Earl Shaffer's Legacy:
Long Distance Thru-Hiker
Earl Shaffer is best known as the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one, continuous journey. Such hikes have come to be known as “thru-hikes” from the words, “hiking through.”
The original concept of a thru-hike was a continuous journey from one end of a long trail to the other. In the 21st Century, however, the requirements with respect to the Appalachian Trail have been relaxed to recognize a hike of the entire Appalachian Trail completed within a single period of 12 months. This was not the case at the time of Earl’s A.T. thru-hikes.
1948: First Thru-Hike of the Appalachian Trail
Prior to 1948, only 7 people had hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail—more than 2,000 miles. They had done so by means of “section hiking”, consisting of shorter journeys of a month or a few weeks completed over the course of several years. Completing a hike of the entire trail in one journey was not considered feasible. Earl, however, believed it was possible, and set out do so on April 4, 1948.
For extraordinary claims, extraordinary evidence is necessary. With this in mind, Earl carefully documented his northbound hike through photography, entries into notebooks kept at trail shelters where he spent the night and, most importantly, detailed entries into the trail journal he called his “Little Black Book.”
The first indication that Earl was well on his way to completing his hike took the form of a postcard sent to the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) from Holmes, New York. On the postcard, Earl had sketched a view of the Pinnacles of Dan in Virginia (no longer on the AT) along with the following poem as his message:
The flowers bloom, the songbirds sing,
And though it sun or rain,
I walk the mountain tops with spring
From Georgia north to Maine.
Earl V. Shaffer
Earl’s claim to have hiked the entire Appalachian Trail received careful scrutiny, particularly by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) whose members had the most intimate knowledge of the Trail. After careful consideration of Earl’s documentation and other evidence, he was officially recognized by the ATC as the first person to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail without interruption.
1965: First Person to Thru-Hike the Appalachian Trail in Both Directions
After many years of volunteer work related to the Appalachian Trail, undertook a second thru-hike in 1965, starting from Mt. Katahdin in Maine and finishing at Springer Mountain, which had recently been designated the Trail's Southern terminus, replacing Mt. Oglethorpe.
On completing this hike, Earl Shaffer became the first person known to have completed thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail in both directions: northbound, from Georgia to Maine, and southbound, from Maine to Georgia.
1998: Oldest Person to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail
Fifty years after the completion of his historic 1948 hike, the mountains called Earl back for a final, northbound thru-hike that established him as the oldest person at the time to have completed a thru-hike of the A.T. When Earl completed this “50 Anniversary” hike, he was 79 years old and just two weeks short of his 80th birthday.
Earl’s account of his 1948 hike, Walking with Spring, is published by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. His final hike is recorded in two books published by the Earl Shaffer Foundation.