Would you believe me if I told you the AT was designed to be hiked SOBO? It sounds crazy because over 80% of people who thru-hike the AT hike NOBO. So how could SOBO be the original plan? When Benton MacKaye released his proposal for an Appalachian Trail he marked the starting point as Mt.Katadin. In his proposal (which is free to read and I highly recommend) he said: “What is suggested, therefore, is a ‘long trail’ over the full length of the Appalachian skyline, from the highest peak in the north to the highest peak in the south -- from Mt. Washington to Mt.Mitchell.” This means the AT was designed to start in Maine.
Maine was a logical starting point because of the established trails in the North East. Benton MacKaye specifically cites the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the “Long Trail” He said
“The beginnings of an Appalachian trail already exist. They have been established for several years -- in various localities along the line. Especially good work in trail building has been accomplished by the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains of New Hampshire and by the Green Mountain Club in Vermont. The latter association has already built the "Long Trail" for 210 miles through the Green Mountains -- four-fifths of the distance from the Massachusetts line to the Canadian. Here is a project that will logically be extended.”
You can see remnants of the original plan on trail today. Many signs will say “Maine to Georiga” even though most hikers are going the opposite way.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter which way you thru-hike. When the trail was originally conceived it wasn’t even made to be thru-hiked. In 1948 when Earl Shaffer became the first thru-hiker members of the ATC were, at best, skeptical of Shaffer's claim. One member of the ATC said “Mr. Shaffer's immediate past experience had particularly conditioned him for a trip of this nature. It will probably be some time before anyone who attempts a through trip has the unusual experience and training that made it possible for Mr. Shaffer to succeed in such a journey.” Whether you hike NOBO or SOBO you now have a fun fact you can share with your fellow hikers!
About the Author
Olivia Magee oversees Social Media at Zpacks and helps monitor trends within the industry. Her contributions to the hiking community includes her work with the American Conservation Experience where she performed trail maintenance in the Smoky's and across the Southeast.