Parking and Finding a Shuttle Service on the Appalachian Trail

Parking and Finding a Shuttle Service on the Appalachian Trail

Need a ride?

Some of the most frequent questions we have been asked about our Appalachian Trail section hikes are what we do with our vehicle during our hikes and where do we park.  One person even said that the number one reason that kept he and his wife from hiking was not knowing what to do with their vehicle.  The answer is simple, a shuttle service.  Shuttle services to and from the trail are generally provided by small business owners who live near the trail.  These shuttle drivers have a knowledge of local roads, parking areas, places to shop for food and gear.  They make up a network who are efficient at getting their clients where they need to be.  This post will go over basic transportation strategies essential to section hiking the AT and other backcountry trails.

This shuttle service picked us up at the Nantahala Outdoor Center where we parked our vehicle and drove us to the trailhead at our starting point.
Arriving back at our vehicle after our section hike at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, North Carolina. We had parked it there and had our shuttle pick us up and take us to the trailhead at our starting point five days before.

Strategy 1:  Park at the place where you intend to finish your section hike and hire a shuttle service to take you to the trailhead at your starting point.

Advantages-

  • Allows you to finish your hike on any day you choose and any time of the night or day.
  • Eliminates the need for communicating with the shuttle driver from the trail.
  • Easy to plan in advance. All you need is a phone number for a shuttle service and the day and location where you want to park and be dropped off to start.

Disadvantages-

  • Some people are uncomfortable with leaving their vehicle unattended for several days.  Most of us who travel to section hike are uncertain of the risk involved.

True it may be vandalized or stolen, but these crimes are rare.  Why?  Most of those who live near the trail are very familiar with the needs of hikers and acknowledge the importance of tourist in the local economy.  Police and citizens alike monitor vehicles in a type of community watch.  Shuttle drivers can usually give advice on whether or not the location you wish to park is in a safe place where no one will probably mess with your vehicle.  Always park in the open away from trees and shrubs when possible with the trunk / rear of the car facing the open rather than backed up toward the woods.  Also, it is best to leave valuables at home.  If you do leave anything in your vehicle, hide it under a seat or at least leave it out of sight, so as not to tempt a would-be thief.  Refrain from leaving notes in the window unless a parking pass is required.

  • Depending on the time of year, shuttle services may be unable to accommodate your needs.  If you are hiking during the peak seasons, keep in mind that shuttle services are usually limited in how many passengers they can carry and how far they choose to drive.  Time constraints may also be a factor.  Many shuttle services are conducted by those who want to make some money on the side rather than run a full-scale operation ready to jump anytime, 24/7.

It is best to be flexible (within reason) as you make your request.

We arrived at the Albert Mountain parking area to find our shuttle waiting on us after our section-hike.  He drove us back to our vehicle, which was parked at Unicoi Gap parking area.
This is at Unicoi Gap parking area in Georgia. We had Ron’s Shuttle Service pick us up where we finished this section hike and take us back to our vehicle.

Strategy 2: Park at the trailhead.  Then, arrange a pre-planned time and place to conclude your hike where a shuttle can pick you up and return you to your vehicle.

Advantages-

  • You can start the hike from your vehicle anytime without having meet up with the shuttle.  As long as you keep to your plan or communicate with the service about any changes you can meet the shuttle at a prearranged time and place.  This is a convenient option when you are not sure how long your trip to the trailhead will take. Traffic may be hard to predict if you are driving long distances on the day you plan to start.

Disadvantages-

  • If for some reason you cannot communicate with your shuttle, it may be difficult to edit your original plan in the event that you are ahead or behind schedule.  The shuttle drivers are a patient bunch, but they have lives and a business to run.  If a backpacker doesn’t show up or at least contact them, they may be forced to abandon the predetermined plan.  They may not be able to jump and go if you are going to arrive early, either.  With that being said, most shuttles will refer you to another driver if need be.
  • Weather, natural or man-made disasters, and road conditions may be an issue in meeting at the end of your hike.  One driver said he had hikers call him the night after Tropical Storm Irma in 2017.  They had been miserable on the trail and wanted out of the woods.  The shuttle driver had a heck of a time finding passable roads.  In the end he made it, but the hikers had to wait most of the day and hike pretty far out of their way.  I was thinking that it was a miracle that their cell phones had even worked.  The recent wildfires also caused problems for drivers.  Some Georgia and North Carolina US Forest Service roads and other highways were impassible or otherwise closed.  Ice in the winter is also an issue.  Many roads and trailheads cannot be reached during the winter months because they are closed.  Just be aware that obstacles may be in the way if you are meeting a shuttle at the end of a hike.  Good pre-planning, communication, and flexibility help lower the risks.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is a great resource to find trail updates, road closures, parking area issues, wildlife problems, and other important information for planning your hike.  Another helpful resource for more day to day weather updates is atweather.org.
This is the Top of Georgia Hostel. They drove us to the trailhead the next morning after staying there for the night.
Loading up to go back to Dick’s Creek Gap trailhead.

Strategy 3:  Plan on staying at a hostel / hotel at the end of your hike.  Many have a shuttle service for free.

Advantages-

  • Few things are better than a shower, comfortable mattress, and clean laundry after several days in the woods.  Hostels / hotels are a wonderful choice for the final night of your hike.  If you park your car there, the shuttle may either take you to the trailhead or you can choose to simply hike in off the trail and have the shuttle take you back to your car if it’s within the service range.
  • Hostels and hotels are generally very accommodating to the needs of hikers.  Many of the owners / employees hike and backpack themselves so they try to make their services as hiker-friendly as possible.  For example, the Top of Georgia Hostel had consistent shuttle times each day to different locations on the trail.  One thru-hiker who was there when we were, spent the night and had the shuttle take him to Unicoi Gap in the morning.  He slackpacked back to the hostel that day.  Then, the shuttle dropped him off again the second morning at Unicoi Gap so that he could go on from there with his full pack.  The shuttle was a big van that held 12-15 passengers, and the driver had plenty of useful info to share as needed.

Disadvantages-

  • If you are hiking directly to the hostel or hotel, you generally have to do so on a main highway.  It may be a pretty good distance from the actual trail.  Shuttles normally only drop you off after you have hiked in unassisted, though some will collect you from the trailhead with prior notice.
  • Hostels and hotels charge fees usually on the upward side of $20.  Some are much more expensive depending on where you want to sleep.  Although most hostels and hotels offer free rides back to the trail, some do not have a shuttle at all while others may charge extra for one.  It’s always better to ask…never assume.  If there is not an in-house shuttle, the desk clerk normally has a list of numbers for outside shuttle outfits.  Ask around to see if the quoted price for a shuttle is fair.
  • If you haven’t made reservations, hotels and hostels may be full with no bunks or vacancies, especially during prime hiking season.
We could see our car at the Unicoi Gap parking area through the trees as we were finishing our hike.  We hired a shuttle service to drive our vehicle there from the Neel’s Gap parking area.

Strategy 4 – Leave your car at the trailhead and hire a shuttle driver to drive your car to the end point.

Advantages-

  • Allows you to go ahead and hike even when a shuttle driver is unavailable to transport you on the day you start.   The shuttle service has more flexibility in getting your vehicle where you want it.
  • Works well for larger families and groups since most shuttles are limited in how many passengers they are able to carry.  We used this strategy when we took our three daughters backpacking last summer.  The shuttle services available didn’t have room for all five of us and our packs.  A husband and wife team were able to take our vehicle to the parking lot where we were finishing our hike.
  • This may be a good option for people with severe pet allergies.  Some shuttles allow pets in their vehicles.  If you have a problem with left-over fur, having the driver take your personal car allows you a reprieve from the sneezing and runny eyes and nose that you may have from riding in a pet-friendly shuttle car.

Disadvantages-

  • Allowing someone else to drive your car requires a certain level of trust.  You have to leave your key somewhere like the opening to the gas tank and leave payment inside the car.  Most shuttles also want you to leave a note with your signature describing why they are in your vehicle in the event of a police stop or accident.  If you are worried about liability issues, this may not be a good choice for you.
  • The shuttle driver must have a companion available to take your car to the end of your hike.  The service may be more expensive because of the necessity for two people.

All in all, shuttle services are fairly easy to find.  In our experience, the drivers are full of useful information about surrounding areas and trail necessities.  Always remember to plan ahead when possible and be flexible within reason.  Don’t miss out on an adventure for fear of not having a ride.

Below are some links to help you find shuttle services along the trail from Georgia to Maine.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy – A.T. Shuttles, Public Transportation, & Vandalism Alerts 

Georgia Appalachian Trail Club

WhiteBlaze.net

The Trek

Acorn Trail Guides

Smokies Adventure

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One comment

  1. Avatar
    Kirtis Christensen

    Sectioned the starting GA miles of AT. Bret Eady of AT Hiker Shuttle was fantastic help. Cell coverage at hill tops enables a quick text and coordination with flexibility on pick up options as availability allows. I parked at the trail head, went as far as able over several days, and then coordinated for pickup some time next days or even hours if available. Rested and resupplied a day and lightened the load and adjusted the equipment and hit it again.

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