It’s the ultimate Summer adventure. Pack a bag, hit the trail and walk…keep on walking…and then walk some more. If you’ve got what it takes to complete the trail (around 80% drop out before the end) you’ll pass through no less than 14 states ascending the equivalent of 16 Everests.
The Appalachian Trail runs 2200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine and a continuous hike of the whole thing or ‘thru-hike’ sits at the top of thousands of adventurous soul’s bucket lists, and rightly so.
Sadly, not everyone has the option of heading off into the hills for 6 months at the drop of a hat. Life has a habit of getting in the way of such expeditions.
Thankfully, countless hikers have paved the way before us, many of them documenting their treks in books and journals so we can vicariously follow in their footsteps.
Be warned! After reading these books, you wouldn’t be the first person to quit your job, buy a backpack and hit the Appalachian Trail.
I first heard about the Appalachian Trail in a magazine article and was fascinated. I Googled it. This book was one of the first hits. I like Bill Bryson so I bought it. I loved it.
Like many others, this book was my first real introduction to the AT and I am thankful for that. Bryson’s AT story gets a lot of stick from some ‘thru-hiking purists’ for a number of reasons that aren’t worth going into.
For me, it is amusing, informative and very well written. It’s got a great mixture of stories, interesting facts and vivid descriptions and is littered with that trademark Bryson brand of humour.
David ‘AWOL’ Miller is a bit of an Appalachian Trail Legend. He produces the most popular and comprehensive yearly data book for the AT, ‘The AT Guide’.
Forget the data guide until you actually get out on the trail. In the meantime, find out where it all began with ‘AWOL on the Appalachian Trail’.
This was the first proper AT trail-journal book that I read and it gave me a real sense of what life on a thru-hike must actually be like. There are reviews suggesting that this book is repetitive, and it is, but that’s no bad thing. This is a book about someone walking 2200 miles for goodness sake.
Miller gives a lot of detail and I loved hearing about each new person he met, what he ate, how the weather affected his walk and the severe bashing his feet received over miles and miles of trail – these are the important things that prospective thru-hikers need to know about.
Gary Sizer became a bit of a trail celebrity when his before and after photos from his 2014 AT thru-hike went viral. I had seen the photos, but I read the book not realising it was the same guy. I really enjoyed the “Ohhhh it’s him!” moment when I put two and two together… but I enjoyed this story so much more.
The book is as much about the two close friends Sizer made on the trail as it is about his own hike and I loved the way that their relationship grew stronger with each chapter. I wanted to be part of their ‘trail-gang’.
Sizer also paints a vivid picture of some pretty grim health issues he suffered on the trail; a valuable lesson for anyone considering such an undertaking.
A solid account of a hike well hiked. This book has everything you might hope for from a book about thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail but with the added bonus of Katana, Kyle’s trail dog.
Katana is an adorable little Shiba Inu who Rohrig playfully refers to as the ‘CatFox’. As a dog lover, I enjoyed this extra layer to the story and it was a delight hearing about Katana’s adventures on the trail.
The author has a very active Facebook page that he regularly updates with photos and videos so you can follow along with his and Katana’s adventures. He recently completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail.
This is a special treat for getting to the end of the post. This is my favourite AT book of all time. Ok technically it is not a book, it’s someone’s trail journals from a 1983 thru-hike that they have uploaded to a delightfully retro website for anyone to read, completely free of charge.
I accidentally stumbled across ‘Then The Hail Came’ on Whiteblaze.net where someone has kindly turned the whole thing into a Kindle/ereader book for people to download.
Despite being over 30 years old, this lengthy tome feels like it could have been written yesterday. The author is honest, witty and likeable and you feel every up and down that he does on the trail.
Initially, Steffanos appears amusingly bitter and cynical but over time his love for the trail and obvious desire to be around other people shines through and he turns out to be “some sort of nice guy”.
There is so much to love about this trail journal. I particularly loved the author’s wild flights of fancy that he left in various shelter registers along the way.
I could write an entire blog post about how much I enjoyed this book. But don’t just take my word for it; this forum thread on Whiteblaze.net is full of hikers and dreamers singing its praises.
After hiking the enjoyable, but well trodden path to Akchour Waterfall, Danny and I were hungry to find another challenge from our base in Chefchaouen. We’d heard tales of many wild and wonderful hikes throughout the Rif Mountains. From quick day trips to marijuana farms in the surrounding hills, to week long pilgrimages relying on the kindness of locals to put you up in their homes as you trek from village to village.
In the end we decided to aim for the summit of Jebel el Kelaa. This much-maligned mountain trail was once featured as a day hike in a popular Morocco guidebook, but adventure-seeking tourists found the directions too confusing to follow. Thus, online travel forums are littered with reports of people losing their way and going home disappointed, having failed to reach the summit. The hike has since been removed from the guidebook.
However, the trail still exists and with a little online research we found instructions and photographic directions on the fantastic Uneven Tenor website.
So with directions saved as screenshots on our phones and the thermometer tipping 30C, we set out to try and reach the summit of Jebel el Kelaa.
We climbed the stairs to the upper edge of the medina, stopping en route to pick up water, snacks, bread and soft goats cheese, a local delicacy we’d grown quite fond of.
Several early rising market traders tried half heartedly to sell us leather goods.
“La shukran (no thank you), we have a mountain to climb” we responded.
“I have the perfect shoes for climbing mountains” came their replies, as they pulled leather sandals out of leather bags to show us.
It was good to get out of town.
We stepped outside the medina and everything felt different. The walls were no longer bright blue, but the colour of sand. The blue theme remained, however, in the form of a huge cloudless sky; something that can often be forgotten about on the narrow winding streets of the medina.
Getting off to a typically bad start (see: Akchour hike) we took an immediate wrong turn and wasted a good half an hour faffing around looking at the directions and photos on our phones, holding up the images trying to match them to our surroundings.
Eventually we realised that we’d gone further along the route than we thought we had, skipped several steps in the directions and needlessly walked half a mile around the perimeter of the medina.
Oh well; this is clearly the way we do things. We have a hiccup at the very beginning of our adventures – this focuses the mind and means that we are razor sharp and on the very top of our game for the rest of the journey. Don’t worry about it.
Certain of our route now, we headed up a cactus lined path leading away from the city towards the mountains. The trail became very steep, very quickly and as the day around us grew hotter, visible waves of heat rose up causing the cacti to dance in front of us.
The hike was steep and exposed. At times, we had to crawl into small spaces under large rocks for a momentary escape from the sun. Wild dogs watched us from behind bushes as we walked steadily uphill. We’d been told to carry rocks incase the dogs got nasty but the only one that came anywhere near us was a cute puppy who we ended up petting and playing with.
It was challenging hike that made Akchour look like a stroll across Disneyland. The trail got so thin at times with an almost sheer drop off to our right, forcing us to cling onto rocks on our left as we walked.
Other times the ground leveled out and the trail disappeared entirely. We just had to walk upwards hoping to find it again. We always did, thankfully.
Both of us had been wondering whether we’d see any of the marijuana plants we’d heard so much about. Suspicious looking green plants would appear in the distance and we’d rush over for a look only to realise it was an overgrown clump of grass (grass grass, not grass).
After a while we forgot about the marijuana until after a couple more hours of sweaty walking we stopped still and came to the realisation that the huge fields surrounding us were not grassy meadows as we had thought, but huge expanses of the Rif Mountains’ famous herbal export.
There were a vast number of plants, especially considering marijuana is technically still illegal in Morocco. They were clearly beautifully cared for, a vivid green carpet stretching far into the distance.
We noticed a couple of farmhouses dotted around so we were careful not to linger too closely or for too long by the plants. The last thing we needed was a run in with an angry hashish farmer.
The trail goes right through the middle of the Marijuana fields, passing closely to a farmhouse. We walked by a spring where some girls were sitting in the shade of a tree washing clothes. We gave them a wave as we passed and they giggled at us.
‘Stupid sweaty pale idiots walking up a great big mountain on a day like this.’
Eventually the green plants disappeared and were replaced by prickly, scratchy low-lying bushes. The trail wound through these bushes and was difficult to follow at times. This no longer mattered as we could now clearly see the peak of Jebel el Kelaa. It was obvious where we needed to go.
The directions we were using describe the final scramble as a ‘choose your own adventure’ and they aren’t wrong. Before the final push we took cover in a small patch of shade underneath a large rock to eat our goats cheese sandwiches. I’d hidden 2 cans of coke at the bottom of my bag, hoping they would remain cool out of the sun. They weren’t hot, which was good enough.
The shady spot was small, dirty and uncomfortable and we bumped elbows as we constructed our sandwiches. Not quite the victorious picnic we had imagined but the thought of eating in the heat on the exposed summit was too much.
After lunch we walked around trying to figure out the best route to the summit. Of course, on the other side of the rock we found a large shaded ledge; perfect to sit on with amazing views down into the valley below… such is life.
We shook off this annoyance and headed for the summit. I don’t know if there was an official trail anymore but we certainly couldn’t find it. Instead, we just headed up any way we could, using those scratchy bushes to heave ourselves up the last few steep metres of the ascent.
I found out later that like me, Danny had had doubts that we’d make it. We found countless reports online of failed attempts and the oppressive heat didn’t help our case. But we persevered and after a gruelling four-hour climb we emerged onto the summit.
It was a special feeling made even more so by the magnificent view from the top. The valley on the other side of the mountain was filled with low clouds. It looked as if someone had emptied a giant Mr Whippy machine into the valley, and there we stood on top of the flake. (To be honest it was so hot, Danny was starting to look like a Calippo, too.)
On the way down we bumped into the owner of one of the marijuana farms and his family. I think he might have been dipping into his own supplies. When we refused his kind offer to come into his house for some tea and ‘samples’ he laughed maniacally and said “I understand, you prefer the cocaine!” while his three sons (I’m assuming they were his sons) stared at us like they wanted to kill us.
Laughing awkwardly, we shuffled away and picked up the pace. We took a slightly different route on the way down, making use of a 4×4 track that was several miles longer but much easier to navigate. It took us 3 hours to get back to Chefchaouen.
Along the track we bumped into a goat herder with a large tribe of goats. A few stragglers at the back took a fancy to Danny and I and followed us down the road. We turned around and did a little herding of our own, clapping our hands and shoeing them back towards the herder.
Things had clearly been going too smoothly on the descent so Danny decided we should take a shortcut through a pine forest, cutting off a large hairpin of road. What he didn’t realise was that this forest was on such a deceptively steep decline that we practically rolled the last mile into Chefchaouen, bouncing off of the trunks of pine trees as we went.
We arrived in town bruised, bloodied and battered but in great spirits. The same market traders who tried selling us shoes on the way out of town congratulated us on our feat before desperately trying to get us to buy leather goods again.
I politely declined and ducked into the nearest convenience store to buy the closest thing I could find to a Mr. Whippy.
We decided to try and keep it simple this time to give ourselves every chance of doing the impossible and actually completing an adventure without anything going wrong.
A few months previously I’d spent a couple of days walking a section of the North Downs Way. It was close enough to London that we could get the train there cheaply, plus it regularly passes through towns so we’d easily be able to get the train home after 2 days of walking.
So, early one Friday morning, we met at London Bridge Rail Station and hopped on a train to Merstham in Surrey, where I had finished my previous section hike on the North Downs Way.
We didn’t know a great deal about this section of the trail, but I knew it was well signposted from my previous walk so neither of us were worried about our severe lack of planning.
On the train to Surrey we split food and supplies equally between us and I looked up a blog post on the ‘Rambling Man’ website so we could have a sneak peek at the glorious ‘back to nature’ escape from the city weekend that lay ahead of us.
The first thing I saw as the page loaded was a large photograph of 6 lanes of M25. The first couple of paragraphs go on to detail how closely this section of the North Downs Way comes to some of the South’s largest and busiest roads.
I put my phone on aeroplane mode, shoved it back in my pocket and told Izzy that I didn’t have any signal.
Another reason for me wanting to get out of the city and into the woods was to try out a new hammock I’d recently acquired. I’d never wild camped in a hammock before and was really excited to give it a go – although at this point I was picturing myself slinging the thing up between 2 lampposts on the M25.
We arrived at Merstham and I was surprised to see Oyster Card readers on the gates at the station. It’s even easier to get out here than I thought.
We soon found the trail, which after a short while crossed over some motorways by bridge, under some more motorways by tunnel and, to our relief, headed into some suburban and eventually more rural territory. We walked down wooded pathways, through farmer’s fields and passed a garden containing the remains of a broken down aeroplane and a helicopter.
The motorway was often visible, and even when it wasn’t it could be heard rumbling away in the distance. It didn’t particularly bother me though, and after a while the sound faded into white noise. I actually quite enjoyed walking along the hills looking down at the network of roads and motorways below. It was a reminder of how nice it was to be enjoying the outdoors, rather than hurtling along the motorway or stuck in traffic.
The trail roughly follows a ridgeline with some great panoramic views and some well-placed benches. It dips sporadically in and out of the woods and throughout these wooded sections of trail I noticed the pungent smell of garlic in the air; specifically wild garlic I soon came to realise. We picked a few handfuls each and put them in our bags.
Eventually we began to see less and less of the motorways and finally we entered a large forest where we felt, at last, like we were in the countryside. Signs informed us that we were in Titsey Estate, a privately owned wood overseen by the Woodland Trust.
When I’d finished giggling at the word Titsey, I noticed a smaller side trail off to our right through a gate. We’d done about 10 miles by this point, roughly half way to Otford. I noticed several trees spaced far enough apart for a hammock and the ground was flat enough for Izzy to bivvy. It was perfect.
As we followed the path to find a camping spot we passed a beautiful viewpoint with a bench overlooking a huge valley and the grounds of an impressive manor house called Titsey Place.
My first foray into hammock hanging was a roaring success. Thanks to some handy “tree straps” I bought, I had the thing swinging in 2 minutes flat. I was dead chuffed and eagerly invited Izzy to try it out. Half an hour later I was still sat on the ground while she happily swung away.
I managed to drag Izzy out of my hammock and back to the viewing point to prepare dinner – tomato and wild garlic pasta. As we got our stoves ready, we came to the realisation that we had a very small amount of water between us. Much of this would be used to cook the pasta.
This was more of an issue for me, as I can’t function without a cup of tea at the end of the day and one to kick start me in the morning (and usually a dozen in between).
We’d already checked Google maps to see if there was a pub nearby (naturally) and found nothing. I studied the map some more and noticed a car park a mile or so down the trail. I went for a jog to check it out while Izzy finished preparing the food. Perhaps there’d be be a public toilet there with a tap.
The jog was a lot longer than I had anticipated and I’d already covered at least a mile and a half before I realised this was a really dumb thing to do. I was making myself more tired, thirsty and dehydrated trying to reach a water source that almost certainly didn’t exist. I turned around and started running back.
A split in the trail that I didn’t notice on the way down appeared and I suddenly became very disorientated. A dog walker approached.
“Did you just see a girl cooking a meal on a bench?”
“Yes I did, my dog tried to eat her meal!”
At least I knew I was going the right way, I started running. I had a brainwave and shouted after the lady to see if she knew of any water sources nearby.
She thought about this for a moment and asked me what I meant by near by. I said I’d stretch to a couple of miles for a cup of tea.
“Oh there’s no need to go that far. If you carry on along the North Downs Way for 10 minutes you’ll see the pub just up the road on your left.”
This particular pub was called ‘Botley Hill Farmhouse’. Not a typically pub sounding name, we had scanned over it on Google Maps assuming it to quite literally be a farmer’s house.
I practically skipped back to Izzy to deliver the news that I didn’t have any water, but there would be cold pints of beer for dessert.
When I got to the bench Izzy was sat with a grin on her face and a pile of pasta in the dirt at her feet.
It turned out the helpful lady’s dog had tried really quite hard to get at the pasta and in the process knocked the pan over. Thankfully he didn’t do too much damage and there was plenty of food left. The wild garlic tasted great.
Two hours, 3 pints and a chocolate brownie later, we sat in a beautiful pub garden on top of a large hill surrounded by incredible rolling views of the North Downs. We were treated to an incredible sunset and what could have been a very thirsty and miserable evening in the woods turned out to be the perfect end to a great day.
We walked back to the woods by torchlight with full stomachs and full water bottles. We arrived at our camping spot and made a small fire while the kettle boiled.
I was gently rocked to sleep in my hammock. Izzy, on the other hand, was woken up at 4am by a wild boar! More about that here.
My hammock set up is lightweight, works brilliantly and cost less than £30 in total!
A 40 minute drive from Morocco’s ‘Blue Pearl’ Chefchaouen, there is a popular hiking trail that winds through the forest, hopping back and forth over a river, dotted with handy stepping stones. After 6 undulating kilometers, hikers are rewarded with an incredible view of a tall narrow waterfall, perfectly framed by the surrounding cliffs tumbling into an emerald green lagoon. If you can muster up the energy for one final scramble down to the water, a refreshing dip in a VERY cold swimming hole awaits you.
Getting there and back:
The easiest way, or at least the way we went, to get to the Akchour trailhead is to take a ‘big taxi’. I don’t just mean go out and pick the largest taxi you can find. Most cities in Morocco have 2 types of taxi – ‘big’ taxis and ‘small’ taxis.
Small taxis are…you guessed it… small. They are colour coded (red in Fez, blue in Chefchaouen) and can take a maximum of 3 passengers (often less, even if they have the seats, on account of their haggard old engines). They are only permitted to take customers short distances in and around the town. One driver told me that this is strictly enforced and taking a fare further than the boundaries can result in punishment by the police.
Big taxis are…well done smartarse… big. They’re not colour coded, can take up to 6 passengers and can take you on longer journeys. If they are seen taking more than 6 passengers, the driver can get into a lot of trouble with the police.
A taxi from Chefchaouen to Akchour costs a flat rate of 150 Dirham. Split between 6 that’s £2/$2.50 each. This is a pretty good deal for a 40-minute ride into the mountains.
Danny and I arrived at the taxi rank on the main road out of town. It’s hard to miss with dozens of taxi drivers sitting in the shade chatting and joking with each other next to a small car park crammed full with vehicles. We approached the drivers and said that we would wait a short while to see if any other Akchour bound hikers might appear and share a fare with us.
In an apparent stroke of luck, a greasy haired, red eyed Frenchman with a tight string of beads around his neck and some tribal tattoos approached us and asked if we were heading to Akchour. We said we were and all agreed to wait a while longer to see if any other potential hikers would appear.
We stood and chatted for a short while. I say we, but in fact Danny, being the nice guy that he is, stood enthusiastically responding while our new friend bragged about how much hash he had already smoked that day while I glazed over and kicked a pebble repeatedly into the curb.
A few moments later a group of 4 young Canadians appeared, bringing our total to 7. Perfect, Danny and I can jump in the cab with them and our stoned friend can hang out with the cab drivers a while longer.
Before we even had a chance to introduce ourselves to the Canadians, ‘old tribal tats’ had already slithered over to them, schmoozing in French. A few minutes later they came over, introduced themselves, told us about all the wonderful places they had been on their travels around the world before jumping into a cab as a group of 5 and waving us goodbye.
I’m not really sure how it happened but both of us were left feeling rather miffed.
We stood for another 10 minutes glumly waiting for someone else to come share a cab with us. Standing there in the heat I did a quick mental calculation and laughed as I realized that the taxi was £6 each… not much more than a London pint… for a 40-minute journey into the mountains. What the hell was wrong with us?
I called over a cab driver. “TO AKCHOUR!” I yelled in his face. He looked at me with an expression that I took to mean, “What the hell is wrong with you?” which is funny because at that moment I was wondering exactly the same thing.
When we arrived there were 5 cabs parked in the small car park next to the trailhead – no sign of the French Canadians. Our driver asked if we wanted to arrange a ride home in advance but we didn’t know how long we would spend on the trail so we opted out.
We’d been pre warned that there would be local ‘guides’ waiting at the trailhead who would tell us it was dangerous and we’d get lost and die if we went without them. We’d also been told that it was an obvious trail and you’d have to be a complete idiot to get lost.
As expected a guide approached us but before he had a chance to warn us of our impending death, I used my favourite and most useful phrase that I learned walking around the medinas in Fez, ‘la shukraan’, meaning ‘no, thank you’ in Arabic. It worked like magic.
Twenty minutes later we were retracing our steps back to the beginning of the trail, having taken a wrong turn shortly after shoeing away the guide.
We rechecked the map on the signpost at the entrance to the trail, took a photo of it on our phones, gave a quick wave to the grinning guide we turned down and headed back out in the right direction.
The hike itself took about 2 hours one way. We crossed back and forth over the river several times, sometimes over picturesque little bridges or nice natural stepping-stones. Other times there were huge cubic slabs of concrete to climb over which were handy, if a little ugly.
Being the off-season it was quiet on the trail and we went long periods of time without seeing anyone. There were several makeshift cafes along the route but they were closed up and not operating.
As with most popular trails, it was pretty obvious where we needed to go so we plodded on, not worrying about the route, stopping occasionally to take photos and make videos.
The trail passes through shady forests, dense foliage and farmers fields with the odd marijuana plant here and there, all the while loosely following the river.
After a couple of hours we arrived at a food stand that was actually open. The owner confirmed that we were at the end of the hike and the waterfall was just around the corner. We ordered a couple of vegetable tagines and he told us they’d be ready in 45 minutes so we went off to check out the waterfall.
The waterfall was a bit of a trickle when we were there but it’s so tall and the surrounding landscape makes it an impressive sight nonetheless.
We scrambled down to the swimming hole and threw ourselves in. It felt good to wash off the day’s dust and sweat but the water was incredibly cold and I only stayed in long enough to swim over to the waterfall and back. What had looked like a trickle from above turned out to be quite a powerful torrent and I was briefly dragged under.
Danny carries a tad more insulation than me and he stayed in there splashing around for a good half an hour while I enjoyed the sun from the rocks at the water’s edge.
The tagine and the journey back
The time came to go and eat. I went and sat at the alfresco dining area (a colourful mismatched set of garden furniture) while Danny went to tell the cook that we were ready. Moments later he traipsed over to me looking forlorn, “There’s no tagines left.”
Miffed yet again, we went and bought some biscuits and crisps from the guy instead to wolf down on the return walk.
The blow was quickly softened by a couple of things. Firstly, it occurred to us that we didn’t bump into the French Canadians at any point on the trail, meaning they must have got lost. Obviously I hope they didn’t get in any serious trouble but still… ha.
Secondly, we bumped into a friendly group of 4 who were just about to head back and get a taxi to Chefchaouen with 2 spare seats. Perfect! We all started walking back together.
As we rounded the first bend, a food stand came into view and the grinning vendor waved at Danny and I, holding up a steaming tagine.
I don’t know how we managed it!
My mood is often dictated by food and this moment was no different. I was flooded with mixed emotions. Delighted that we would get our tagine after all, frustrated that we were about to miss out on a ride back with our new friends and a little embarrassed that we are such a pair of Muppets.
We wolfed down the tagine. It was very tasty, which was a nice surprise as food had been quite hit and miss so far. Then we got back on the trail and, determined to catch up with the others, we started running.
We caught up with them about two thirds of the way back and walked the rest of the way together. When we arrived in the car park their driver informed us that as they had booked a return journey as a group of 4, they were only permitted 4 passengers on the way back.
We did a loop of the car park and managed to find 1 other person trying to get back to Chefchaouen but he refused to split the fare 3 ways with us, preferring to wait for another 3 passengers. We managed to persuade one driver to take his 25 Dirham and 75 Dirham from us on the proviso that he was allowed to pick up more passengers along the road on the way back.
This was how I found myself wedged into the back of a cab next to an ancient looking grumpy old Moroccan lady and Danny next to a young man who looked like he was wearing the old lady’s dentures.
Akchour is a fun and achievable hike for someone with the most basic fitness levels. We had a great day; the adventure began before we even got in a ‘big taxi’ and didn’t end until we got back to the guesthouse. I highly recommend it.
Delighted with my free bag, and both pleased and proud of my new video souvenir, I decided to give it another go.
With another trip, this time to Costa Rica, on the horizon, I ordered a bigger rucksack (you order first, submit your vid and get a refund later), flew to Central America and set about making travel video number two.
This time I was with my girlfriend, Claudia. We had an incredible trip and once again I have come away with not just a great new rucksack for future trips, but another travel video that we can look back on and treasure for the rest of our lives.
This video features volcano hikes, waterfall swimming, white water rafting, cloud forests, zip lining, TONS of wildlife and so much more.
I really hope you like the video and if you are planning a trip to Costa Rica then feel free to get in touch, we were both really pleased with the way our trip turned out and would be happy to share our itinerary with you.
Here’s the vid, sound tracked by one of my very favourite songs; the wonderfully appropriate ‘Rain’ by PhoenixDown.