Mid-March is normally the start of the spring and summer hiking season. Throughout these days and weeks, many “thru hikers” would be starting their journey from Georgia to Maine on the Appalchian Trail.
For many, however, that will no longer be the case. Citing growing concerns about community spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for social distancing, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, as of Monday, March 23, has asked everyone, thru hikers included, to stay away from the trail, and for those thru hikers currently on the trail to leave. In addition, the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests in North Carolina have closed trailheads to parking where the AT crosses National Forest land.
ATC President/CEO Sandi Marra called the decision an evolution, saying that the organization originally was going to just ask overnight hikers to leave due to hygiene concerns and encourage day hikers to still use the trail, but the massive numbers of people and closure of facilities left them with no choice.
“We realized that for the good of all our visitors, for the good of all our AT communities and for the good of the resource itself, we didn’t really have a choice but to ask people to just stay completely away from the Appalachian Trail,” Marra said. “It was a hard decision, because our whole mission is to protect the AT but so that people can come visit it and hike on it. So for us to tell everyone please don’t was not something we arrived at lightly, but we continue to feel it’s the absolute right decision for all considerations.”
While the Conservancy cannot actually close the Appalachian Trail, due to the myriad ways the virus can be spread through contact between hikers in the shelters, restrooms and picnic areas, or to surrounding rural communities that don’t have the resources to fight an outbreak, it is strongly urging everyone to stay away. The aforementioned closing of national forest trailheads will also make it more difficult to access the trail.
Marra also said that, for any hikers who choose not to heed the ATC’s request and hit the trail anyway, there would be “no services and no support.” That includes the possibility of emergency services to aid with injury or illness being delayed, and difficulties finding shuttle rides or hotels off trail.
“You can choose to still go out there, but understand that you’re putting yourself at risk and you could very become an extreme burden on a community that already is overburdened because of this current crisis,” Marra said. “Is that really what you need to do, is it that important for you take this hike at this very moment?”
The Appalachian Trail passes through Haywood County — traversing the Big Creek area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Tennessee line before crossing I-40 and continuing through the Max Patch area of the Pisgah National Forest.
Of course, as of Tuesday, March 24, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is closed through at least April 6, and that means for thru hikers as well. Dana Soehn, a Management Assistant/Public Affairs spokesperson for the park, said the GSMNP has posted sings at both ends of the trail running through the park to advise hikers of the closure, and sent a text/email message to all thru hikers with permits to enter the park during March and April of the guidance.
“We ask that all hikers honor the park closure to help us best work together with our local communities in preventing further spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Soehn said via email.
Chris Werbylo is a Maggie Valley native who works for the Carolina Mountain Club, an organization that maintains a 92-mile section of the trail starting at Davenport Gap, and a section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Cherokee past Mount Mitchell.
Chris and his wife, Jayne Werbylo, were on a six-mile hike last Monday and saw first hand the issues the ATC is concerned about. They were hiking south bound on the Appalachian Trail and counted 23 south-bound hikers passing them. On largely narrow trails, given the CDC’s mandates for social distancing (including maintianing six feet of separation), that’s a problem.
“It’s the right decision,” Chris Werbylo said. “When you get that many people out there, you can’t keep the social distance. When the trail’s three feet wide, and you’re going opposite directions, you’re close to brushing shoulders.”
Chris Werbylo explained that, with many off work and school, going for a hike to get some exercise and practice social distancing. The issue is that pretty much everyone has had the same ideal, rendering the social distancing aspect moot.
While most understand this is a necessary step to take, it’s no less disappointing for many. Mast General Store in Waynesville sees many thru hikers stop in town to repair or replace gear, and of course serves many local, day-to-day hikers.
General manager Joey Fuseler says that hiking is a big part of many people’s lives, and its loss should be considered alongside all of the other major disruptions people are facing to their routines.
“I think it’s similar to someone who can’t go to work,” Fuseler said. “It’s part of their lifestyle. So for it to be missing is a huge disappointment.”