You may have missed it, but Virginia celebrated a birthday this week. We actually shared it with over a dozen other states, but that’s neither here nor there. Give up? The Appalachian Trail turned 75. We sent a card.
In 1921 Benton MacKaye was a forester who penned an article called An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning. MacKaye was an advocate for land preservation and balancing our needs with the needs of nature. Our kind of guy. His idea was to create a series of trails that followed the spine of the Appalachian and Blue Ridge Mountains that would connect farms and wild areas for the hiking pleasures of city dwellers. The first section, near Bear Mountain in New York, opened in 1923. The National Trail System Act made it a national trail in 1968 and put much of the management under the care of the Park Service.
Today it’s over 2,000 miles of trails connecting Springer Mountain in Georgia with Mount Katahdin in Maine. It ranges from just above sea level near the Hudson River in New York to well over 6,000 feet at Clingmans Dome on the Tennessee border. Here in Virginia, it stretches over 500 miles with elevations from 265 feet to over 5,000 at Mount Rogers. Almost a quarter of the entire trail lies in our State, and much of that travels through Shenandoah National Park and our National Forests.
Every year there are hundreds of hikers who attempt a “thru-hike” and travel the entire route of the trail. If you’re new to hiking, the sections along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway are a good starting point. These trails are well maintained and don’t vary much in elevation. But even these easier sections can get you close to some wildlife on a day-hike. In addition to birds and small mammals, you might spot deer, foxes, and the occasional black bear! The trail is generally shaded by an abundance of oak, birch, and tulip trees. If you make it to Mount Rogers, you’ll actually be in a sub-alpine climate with broad meadows. Who knew?
The neat thing is that while the National Park Service has purchased almost all of the land needed for the Appalachian Trail, and officially they are the stewards, much of the actual work is done by clubs and volunteers. Kind of like us! There are loose groups of hikers who like to maintain trails and shelters (and share tips!) and there are very organized and effective organizations like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The ATC engages in physical work to maintain the trail, but also offer education, outreach with the community, and offer a boatload of tips and information about planning your hike.
But the physical aspect of maintaining the Appalachian Trail isn’t just planting some signs. You would think that it’d be easy – just a trail through the forest. In addition to making sure that the trail stays clearly marked, they keep it clear of debris, build sections for difficult crossings, and help to maintain the many shelters that line the trail. They walk the borders of the parks to make certain that we’re protecting the trail, and they engage and educate hikers that they encounter along the way. These volunteers are the ones who are really the stewards of the Appalachian Trail.
We encourage you to try and take in a section of the Appalachian Trail. Pause for a moment and take in the scenery. Revel in the silence. But much like the mission for Keep Virginia Beautiful, the mantra for the trail groups and hikers is Leave No Trace. No need to bring the Appalachian Trail a gift. You being there is enough.