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Friday, June 15, 2018

I think the Appalachian Trail is dead.

The Appalachian Trail. The AT. 2200 miles of history. I have a fairly good personal history with this trail, as does every hiker on the east coast worth his salt. I've hiked most of the trail from the New York State line heading north. Since moving to the south I have also hiked a lot of the trail down here, though I am not hiking as much as I did in the 80's and 90's. You may recall that last year I hiked the first 25 miles of the trail, I had seen the northern terminus and wanted to see the southern terminus. I wasn't disappointed, as it was a spectacularly beautiful hike.

So it may surprise you to hear that I think the A.T. as we know it, is dead or dying. I have had this conversation with a friend who is also an outdoor educator, he has hiked the entire trail and he vehemently disagrees with me, so I may have the minority opinion, but that doesn't mean I don't get to express it.

For clarity sake, let me say that I don't think that the A.T. as we know it as a physical trail is going anywhere soon. I think the trail will continue to be a pathway leading up the eastern seaboard for decades to come, though I am concerned about the talk of a pipeline cutting across the trail. If there is a pipeline at some point there will be a leak. If I were in charge - and I am clearly not - The Federal Government would purchase all the land and turn it into one big National Park (the trail is a national scenic trail and managed by the NPS, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), the U.S. forest service and numerous state agencies, but I think it needs to be run under one roof. So what do I mean by the A.T. is dead? Well before we get into that, lets look at some facts:

Between 2010 and 2017 the number of people attempting to thru hike the trail went up by 155%, but the number of people completing the entire trail is dropping.

We don't know how many people use the trail for a couple of days, a weekend or a week, but the number has to be in hundreds every weekend. This is a huge impact on the trail and the surrounding environment.

On my three day weekend, from the start of the trail we were constantly flip flopping with between 30 and 40 thru hikers. Upon getting to a shelter it was a party like atmosphere. There were just so many people.

This impact, at some point is going to have to be dealt with. The Pacific Crest trail deals with it's growing popularity by making people get a permit to get on the trail. The A.T. is going to have to - at some point - do the same thing.

According to the ATC on average you cross a road every 4 miles. I know this is an average and in practicality they are further apart than that, but you are never very far from a road, and therefore a town. Which means there will only be more people, vendors, stores and resources for hikers encroaching on the trail.

Okay, here is the sentence that is going to piss people off. In my opinion -and it is a minority opinion I know - the Appalachian Trail barely counts as "wilderness." For me, a wilderness experience includes some measure of solitude and lack of access to resources. But hey, that is just my definition, let's see what Websters has to say.

wil·der·ness
ˈwildərnəs/
noun
an uncultivated, uninhabited, and inhospitable region.
synonyms:wilds, wastes, bush, bush country, bushland, inhospitable region;

Uh huh... Does that sound like the Appalachian Trail to you? I spent three days on the start of the AT (keeping in mind I haven't hiked the whole trail, probably a third of it, but I have hiked thousands of miles all over the planet, I am not a neophyte hiker, okay?) and in those three days do you know how much wildlife I saw? One snake. I didn't see so much as a cool bird. I didn't see a squirrel. I didn't see a chipmunk. I had better odds of getting athletes foot than seeing a bear. The reason I didn't see any wildlife was the amount of people on the trail. That isn't to say it isn't a beautiful trail, it absolutely is. but as far as I am concerned it isn't wilderness. 

I am seeing more and more people - literally helping to outfit them - prepping for the Pacific Crest trail. This year I helped four, which doesn't sound like much, but is a 400% increase from any other year I have been doing this. I am also seeing a lot of thru hikers. A LOT! 

I think there is a social aspect to hiking the trail. Getting a trail name, and the like. I think it is becoming a club. A club that to get into it you have to hike 2000 miles. And I am not trying to diminish the achievement of completing a thru hike. It is an amazing achievement. 

A friend of mine is currently hiking the trail, but she is taking a break to go hiking in Alaska with her boyfriend. I am curious how she compares the two. 

We have to take steps, including a permit process, to lessen the impacts on the trail and protect it for future generations, but I fear it is in the beginning phases of the process of becoming a theme park. Like Philmont Scout ranch. 

There, now two groups of people can hate on me. Thru hikers and the Boy Scouts. Have at it. 

On Monday you can come back here to read about why you should transition to kayak camping.