I apologize, Mr. Gratch, for taking so long to respond to your question, but I’ve finally gotten around to answering it for you.
Fortunately, there are only three places on the trail where dogs are not permitted to hike. The first section is the 72 miles of trail that traverses the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park; the second is in New York where the trail goes through a small zoo in the Bear Mountain-Harriman State Park (not sure about the mileage), and the third is the last and final section of the trail within Baxter State Park in Maine which covers about 14 miles. As prepared as I feel for the trail, this is probably the most unprepared I am on any aspect of the AT. It’s been hard to plan for potential emergencies involving the dogs, including who can watch them at a moments notice.
Missy and I are lucky enough to have good friends who work as raft guides in Erwin, Tennessee (which the trail meanders through) who volunteered to watch the dogs for us when we hike through the Smokies. Our plan is to have our friends, Emily and James, meet us at Fontana Dam in North Carolina at the Southern entrance to the Smoky Mountain National Park and pick up Molly and Tess. We would then hike the 72 miles of the Smokies that the AT cuts through and either have Emily and James drop the dogs off with us once out of the park or (depending on how the dogs are doing) continue watching them for the 103 miles that we have to cover until we reach the section of trail that goes through Erwin where Emily and James work on the Nolichucky River.
The next section that the dogs won’t be allowed to hike is the easiest section to take care of. The trail has a by-pass for the zoo depending on if thru-hikers have dogs or the zoo happens to be closed. Some hikers might look down on us for taking a by-pass, but if I don’t have to leave my dogs with someone then I don’t mind at all; especially since the by-pass was marked for hikers with dogs or for zoo closures. Once we’re past this section we won’t have to worry about the dogs (unless there is an unforeseen emergency) until we get to Maine and Baxter State Park.
Baxter State Park is the last and final section of the trail where the dogs won’t be allowed. There is a kennel that we can drop the dogs off at for a day or two while we hike the last 14 miles, but Missy and I haven’t really planned that far. I think we’re hoping that in the 4-½ months that it takes us to get to Baxter State Park we’ll come up with a plan for the dogs. My worst fear is that the dogs will have to leave the trail early on when we first start and possibly not come back.
This is the hardest thing to plan for. Right now our emergency contact list for the dogs is a total of one phone number, my brother Case. We just don’t know that many people who are willing to be on call all summer long just in case the dogs need a break from the trail. We don’t know when or if they’ll need to leave and that can make it hard for a person to commit to being an emergency contact in case our dogs get injured. Not that this is what I’m banking on, but I have heard of thru-hikers with dogs speaking with other hikers whose friends or family are willing to help out, just in case something happens and the hikers can’t get someone they know personally to come for a few days. I love my dogs and I hope this is something we don’t have to deal with, but it is always better to be as prepared as possible. This is definitely the one aspect of the trail that makes me the most nervous.