Trailblazing Dads: Hiking the Appalachian Trail and Bonding Through Adventure

June 12, 2024

The Appalachian Trail has been a source of inspiration, challenge, and deep familial connections for countless hikers over the years. For many, it is not just a path through the wilderness but a journey that shapes their lives and relationships. Here are a few stories submitted by people who love the Trail that highlight the unique bond between family and the A.T.

Submission by Sarah “Figment” Czajka

My dad started it all. He would take my brother and me camping and give us toughness tests. We always rose to the occasion. As a family, we would hike and camp in the Midwest. In 1998, when I graduated junior high, my dad took me on a trip with Outward Bound that was going to traverse part of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. We packed our 40-pound packs and hiked about 6 miles of the Appalachian Trail that week. Turns out the Mahoosuc Notch had a reputation! We met thru-hikers at the Carlo Col Shelter that night, and I was sold! Hiking the Appalachian Trail was what I wanted to do.

Mark 'Trail Doc' Hroncich, Ben 'Gonzalez' Hroncich, and Sarah 'Figment' Czajka in Damascus, Virginia

Mark “Trail Doc” Hroncich, Ben “Gonzalez” Hroncich, and Sarah “Figment” Czajka in Damascus, Virginia.

Together with my dad and brother, we hiked sections every year. I have now finished the Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the Vermont border, with the help of my family. We hike as a unit, camp as a unit, and know how to bring the others up on those hard days.

It has been a pleasure to grow up on the Trail and through the Trail. Our family relationship is strong because we know that if you can hike through 6 inches of rain for four days straight and defeat hypothermia after that cold day, then we can take on anything. Adventure lives in us, and the Trail has given us a gift of memories that will last a lifetime.

Submission by Katie “Rainbow” Quinn

Growing up in the Washington D.C. suburbs with a hiker-fanatic dad, the Appalachian Trail was always on my mind. While there was certainly a period of my life when I preferred to drop off my dad and older sister at trailheads and go shopping and bakery hopping with my mom, I quickly caught the bug too. We spent countless weekends in Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry as we trained for adventures around the country and the world.

In 2016, my dad announced that he would be retiring and planned to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He asked me if I wanted to join him not long after he announced his plans. There were a lot of things to consider: sure, we’ve hiked together a lot, but never more than five days at a time. I don’t know if he knew it at the time, though, but from the moment he started planning, I started watching and planning, too.

Katie 'Rainbow' Quinn and Kevin 'Gray Mountaineer' Quinn on Katahdin

Katie “Rainbow” Quinn and Kevin “Gray Mountaineer” Quinn on Katahdin.

In late March 2017, my mom dropped my dad off at Amicalola Falls State Park. He finished the trail almost five months to the day after he started. He was exhausted, emaciated, filthy, stinky, and swore that he’d never do something like that again. But he also had a light in his eyes that told me the journey was worth it.

I told my parents that I planned to literally follow in his footsteps the following year. They dropped me off at Springer Mountain in March 2018. Just like my dad, I started walking back towards our home. Even with all his stories, the Trail was harder than I’d expected – both emotionally and physically. There were times when I felt like quitting, but stubbornness (and a desire to not let my dad one-up me) always won out.

In Pennsylvania, my parents met me with trail magic, and my dad joined me for a few days on trail when we hit the midpoint and Pine Grove Furnace together. Every time I stopped in a town, I’d call him up and get advice. Where to eat, where to stay, what to expect on the next section of trail.

I completed the AT as a solo hike. I learned more about myself than I ever thought possible in those moments of quiet solitude in the woods. But I couldn’t have done it without my parents – my mom, the unsung hero as the family shuttle driver, re-supplier, and trail angel; and my dad, my constant cheerleader and companion. To get to celebrate what is still one of my greatest accomplishments with him at my side was something that I’ll never forget. I’ve always planned to continue the tradition of hiking with my own family and have been so lucky to have a husband, step kids, and dog that love the outdoors almost as much as I do.

A relationship with a parent who loves hiking is easy to describe with nature- and trail-related metaphors: there are tough trails with roots and rocks, easy strolls, bridges to cross, mountains to climb and descend. At this point, it feels cliché to use that to describe my relationship with my dad. So while I won’t descend into flowery imagery, instead I’ll say that the Appalachian Trail is as essential to our relationship as nights spent around the dinner table trying to figure out pre-calculus, or trading recommendations for sci-fi shows and books that my mom and sister will just roll their eyes at, or reading “The Polar Express” as a family on Christmas Eve even now that my sister and I are both in our 30s.

The AT changed me, and it elevated my relationship with my dad as an adult. And I can’t wait to see what it has in store for us and my growing family in the future.

Submission by Chris “Yellowhammer” Smith

When I was 10 or 11, my dad took a group of hikers on a short section hike of the A.T. in Georgia. I was too young to tag along, but the training and preparation left an impression on me that it was an adventure I had to experience. It took about 35 more years before I finally decided that it was time.

Chris Smith and Curtis Smith near Mt. Rogers, Virginia

Chris Smith and Curtis Smith near Mt. Rogers, Virginia.

I fell in love with that adventure immediately and since then, I have logged around 500 miles on the A.T. as a section hiker, and I will finish the Trail one day. After listening to my adventures and seeing pictures from my section hikes, my dad asked if I thought there was a way he could join me for a short section hike. I chose Mt. Rogers in Virginia as the ideal spot for my dad’s 7.5-mile section hike to celebrate his 75th birthday! We spent the night in the Thomas Knob shelter so that he would have the full experience with the ponies of Grayson Highland State Park. Our adventure even included an overnight search and rescue for a missing hiker that required the entire mountaintop to be lit up by the searchlight of a helicopter! My dad’s first question as that happened was, “Does this happen every time you hike?” We had a great adventure that I will always treasure.

Submission by Jonathan Spencer

We lived in Montreal, and our recreation spot was the local YMCA. In 1965, when I was 7, my dad came home and said he and I are going on a hike. We took an old silver-topped bus chartered by the YMCA down to Franconia Notch in New Hampshire and hiked up to Madison Spring Hut.

David Spencer at Franconia Ridge in 1965

David Spencer at Franconia Ridge in 1965.

It was so misty that the views weren’t great until the last day of our trip when the weather cleared. I was smitten. The smell of the woods, the feel of hiking over rock, and the camaraderie in the hut all stuck with me. Since then, I’ve hiked Vermont’s Long Trail, much of the Appalachian Trail, about half the Adirondacks, and taken my own kids on countless hiking adventures. That hike back in 1965 started something and sticks with me today.

Submission by William Spach

My dad was an active Boy Scout during junior high and high school while growing up in New Jersey. Hiking, canoeing, and camping were always a part of his life, and he always felt right at home in the woods. World War Two, followed by four years of college, took him away for several years, but he returned to his hometown in the early 1950s and became a scout leader. In 1956, he took a couple of senior scouts up to Moosehead Lake, Maine, for a week of camping, canoeing, and hiking.

He loved this area so much that it became our family vacation spot each summer. During our summer 1966 vacation, after hiking several smaller mountains, my dad announced that we were going to attempt to hike all the way to the summit of Katahdin! I didn’t know about the A.T. yet; I only knew we were hiking along a trail called the “Hunt Trail.” My dad began getting leg cramps just below the Hunt Spur and decided we would head back down.

William Spach at Katahdin in 1967

William Spach at Katahdin in 1967.

In August 1967, after many training hikes, my dad wanted to try for the summit of Katahdin again, but this time climbing the Abol Trail. We reached the end of the Abol Trail at Thoreau Spring on the tableland without too much difficulty, and at this point, my dad pointed to the white blazes of the trail we were about to join and said, “You see these white blazes? This trail starts here on Katahdin and goes all the way to Georgia, and some people have hiked all of it!”

I looked across the mountaintops and couldn’t imagine anyone being able to hike all the way to Georgia, but I was fascinated. After serving in the Navy, life eventually brought me to Northern Virginia, where I was reacquainted with the A.T. and became a volunteer trail maintainer in Shenandoah National Park. I later moved to Harpers Ferry and became a long-time trail maintainer on trails in the Harpers Ferry area. I also continued my annual summertime trips to Maine and began maintaining a section of the A.T. in Maine’s 100 Mile Wilderness.

I still make a couple of trips to Maine each summer with my sisters and hike the same mountains my dad and I hiked when I was younger. I always feel like he’s close by and still teaching me things about the outdoors. He was the most influential person in my life, and I still have his old 1948 edition of the New Jersey AT guidebook that he used as a scout leader back in the early 1950s.

The Appalachian Trail is more than just a long walk through the woods; it is a thread that weaves through the lives of families, creating a tapestry of shared experiences, personal growth, and lasting memories. Whether it’s a father’s legacy, a family tradition, or a personal challenge, the A.T. has a way of bringing people together, pushing them to their limits, and revealing the beauty of both nature and human connection. As these stories show, the Trail is not just a journey of miles but a journey of the heart, one that shapes and defines relationships in the most profound ways.