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From Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail winds through forests, gorges and over mountaintops. But just as important as the trail's scenic beauty are the communities through which it passes.

The small towns that edge the AT do more than offer reprieve to the weary thru-hiker; they are often outdoor hubs, enriched by trail culture. And you don't have to commit to all 2,200 miles to experience these unique communities. Here's how to see five of these nearby towns through the eyes of a thru-hiker.

 

Blairsville, Georgia

Drive from Chattanooga: 1 hour, 58 minutes

Distance from trailhead to city center: 12.5 miles

To get from the trail to the town, thru-hikers must call a shuttle service — though the beauty of Blairsville is that you can take a break from the trail without ever leaving it. The Walasi Yi Center at Mountain Crossings serves as a hostel, supply station and the trail's first official mail-drop and is located on the trail itself. It is the only man-made structure through which the AT passes.

Where to stay:

Bunks at the Walasi Yi hostel are available for $20/night and include a shower and towel. Pets are not permitted in the hostel, but free, pet-friendly camping is available just 200 yards behind the building.

Where to eat:

While Walasi Yi sells some groceries, thru-hikers in search of a sit-down meal will happily venture into the city for these two favorites:

>>> The Blairsville Restaurant, featuring an all-you-can-eat Southern style buffet for $8.99 (buffets are a thru-hiker's best friend)

>>> Hole in the Wall, famous for its enormous breakfasts

 

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Chattanooga Times Free Press file photo / Though the city of Helen, Georgia, is located 9 miles from the AT trailhead, hikers often make the detour for a chance to experience the one-of-a-kind German inspired town.

Helen, Georgia

Drive from Chattanooga: 2 hours, 38 minutes

Distance from trailhead to city center: 9 miles

To get from the trailhead to Helen, thru-hikers must again call a shuttle service — and many do. Often ranked among the favorite cities of thru-hikers, Helen is famous for its Bavarian style buildings, making the town unlike any other on the AT. And once in town, it's easy to find free shuttles back to the trail.

Where to stay:

The most affordable place to sleep in the city, and therefore a go-to for hikers, is Hofbrau Riverfront Hotel, where rooms begin at $55/night.

What to eat:

>>> Betty's Country Store, located just down the street from the Hofbrau Hotel, offers groceries and deli sandwiches plus free shuttle drop-offs to Unicoi Gap trailhead

>>> Bigg Daddys, famous for its burgers, not to mention cheap daily specials

 

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Photo by Stacey Geyer / Festival-goers gather for the annual ducky race on Spring Creek, a premier event during Hot Springs' annual Trailfest.

Hot Springs, North Carolina

Drive from Chattanooga: 3 hours

Distance from trailhead to city center: 0 miles

For northbound hikers, Hot Springs is the first town the AT travels directly through, making it one of the best-known towns along the trail. One of the best times to visit is the end of April, when Hot Springs celebrates its status as a trail town during its annual, weekend-long Trailfest.

Where to stay:

The Sunnybank Inn has been accommodating hikers since 1948. For thru-hikers, it offers rooms for $25/night. For everybody else, it's $40/night. (Pets are not permitted and reservations are required.)

What to eat:

There are two standout favorites among thru-hikers, both with most menu items for $10 or less:

>>> Smoky Mountain Diner, beloved for its 12-ounce "Hungry Hiker" burger

>>> Spring Creek Tavern, featuring 12 special beers on tap

 

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Photo by Carl Wilcox / A popular spot for thru-hikers to layover, Uncle Johnny's hostel is located a minute's walk from the Appalachian Trail in Erwin, Tennessee.

Erwin, Tennessee

Drive from Chattanooga: 3 hours, 35 minutes

Distance from trailhead to city center: 4 miles

Located alongside the picturesque Nolichucky Gorge, Erwin is an easy stop. A hostel located just off the trail offers free shuttle rides into town.

Where to stay:

A minute's walk off the AT, Uncle Johnny's hostel offers bunk rooms for $22.50/night or private cabins for $40/night. Thru-hikers receive a 10% discount. The hostel also offers free shuttle service and a common computer, and laundry service is available.

Where to eat:

>>> Pizza Plus, featuring an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet which includes a salad bar, drink and dessert pizza for $8.99

>>> Los Jalapenos Mexican Restaurant, located next door to Walmart, making it a convenient place to resupply

 

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Chattanooga Times Free Press file photo / Roan Mountain, Tennessee, is considered one of the most scenic sections of the Appalachian Trail due to its high-elevation balds.

Roan Mountain, Tennessee

Drive from Chattanooga: 3 hours, 48 minutes

Distance from trailhead to city center: 4 miles

Crossing three high-elevation balds, Roan Mountain is considered one of the most scenic sections of the AT. Though home to just over 1,000 residents, the small town has become a hub for thru-hikers, mostly due to one trail-famous restaurant.

Where to stay:

The pet-friendly Mountain Harbour functions as both a hostel and a bed and breakfast. Hostel bunks range from $25-55/night, bed and breakfast rooms begin at $145 and tent camping is available for $10/night. For a small fee, the lodge offers shuttle services for all hikers.

Where to eat:

>>> Bob's Dairyland, voted "Best Restaurant on the AT" by thru-hikers

>>> The Station at 19E, a pub, music venue and hostel located just 1/2 mile from the trailhead

 

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Photo by Horizonline Pictures / Damascus, Virginia, is one of the AT's best-known trail towns and is frequently referred to as the "friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail."

Damascus, Virginia

Drive from Chattanooga: 3 hours, 49 minutes

Distance from trailhead to city center: 0 miles

Known as the "friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail," Damascus has long embraced the AT as a vital part of the town's culture and economy. Every May, the city hosts Trail Days festival, attracting tens of thousands of people from across the country in celebration of the trail and its culture. This year the three-day fest is scheduled for May 15-17.

Where to stay:

There is no shortage of hiker-friendly hostels in Damascus, but the Woodchuck Hostel is a standout. Once voted "Best Appalachian Trail Hostel" by thru-hikers, the pet-friendly lodge offers an all-you-can-eat waffle breakfast and daily complimentary shuttle rides to resupply. Bunks are $28/night, cabins are 45/night and tent camping is $15/night.

Where to eat:

>>> Mojo's Trailside Cafe, voted best restaurant in the city and known for its fresh-brewed coffee and chef-inspired dishes that don't break a budget

>>> Damascus Old Mill Inn, a bit pricier but a thru-hiker favorite due to its unique atmosphere and local beers on tap

The Official Trail Towns of the AT

In 2010, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy launched the Appalachian Trail Community program, designed to help support the towns that support the trail. To become an officially designated trail community, towns must apply to the program and commit to helping protect the trail through land management or through annual volunteer events or educational programs.

The ATC has officially designated 46 trail communities, including the five explored in this story. To see a complete list of communities, visit appalachiantrail.org/home/conservation/a-t-community-program.

 

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