About 2,000-3,000 people each summer attempt a "thru-hike,'' or journey along the entire length. Only one in four will succeed. For them, Harpers Ferry is the psychological halfway point, even though the actual location is nearby in southern Pennsylvania.
Outside ATC headquarters in Harpers Ferry, Mississippi native Crystal Stroud, 26, opened boxes of supplies shipped by friends and family -- nail clippers and dog food for her trail buddy, a 3-year-old dachshund named Polly, and wipes, trail mix and a loaf of homemade lemon poppy seed bread for herself. Many rural post offices dot the landscape along the trail, so hikers often ship things to those post offices to pick up as they progress on their journeys.
Stroud is hiking north after graduating from Mississippi State University and is craving adventure.
"I did not want to get chained down to a job,'' she said. "I feel like a bird out of a cage out here. I hike as far as I want to hike. I stop when I want to stop. I get to sleep in if I want to.''
Stroud didn't realize what she was getting into. She thought she'd camp and hike for a few weeks. At best, she figured, she'd be ready to quit after she saw Tennessee's Smoky Mountains.
But she kept walking.
"I can't explain it,'' she said. "Life on the trail is amazing. I feel like a kid again, and I don't ever want to leave.''
The trail is part of the National Park System, managed by the trail conservancy, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, 31 local clubs and various state agencies. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club in Carrabassett Valley is planning an anniversary celebration Saturday, while the Mount Rogers Appalachian Trail Club in Damascus, Va., will sponsor a day hike.
"We need to take stock of what the people before us have done,'' Wenger said. "If you think about it, building a national trail is in the same caliber as Yosemite and Yellowstone, the early national parks. It's something other countries didn't do.''
It's also important to think about where the trail is headed, he said, and to ensure it remains available to future generations.
"It is not going to be done in my lifetime,'' Wenger said, "and we'd like to think secretly it will never be done. But it will always be our challenge to finish it.''