iFlipThe trail is what you make of it. It's actually one of the cheapest things (maybe the cheapest thing) you can do. I thru-hiked for under $2,000. Per day, that's less than I spend living at home, by a good margin.
I certainly agree that hiking with a mob defeats the basic purpose of the trail. Reading reports from this year, apparently a lot of the trail got trashed a bit. Lots of garbage around shelters, Haunta virus is now present, and in general there were a lot more disrespectful morons out there than usual. This has largely been attributed to the release of that movie about the PCT last year, as well as the proliferation of the "leisure class."
Each year a dedicated few start the trail on January 1st. The experience, I have heard, is amazing. The skill set that it requires is much different (you actually have to know what you are doing), it will take longer to complete, and you will see almost no one else out there. The solitude and beauty sound phenomenal. This seems like it could be the perfect thing for you.
As others have pointed out, there are lots of other trails out there. The PCT has seen a tremendous upsurge in popularity, so perhaps you should avoid that one as well. The CDT is a very different experience, but you might like it. The Long Trail in Vermont is absolutely amazing. I end-to-ended it recently (doing the part that is congruent with the AT over again) and loved it. It takes anywhere from 10 days to a month, depending on your speed. For a bit longer experience, the Colorado Trail is great. You could also look into the Arizona Trail and the Florida Trail. I really like the look of the Florida Trail (haven't been on it yet), although it is decidedly not all wilderness.
I've hiked all over the US, and done a few ultra runs as well (such as rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon). If you do decide to go for a winter AT thru, definitely keep us updated.
My biggest problem would be the ski season. I'm not going to go a season not working. Not because of the money but I love the job. I would love to start super early. Though.
I heard the CDT was still pretty desolate so maybe I'd start there and then maybe do the AT in the future. IT's just that living east coast for years of my life, and having driven up and down through the mountains so many times, something I always wanted to do.
Was going to do some bigger hikes this year but my health was pretty iffy at times. Hoping for next year I can make some stuff happen.
I wanted to run the AT at one point but I'm no longer able to run at all so that's out. That would be a cool experience. Not try and set any records, not do it for a time, but just roll with a nice pace and cruise. Sounds fun.
Also thinking about spending next summer in AK, I'm sure there are some good hikes there or even just a smaller hike and staying in the wilderness in one region for a while.
As far as the price(I'm doing a circle with this reply sorry) Friend that hiked it years ago seemed pretty set on 3k. and at the time 8 or 9 years ago, I didn't really have that to spare.
Idk, I'll get out there and do something. It's just about making things happen. This last spring had some big plans for hiking in CO, UT, and other spots but got pretty sick and headed east when I finally got well enough to make that happen.
If I can get another job in NZ ever I'm thinking of maybe doing the Te Auroa. I did a very small section of it. Unfortunately they did a lot of work to make it more accessible in that section and I felt they kind of ruined the soul of it but it was nice.
Idk. maybe I'll hike shit maybe I won't. Regardless just doing smaller hikes regularly and cmaping out in nature is good enough, but I'd love to do more.