In the 1920s, a group of conservationists began work on a trail that would span the incredible (and endangered) Appalachian mountains of the Eastern United States. Their goal was to provide people with a place to “get away” from their everyday lives. For most of the century, the AT was just that, but only for the very few who could manage to slug 60+ pounds of heavy canvas gear around with them! Nowadays, the trail has transformed into another world entirely, but it has managed to remain that special place away from it all for those who experience it either for a few hours, or a few months. The invention of lightweight gear and some well-made documentaries has brought people to the trail from every walk of life imaginable, making the number of “thru-hikers” (those that walk the trail from end-to-end) skyrocket over the last couple decades. Now, this year the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is expecting up to TWICE the largest number of thru-hikers from any previous year. Over 2200 people have registered as a thru-hikers already, and that’s not counting the thousands that bypass the registration! This huge upswing is due largely to the new movie made about the trail, “A Walk In the Woods” based on the Bill Bryson book, but is also due to a growing number of people who simply want to get out and experience the outdoors.
The fact that so many people are going to be experiencing the Appalachian Trail this year is exciting and promising. The AT is part of what keeps our wild areas wild by showing how important it is for us to have places such as Shenandoah National Park and the George Washington National Forest. As more people are exposed to the incredible sights and people on the trail, it is my hope that they will add their voices to the protection of the lands it passes through. However, thousands of people walking through a very narrow part of the Appalachian environments comes with a cost. Too many people on the trail can seriously increase erosion, damage wildlife habitats, and ruin campsites if they’re not being careful. So, to keep the trail healthy for years to come we all have to do our part. That could mean volunteering with a trail club, attending a Leave No Trace class, or picking up some trash next time you’re out on the trail. Whatever you do though, make sure you find some time this summer to get out and enjoy a walk through the woods!