalachians are accessible for millions of vacationers. But there's more to this stretch of America than the famed trail running through it. Here are a few select regions and destinations to experience in the Appalachian Mountains this year.

West Virginia

We're giving the aptly named Mountain State a well-deserved standalone section as it's the only state that lies entirely within the Appalachian mountain range. It possesses every ounce of beauty you'd expect from John Denver's famous tune "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The state boasts enchanting whistle-stops, uncrowded parks, and cinematic vistas. Hike, bike, rock climb, whitewater raft, or picnic at parks like the New River Gorge National Park & Preserve, Harpers Ferry Historical National Park, and landmark locales like Seneca Rocks and Dolly Sods Wilderness, both in the Monongahela National Forest.

For your West Virginian escape, make Adventures on the Gorge near Fayetteville your base camp. The resort's lodging options include everything from deluxe cabins and glamping sites to rustic cabins and campgrounds. No matter where you stay, be sure to savor West Virginia's Appalachian cuisine, where fresh food reigns supreme, thanks to the state boasting the highest percentage of family-owned farms in the nation.

2 bedroom Deluxe Cabin at Adventures on the Gorge
2 bedroom Deluxe Cabin at Adventures on the Gorge

Courtesy of Adventures on the Gorge

Allegany County, Maryland

Cyclists, grab your helmets and get ready to pedal. Make Frostburg, Maryland, in Allegany County, the "Mountain Side of Maryland," your base. The idyllic town of some 8,550 residents gives biking and hiking enthusiasts easy access to the Great Allegany Passage (a.k.a. Gap Trail), a biking/hiking trail that connects Cumberland, Maryland, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The main part of town in Frostburg, in Western Maryland
The main part of town in Frostburg, in Western Maryland

Doug Sanford/Courtesy of Maryland Office of Tourism

If you prefer to ditch your hiking boots or bike, the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad's excursion train travels from Cumberland to Frostburg. We're also big fans of Tracks and Yaks' new rail bike outing on custom-made two- or four-person rail bikes, where you embark on a guided journey from the Frostburg Depot to Cash Valley, then return to Frostburg via shuttle buses. For those looking to soak up the culture of the region, time your visit around the annual Appalachian Festival, which happens in September at Frostburg University, featuring a full lineup of films, concerts, dance, storytelling, and more.

Since Allegany County is so outdoor-oriented, the sunshine and extra hours of daylight in the summer make it a particularly welcome time to visit. When you venture to GAP Trail, be sure to visit Green Ridge State Forest, which comes with some 80 miles of developed hiking and biking trails. The Green Ridge State Forest Driving Tour is another great way to soak up the area's beauty, including trees galore and the Potomac River. And perhaps stop for a scoop or two along the Allegany County Ice Cream Trail.

Allegany County Sunrise
Allegany County Sunrise

Courtesy of MDMountainside.com

High Country, North Carolina

Located in the mountains of North Carolina, the High Country is brimming with fun in the summer and fall. The postcard-worthy small towns of Banner Elk, Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock, Boone, West Jefferson, and Sparta along the Blue Ridge Parkway offer distinct charms, but wherever you journey, be sure to see Grandfather Mountain. You'll drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to visit this gorgeous peak studded with rare plant species. While there (if you aren't scared of heights), stroll across Grandfather Mountain Mile High Bridge.

Aerial view of Grandfather Mtn Suspension Bridge
Aerial view of Grandfather Mtn Suspension Bridge

Courtesy Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

About 45 minutes away, scope out Beech Mountain. Post up in West Jefferson at a vacation rental like Lazy Daze Cabin before spending the next day floating on a tube along the New River, one of the oldest rivers in the world, with High Mountain Expeditions. To hop on the Appalachian Trail, head to Roan Mountain, about 40 minutes from Grandfather Mountain.

Aerial view of New River State Park
Aerial view of New River State Park

Courtesy of HighCountryHost.com

The Kentucky Wildlands, Kentucky

The Kentucky Wildlands may not be a household name, but it should be. This summer, plot your course up from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, famous in American colonial history for its role as a key passageway through the lower central Appalachians. Then, swing by Pine Mountain State Resort Park to roam along the Chained Rock Trail.

Grayson Lake Grotto in The Kentucky Wildlands
Grayson Lake Grotto in The Kentucky Wildlands

Courtesy of The Kentucky Wildlands

There's also The Country Music Highway, a stretch of U.S. 23 from Ashland, Kentucky, to the Virginia border, that's the birthplace of icons like Loretta Lynn and Chris Stapleton. After checking out Loretta Lynn's homeplace Butcher Holler, savor Kentucky's finest season: lake season. Jenny Wiley State Resort Park is best enjoyed on a pontoon boat rental at Dewey Lake. After you've idled the afternoon away, take a 15-minute drive to Prestonsburg to wander around downtown and stroll along the Passage Rail Trail, complete with a one-of-a-kind school bus bridge.

While outdoor adventure dominates in these bucolic parts, the area's coal mining history is worth noting. Tour Kentucky's first exhibition coal mine at Portal 31 in Harlan County to educate yourself about one such coal camp which housed people of 38 nationalities in the early part of the 20th century. Finally, don't skip town without witnessing some of the region's stunning waterfalls, such as the one along Bad Branch Trail, about 25 minutes from Portal 31.

Ulster and Dutchess Counties, New York

New Yorkers have surprisingly easy access to the A.T. Our most treasured picks are Ulster and Dutchess counties.

Ulster County's section of the Appalachian Mountain area features Mohonk Preserve (book a stay at Mohonk Mountain House and thank us later), Minnewaska State Park, and Sam's Point Preserve. August typically welcomes an impressive host of festivals, including the Blueberry Festival in Ellenville and Hudson Valley RibFest in New Paltz.

If you're seeking outdoor digs, camp at the Samuel F. Pryor III Shawangunk Gateway Campground in Gardiner, then walk or bike the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, a 22-mile-long path that follows the course of the former Wallkill Valley Railroad. We also recommend seeing the Mohonk Testimonial Gatehouse, which acts as a trailhead for hiking and cycling, and Huguenot Street, a 10-acre National Historic Landmark District in New Paltz, New York.

If all this exploration has got you working up a sweat, jump into a local swimming hole like Split Rock Coxing Kill or Tillson Lake in Minnewaska State Park.

The main street of Pawling in Dutchess County
The main street of Pawling in Dutchess County

Courtesy of Dutchess County

Over in Dutchess County, let Pawling serve as your launch pad for entertainment. We'd be remiss in not pointing you toward finding the oldest tree on the entire Appalachian Trail in Pawling as you hike the Great Swamp to check out the 300-year-old Dover Oak.

The village of Pawling is filled with beautiful homes, 300 acres of parkland, and small-town hospitality. Feast on American fare at McKinney & Doyle, freshly baked pastries and sourdough from Pawling Bread Co., or fresh mozzarella and burrata made daily from Vinny's Del.

The Berkshires, Massachusetts

The exterior of Porches Inn at MASS MoCA
The exterior of Porches Inn at MASS MoCA

Steve Holmes/Courtesy of The Porches Inn at MASS MoCA

If your A.T. experience takes you north to New England this summer, enjoy warm weather frolicking in The Berkshires. Specifically, head to state parks like Wahconah Falls State ParkMount Greylock State ReservationNatural Bridge State Park, or mosey around the celebrated Mohawk Trail.

During warmer months, we especially swoon for the vistas at Mount Greylock. As the highest point in Massachusetts, you can see as far as 90 miles away from the mountain's peak, across four states and five mountain ranges. The park's 12,500 acres include 50 miles of trails crisscrossing the mountain, with the A.T. carving a route up the middle of Mount Greylock for 12 miles.

For a cultural treat, visit the nearby MASS MoCA, one of the largest contemporary art museums in the U.S. Come nightfall, Porches Inn at MASS MoCA, a 27-room inn with fireplaces and, well, lots of porches, is a great bet, as is Tourists for a glamping overnight.

The exterior of Bascom Lodge
The exterior of Bascom Lodge

Courtesy of Bascom Lodge

Perri Ormont Blumberg is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. She's based in New York City, but is always dreaming of the Catskill Mountains. Follow her on Twitter @66PerriStreet.