Interview with Johnny Molloy, Author of Best of the Appalachian Trail: South
How do you choose just a handful of day hikes to represent the best the Appalachian Trail has to offer? We spoke with veteran outdoors author Johnny Molloy about his new guidebook, Best of the Appalachian Trail: South, which comes out in March.
First of all, congratulations on such a great book!
Thank you! I think it will be a useful guide for hikers who want to explore the Appalachian Trail this spring.
How did you go about selecting these hikes out of all the hundreds of miles of trail?
The Appalachian Trail is literally in my backyard. From my home in Johnson City, Tennessee, I can be at a trailhead within 20 miles of my driveway. Lots of other AT access points are within an hour’s drive.
Additionally, this is where the combination of spending thousands of days hiking and camping throughout the national parks and national forests of the South, writing guidebooks to places through which the Appalachian Trail travels—the Smokies, Shenandoah, Mount Rogers, the North Georgia Mountains, and North Carolina’s national forests—has all come together. Because the AT travels through all these realms, I not only have an understanding of the AT, but also of other trail networks that link to it.
And that is one of the cool things about this guide: It utilizes not just the AT but also connector trails that form loops and take you to other places that are not necessarily on the AT but can be reached from it.
So I have used my experiences in the national forests and national parks in the South; my time spent on the Appalachian Trail in the four states covered in this book; as well as my skills writing over two dozen hiking guides (covering more than 20 states) and over 60 guides to hiking, camping, and paddling. I understand what people want in a hike, what a good hike is, and how to describe each hike to readers in a way that delivers a realistic presentation for each trek. And the AT is chock-full of exciting possibilities.
Geography was an additional part of the selection. I wanted to give readers a cross representation of great hikes throughout the four states. Additionally, I sought to help hikers experience the AT while traveling to various features, including overlooks, waterfalls, and historical destinations. I also wanted the hikes to cover a range of distances and different degrees of remoteness, in order to give readers a true picture of the Appalachian Trail through the South.
Have you thru-hiked the AT?
No, but I have hiked all the AT through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and most of Virginia (the areas covered in this guide). Nevertheless, I have thru-hiked the 1,100-mile Florida Trail, so I’m familiar with the ways of thru-hiking.
I have lived in the shadow of the Appalachian Trail for more than three decades, so the AT has been on the forefront of my hiking and backpacking experiences. It all started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where (during college at the University of Tennessee) I hiked the Appalachian Trail as well as trails that link to the AT in the Smokies. I have since ended up backpacking more than 800 nights in the Smokies; therefore, I have come to think of the Appalachian Trail as the backbone of a trail system, much like the human backbone is the primary connector for all the bones of the skeleton.
A native Tennessean, I first hiked every bit of the AT in the Volunteer State before hiking the AT in North Carolina and Georgia, parts of which I picked up while writing guidebooks in the region. Then I set about systematically hiking the rest of the Appalachian Trail through Georgia and North Carolina. I’ve also had the privilege of hiking the Appalachian Trail through most of Virginia while working on guidebooks and for pleasure. Though I have not yet walked every single foot of the AT in the Old Dominion, I have hiked sections of the AT in several states outside the South and have even ventured up Mount Katahdin in Maine.
What is your favorite hike, and why?
That is a hard question to answer, especially when you consider that the AT traverses numerous scenic areas, wildernesses, and national parks. However, I like the Big Firescald Loop, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. It is a lesser-known trek that showcases a view-laden parcel of the Appalachian Trail with a half-mile of 360° views complemented by an old homesite, a 100-foot waterfall, and ample solitude within a 10-mile loop.
My favorite Georgia hike would be the Blood Mountain Loop. It traverses one of the Peach State’s most notable peaks, has lots of views, and passes by a historic trail shelter. But the hike is rocky!
My favorite hike in Virginia would be the Mount Rogers High Country Loop. Virginia’s rooftop—located within easy striking distance of my home—has to be seen to be believed. Mile-high outcrops, windswept meadows, far-reaching panoramas, and wild ponies make this spot a special place.
What was the funniest or strangest thing you encountered on the trail while hiking the Appalachian Trail?
Oh, there are a few. Perhaps the time I saw a “nekkid” hiker during the summer solstice; or the time I saw a girl walking down the trail with a big ol’ guitar in her hand and ended up taking her on a tour of the Smokies; or the time there were 26 people in and around the Icewater Spring Shelter; or slogging through thigh-deep snow near Mount Cammerer; or experiencing 11° below zero in the Smokies; or seeing my hiking companion walking barefooted with a full backpack on because his feet were so blistered; or seeing another buddy sleeping in a pool of water after a 3-inch overnight rain. Ah, what memories!