The Appalachian Trail is within a day’s drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population, and some three million people visit every year.
Hiker counts tallied by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other managing agencies along the trail indicate that the AT is more popular than ever. This ever-increasing number of hikers has created a host of social and environmental problems, from bad behavior and overcrowding to path and campsite degradation.
The impacts are especially acute at the termini of the 2,189-mile trail. Baxter State Park recorded a seven-fold increase in long-distance AT hikers between 1991 and 2016, from 359 to 2,733 (this includes northbound, southbound, section and flip-flop hikers). The increase just in the last year was 596 hikers, or 28 percent.
At Amicalola Falls State Park and Springer Mountain in Georgia, ATC voluntary hiker registration data show a 54 percent increase in northbound thru-hikers, from 1,455 in 2015 to 2,245 in 2016. But even those hefty figures could be low. Baxter State Park recorded 1,231 northbound thru-hikers in 2016. Given that the completion rate is around 1 in 4, that means a whopping 4,924 hikers may have started in Georgia, more than double the actual registration numbers.
Every level of hiker is out on the AT these days, and with the rising numbers, the subset of bad actors has increased proportionately. Defiance of rules and regulations, traveling in large packs and indiscriminate partying have impacted not only the trail but also towns along the way. Hostels and campsites have been closed, and services discontinued because of bad behavior in the last couple years.
The tipping point here in Maine occurred in the summer of 2015 when ultramarathoner Scott Jurek broke the AT speed record and celebrated atop Katahdin, flaunting several Baxter State Park regulations. This prompted park officials to serve notice that the status quo would no longer be tolerated and steps would be taken to address such impacts by distance hikers.
In response to the dramatic increase in use of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has developed PATHE, Protecting the Appalachian Trail Hiking Experience, an information and education program to better inform people about the trail, and to empower hikers to help with the problems.
The ATC has partnered with Leave No Trace to offer master educator courses to trip leaders, guides, outdoor groups, caretakers and ridgerunners so they can then teach others about the seven elements of Leave No Trace. Additional ridgerunners and caretakers have been added in Georgia and in Virginia’s Triple Crown region around McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth and Tinker Cliffs.
“How to Hike the AT” programs for the public have been offered by the ATC in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. A visitor use manager has also been hired to focus on the two critical ends of trail, Georgia’s 79 miles and Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness and Baxter State Park.
In Maine, an AT visitor center was opened last June in Monson and operated seven days a week into October, assisting 2,245 visitors during that period, 1,700 being hikers. The facility is designed to educate hikers about their options when they reach Baxter State Park, like staying at the Birches AT shelter, obtaining a regular campsite or arranging a shuttle and lodging in Millinocket.
Long-distance hikers can also obtain a free permit to enter Baxter State Park at the Monson center. The permits are part of a system implemented by the park in 2016 to better manage the AT hiker population and bring these hikers into the formal park reservation system. This year the number of permits will be capped at 3,150 (1,350 northbound, 610 southbound, and 1,190 for section and flip-flop hikers).
A new ferry operator was hired to shuttle hikers across the Kennebec River via canoe. Some 2,500 hikers took advantage of this free service in 2016, an increase of 500 hikers over 2015.
The Appalachian Trail has a long history of few regulations, something every AT hiker can appreciate. But to preserve the trail and the hiking experience in the face of increasing pressures, more active management steps have become necessary. The ATC, Baxter State Park, trail clubs and the National Park Service now have a structure to monitor the situation, and determine what actions and changes may be needed going forward.
The bottom line for AT hikers, whether you’re out there for the day or a weekend, a week or many months: Love and respect the trail, and protect it by being a good steward at all times. And don’t be shy about educating others about best practices. Become a member of the ATC to support their efforts; ditto for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. Learn more at www.appalachiantrail.org.