Mason Adams Published

How Jennifer Pharr Davis Found Herself On The Appalachian Trail

A woman smiling stands atop a mountain. She wears a blue hoodie and black shorts and wears a ball cap.
Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail.
Courtesy Jennifer Pharr Davis

This conversation originally aired in the April 2, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

The Appalachian Trail is one of Appalachia’s best known features.

And few people know the Appalachian Trail better than Jennifer Pharr Davis, a North Carolina native who’s through-hiked the A.T. three times. 

In 2008, on her second through-hike, she set the record for the fastest Appalachian Trail hike by a woman. Three years later, she through-hiked it again — and this time set the record for the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trail by anyone up to that point. 

Davis continues to blaze new trails and serve as a celebrity in the world of outdoor recreation. She recently spoke with Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams about some of her hikes — and how they shaped her identity as an Appalachian.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Adams: You have through-hiked all over — the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail. How did you first get into hiking and these long distance hikes?

Davis: Without realizing it, I think the mountains were just always a part of me. I grew up in western North Carolina, and looking around, I always saw the mountains and the forest, and quite frankly, took it for granted. But then I started traveling. When I graduated college at 21, I faced this problem of really not knowing what to do with my life, where I was going to go, what I was going to do for work, who I really was. I just wanted time and a place to figure things out. Growing up in the southern Appalachians, I’d always heard of the Appalachian Trail. I had never set foot on it. I only spent two nights outdoors before, but I thought, “Hey, I know it’s a long trail. It usually takes five or six months to hike. Sounds like an adventure. Seems affordable.” I was 21. So I thought, “Well, hiking is technically just walking. How hard could it be?” And so I set off on my own from Georgia with the goal of walking all the way to Maine. After five months, I made it there, and I was a different person. I’ve never looked back after that. I’ve very much felt like a part of me belongs outdoors in the forest.

Courtesy Jennifer Pharr Davis

Adams: You’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail three times. What’s pulled you back to that particular through-hike?

Davis: The Appalachians have my heart. And there is some sense of roots and connection. In the United States especially, so many of us are looking for our roots and taking DNA tests and trying to find out, “Who am I? Where did I come from? What’s my heritage? What’s my culture?” At some point in my life, I just decided I was Appalachian. It’s like, “Well, I’m a mutt. But this is where I’m born. This is where I grew up. This is where I choose to live.” Hiking all over the world, you realize different places, different mountains — they all have different energies. The Appalachians to me are this wise, maternal wrinkled old grandmother or great grandmother, who was so welcoming and so wise and just wants to invite you in and share wisdom.

So when I’m on the Appalachian Trail, the beauty is in the details and the biodiversity, and the fact that the mountains are some of the oldest in the world, if not the oldest. That essence and spirit is there. Every time I go out there and hike, whether it’s the full Appalachian Trail or just taking my kids out, I think that is what I’m taking home with me though the wisdom and the nurturing spirit of Appalachia.

Adams: You mentioned how you took to the Appalachian Trail, partly to find yourself. And then you allude to a point in time in which you decided that you were Appalachian; that was part of your identity. Do you remember a pivotal moment that helped crystallize that thought for you along the way?

Davis: Yes. And it’s funny because I think so much of the transformation or growth or lessons on long distance trails happen over time. It’s not something that occurs in a moment. But I did have an experience when I was hiking over the ridges of Roan Mountain, which is on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. It’s one of those places where you hike out on this grassy ridge, and you get 360-degree views. There I was at sunset, and I could see mountains all around me. The sky was changing color and the mountain was changing colors at the end of the day, and I was the only one up there. I could hear the birds and the flame azalea had started to bloom. It’s also a spruce fir mountain, so it smells like Christmas, even in the spring.

There I was in that moment, looking around, and it just hit me that I was a part of it. Like, I was a part of nature. I was a part of that scene. At first, that didn’t make sense to me because growing up, I thought nature was cool, beautiful — but it was out the window. I saw it as separate. And then here I was in this moment looking around. I was like, “Wait a minute. Biologically, I am a part of all this.” Then I thought about it through my spiritual lens. And I was like, “Yeah, I really think I’m a part of creation. I’m a part of nature.” When I accepted that truth, I was changed right away.

Adams: You’ve gone on to do more and more hikes, but I wanted to ask you about one other hike in particular, and that’s the Mountains-to-Sea hike. I understand not only did you hike the entire thing, but with an infant!

Davis: Behind the Appalachian Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is probably my favorite. It’s a 1,200-mile footpath that stretches across the state of North Carolina, from the Tennessee border to the Outer Banks. So the way logistically that worked, my husband would meet me at road crossings, and I was hiking morning to night. We would try to camp together or stay with friends off-trail. He was caring for the kids along the way during the day. But I was nursing my son before I started hiking in the morning.

I look back on that experience, and in a lot of ways, it was harder than the A.T. record. The A.T. record that we set gets a lot of attention. But in a lot of ways, I was more humbled and more challenged by trying to do the Mountains-To-Sea Trail with two young children — caring for them, trying to navigate the relationship with my husband — was extremely difficult for him as well.


Davis recently sold the business she founded in 2008, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, to its longtime manager. Davis will take more time to write and speak, and is pursuing a graduate degree to further her work.

Listen to the full interview on Inside Appalachia or click/tap the “Listen” button at the top of this story.