Among the world's great mountain ranges, the Appalachian Mountains are pretty undistinguished. Mostly low and gentle, some would hesitate to call them "mountains". They may seem high to the lowlanders who thicky populate their base, but they are no match to the lofty, snowy peaks of the Himalaya, Andes, or Alps. Instead, the Appalachians are roughly equal in height to mountains few have heard of, such as the Yablonovy Range of eastern Siberia (high point of 8862') or the Mtumba Range in Malawi, Africa (high point of 8071'). And, they approximate the ruggedness of low ranges like the Russian Urals or the Ghats in India. Those from western North America, especially those from Colorado, love to point out that most of the High Plains, at the base of the Rockies, are as high or higher than most major Appalachian summits.
Despite barely registering on any list of the major mountain ranges of the world, the Appalachians are still important for three main reasons. First, they cover a huge, almost unbroken area, over 1500 miles long and often a couple hundred miles wide. Second, they are the only significant topography in all of eastern North America, a huge, otherwise flat expanse. Finally, despite large areas that are little more than gentle hills, the base-to-summit rise and ruggedness of a few sections of the Appalachians can be impressive. For example, the vertical gain of the standard hike up New Hampshire's Mount Adams (5798') is greater than that for Colorado's Mount Elbert (14,433'), highest peak in the Rockies. And try telling anyone who has hiked Katahdin's Knife Edge, the Appalachian Trail through the Mahoosucs, or the crest of Grandfather Mountain on the Blue Ridge that the Appalachians are gentle, easy, unchallenging hills.
After their relative lack of height and ruggedness, the most important characteristic of the Appalachians when compared to mountains in western North America is their extensive forest. With only a few minor scattered exceptions, the entire range of the Appalachian Mountains is cloaked in deep, thick, dense forest. To the north, and at higher elevations, a dark, humid evergreen forest of spruce and fir covers the mountains, while further south and lower down a more open broadleaf mix of birch, oak, and beech predominates.
There are a few places in the Appalachians not covered with trees: the high peaks of the Northern Appalachians, where the combination of both high altitude and latitude keeps a few small and widely scattered areas above timberline, and "Balds" in the south where, mysteriously, huge open meadows cover summits that should be forested. These rare places, plus a bunch of open summit ledges, are the scenic gems of the entire Appalachians.
For the majority of the range, though, the extensive, thick Appalachian forest has two major consequences for people who travel in the mountains. First, the trees are always blocking views. Only on the rare rocky summits
are any wide-open views available, and often times a hiker can go all day, climbing over several peaks, without seeing much beyond the floor of the forest. This situation improves markedly in winter, when the deciduous trees are bare, but the kind of wide open vistas that are almost constant out west are extremely rare.
Second, the forest means that hiking trails become far more important. Bushwhacking, away from established trails, is generally miserable, slow work slogging through thick bushes and closely spaced trees. Also, perversely, the going gets more difficult the higher up you get, since the evergreens and harsh climate of higher elevations combine to form dense, gnarled thickets that are all but impossible to penetrate without a trail or a chainsaw. This contrasts markedly with most of the west, where the sparse forests and wide-open above-timberline terrain allow the hiker to go pretty much wherever he pleases without worrying too much about trails.
The quintessential Appalachian experience involves a trail: hiking 2000 miles from Georgia to Maine along the Appalachian Trail, the world's first and most famous long-distance footpath. Every spring hundreds of people start out at Springer Mountain, and by fall considerably fewer arrive at Mount Katahdin, but those who stick with it are rewarded not only with pleasant woodsy walking for several months, but become part of a fascinating subculture, a sort of linear new-age village. Individual through-hikers adopt nicknames, leave messages for each other at shelters, form and disband hiking parties, and share an increasing camaraderie among themselves as Katahdin draws nearer. These hardy souls replenish their stocks of food and sometimes get an occasional motel room at small oasis villages on the A.T. that have become somewhat famous as through hiker havens--Damascus, VA and Monson, ME are among the most famous. The truly hard core through-hikers have even done the trail two, three, or more times.
However, it should be noted that despite the popularity of through hiking, the A.T. is hardly the most scenic or spectacular place to spend several months in the mountains. Most of the trail through the Mid-Atlantic
states is pretty boring, and even in the South and in New England many endless, forested, viewless miles of rocky trail can be a drag. Also, although the A.T. does an excellent job of threading together the best of the Appalachians, some of the most spectacular peaks aren't even on the trail, such as Grandfather Mountain, Old Rag, the Seneca Rocks, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, Mt. Mansfield, and the Grand Monadnock. Of course, a through-hiker might argue that the time spent slogging through hot forests only makes the trail's highlights--Roan Mountain, Shenandoah National Park, the Presidentials, Katahdin, and many others--seem that much better.
Books about the Appalachian Trail could fill a large bookshelf, and reading one of the many accounts of a trail journey will tell you pretty much all you need to know about this bizarre adventure unique to the Appalachians.
Dividing the Appalachians up into sections is complicated by the virtually continuous nature of the range. The only flat route through the entire chain is via the canyon of the Hudson River, which slices right through an otherwise continuously hilly region. The main topographic divider of the entire range is the Appalachian Valley, a 1500-mile long trench running from Canada to Alabama. To the southeast of this valley are the Canadian Appalachians, the Northern U.S. Appalachians, and the great Blue Ridge complex. Northwest of the Appalachian Valley we find two huge but similar areas that geologists call the Appalachian Ridges and Appalachian Plateaus.
Therefore the terms "Southern Appalachians" and "Central Appalachians" are somewhat imprecise, since there is no natural east-west break in the mountain mass that runs from New York to Alabama. The Southern Appalachians are often said to begin south of the Potomac River, and the Central Appalachians could be defined as those of New York and Pennsylvania.