The 7 Best Lean-tos & Shelters on the Appalachian Trail
According to thru-hiker, photographer, author of new book "The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts"
Sarah Jones Decker
Extending nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, the Appalachian Trail is one of the most famous hiking trails in the world—and reportedly the longest hiking-only trail (the PCT allows horses). For thru-hikers and day trippers alike, one constant connects the “Green Tunnel”—the shelters.
Peppered every eight miles throughout the route, across all 14 states, over 250 historic shelters, lean-tos, and huts dot the route, offering much more than just a dry roof for weary and weathered hikers. Designs vary, as do construction materials and styles, though most maintain the longstanding tradition of being a three-sided structure with a slanted roof and one open side. Simple, yet iconic.
To pay tribute to these places of refuge and architectural significance, photographer and writer—and 2008 AT thru-hiker—Sarah Jones Decker undertook the tremendous task of cataloging each, resulting in the new book “The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-tos, and Huts,” published this summer by Rizzoli.
Packed cover to cover with detailed history, images, stories, and maps, the stout book is a dang fine companion for a morning’s first cup of coffee or a cold drink at the end of the day—both perfect times to day dream of your next adventure. But for the AT novice, all those structures can begin to blend together. So, we reached out to Jones Decker and asked her to pick her top five favorites (she delivered her top seven, as no doubt this task was like choosing a favorite child). The following is her response in full.
"I often hear 'oh, they are all the same,' and that statement couldn’t be farther from the reality I documented over the two year project." - Sarah Jones Decker
7. Roan High Knob Shelter, NC
Only a few enclosed structures exist along the trail and I am intrigued by these old fire warden cabins that have been given a second chance. Many of the structures have come and gone, but a few were converted from single residence to shelters for overnight guests. Roan High Knob in North Carolina, the highest shelter on the AT at 6,285ft, is a great example. Virginia’s Chestnut Knob Shelter is a stone shelter example at 4,409 ft elevation, and the Firewarden’s Cabin, aka Smart’s Ranger Cabin, in New Hampshire still stands nearby the fire tower. Every time I stayed at one of these, the weather outside made me glad that I was in a shelter with four walls.
6. Overmountain Shelter, NC
A list of unique shelters wouldn’t be complete without the famous red barn in North Carolina, home to one of the best views from a shelter on the trail. I stopped for lunch here on my thru-hike and a decade later spent a night with my infant daughter on her first overnight camping trip. That night, I talked with friends about the idea I had about writing a book about all the shelters on the trail. Four months later, this massive documentary project began. [Ed Note: this shelter is currently closed due to being unsafe for overnight guests, but camping is still allowed nearby.]
5. Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the Whites, NH
Far from a simple lean-to, the Huts of New Hampshire’s White Mountains have provided service to hikers since the first hut opened in 1888. Huts have bunkrooms, common dining areas, and bathrooms, and the staff, known as Croo, prepare cooked meals. If I had to pick one, I guess it would be the famous Lakes of the Clouds, because that’s where it all started for me—I hiked the section with my Grandfather when I was 16 and he was 71. I have been hooked on backpacking ever since. Built in 1915, this large stone and weathered wood structure sits picturesquely out on a rocky ridge of the White Mountains below Mt. Washington and its famous observatory.
4. William Brien Memorial Shelter, NY
This older rock shelter with an inside fireplace, built in 1933, is one of the oldest on the trail and is a great example of utilizing building materials from the nearby environment. The idea of stacking rock like that just blows my mind. Stone structures stand the test of time, but only 33 of the trail’s originals currently still exist and are in use. There are two stone shelters—one north and one south—on the trail from William Brien, that were both built in 1928, and these three structures make up the oldest three in a row that remain along the AT. Almost all the stone shelters have fireplaces on one wall.
3. William Penn Shelter, PA
Built in 1993, this one-of-a-kind structure has a sleeping loft with windows and is a great example of how a three-sided structure can be just one aspect of the design.
2. Bryant Ridge Shelter, VA
This shelter was built in 1992 with timbers pulled in by logging horses from a nearby road, and to me, it’s a work of art. A unique tri-level timber design dedicated to architect Nelson Leavell Garnett Jr. by his architecture classmates. There are multiple covered areas and it can sleep up to 16 people.
1. Spring Mountain Shelter, TN
I love the old shelters. Imagine the tales these structures could share, having sat on this well-traveled trail for almost 90 years already. I love Spring Mountain Shelter (my cover image) because it is a great example of the early classic Adirondack shelter design that has inspired backcountry structures for generations. Spring Mountain sits right on the trail along the NC/TN border and has a blaze painted right on it. It was built in 1938 with logs milled nearby by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). I live near the trail outside of Hot Springs, NC and get to visit this one often on trail runs. It is small compared to many newer shelters, and not perfect, but imagine if those walls could talk…
The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-tos, and Huts is available now for $25—purchase directly from Sarah Jones Decker for a signed copy.