You can hike in Maine and Morocco and be in the same mountain range

By Emily Burnham, Bangor Daily News Staff

Mainers in the northern half of the state are used to seeing an eclectic array of people winding their way along the Appalachian Trail — usually, in the final few hundred miles of the more than 2,000 mile journey by foot that begins in Georgia and ends on Katahdin, a spectacular finale for one of the most epic hikes in the world.

For some of those thru-hikers, however, Katahdin is not actually the end of the road. For those intrepid wanderers, there’s thousands more miles to traverse across Canada, Greenland, Europe and North Africa, in a dispersed array of trails known as the International Appalachian Trail.

Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald via AP, File
KATAHDIN SUMMIT – Jesse Metzler of Newton, Massachusetts, who went by the trail name “Sputnik,” celebrates on the top of a sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at the summit of Katahdin on July 19, 2015 in Baxter State Park.

The International Appalachian Trail, also known as the IAT, was first proposed 30 years ago this year by a group of Appalachian Trail hikers and volunteers, and by former Maine Gov. Joseph Brennan. Brennan touted the project as a symbol of the connection between Maine and Canada, to “work together as neighbors to sustain and enjoy our common environment and to celebrate the grandeur of the landscape that ties us together.”

Few people other than geologists, avid hikers and rock nerds may realize that the Appalachian Mountains don’t end in Maine — or that they aren’t solely contained within North America. 

According to the International Appalachian Trail organization, the Appalachian Mountains are part of an ancient chain of mountains called the Appalachian-Caledonian, formed more than 250 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era, on the supercontinent of Pangea. Back then, the mountains soared as high as the Himalayas, as two of Earth’s plates collided to push the ground up. They straddled a part of Pangea that later broke apart and became what is now eastern North America, eastern Greenland, western Europe and northwestern Africa. 

If you’ve ever scrambled over the majestic Highlands of Scotland, looked out over the vistas of the Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco or marveled at the rocky landscape of Iceland, you’ve stood on the same landmass as the mountains we know and love in Maine and much of the eastern U.S. The same goes for areas like the rest of the British Isles, the Iberian Peninsula, the Brittany region of France, southern Scandinavia and eastern Greenland.

Around 250 million years after they were formed, those ancient mountains are now separated by the Atlantic Ocean, but are still part of the same geologic formation. Hundreds of millions of years of erosion have weathered them far down from their prehistoric peaks, but they have truly stood the test of time. 

The IAT first started in Maine in 1993. The organization was founded by Richard Anderson, a University of Maine graduate and former director of the Maine Audubon Society and commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation. 

The organization spent two years seeking permission from landowners and from towns including Mount Chase, Oakfield, Houlton, Mars Hill and Fort Fairfield. In the spring of 1996, workers began the process of clearing the new trail between what is now Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument and the Canadian border at Fort Fairfield, about 100 miles of thick wilderness that, while not officially a part of the federally owned Appalachian Trail, would serve as a de facto extension of the trail.

While originally the “extension” was to run about 400 miles from Katahdin to Mount Jacques Cartier on the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec, in 1997 the IAT committee voted to extend it another 150 miles to the seaside cliffs of Cape Gaspe itself, within Canada’s Forillon National Park. The trail was finally dedicated in June 1999.

The Gaspe trail was just the beginning. Between 2000 and 2010, the IAT added another extension in Newfoundland, a 600-mile trail stretching from the town of Port-aux-Basques in the far southern tip to L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site on the far northern coast. IAT trails were also added in Prince Edward Island and along the northeastern coast of Nova Scotia, including Cape Breton Island. 

Once those opened, the IAT looked even farther eastward — toward Europe and Africa, in an ambitious plan to create a network of trails spanning the long-separated eastern and western halves of the Appalachian-Caledonian Mountains. In 2010 and 2011, chapters of the IAT were opened in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and Morocco, with chapters in France and Portugal to follow. 

The first IAT section in Europe was in Scotland, which opened between 2013 and 2015, starting at the Firth of Clyde in the far southern part of the country, and ending at Cape Wrath, the most north westerly part of Great Britain. Other countries followed over the ensuing decade, with the most recent sections of the trail opening in 2022 in western Ireland, and in 2021 in central Spain. 

Today, you can walk thousands of miles of trails on three continents, and still stay in the same mountain range. Sure, there’s an ocean separating many of them. But the rocks that underlie Katahdin and the 100-Mile Wilderness in Maine are all from the same family as the ones that lie beneath your feet in northern Greenland, or the mountains of central Spain.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.