The Crew Building the Next Great American Thru-Hike
The Great Eastern Trail spans nine states and 1,600 miles just west of the Appalachian Trail, but private landowners, meager funding, and sluggish construction are holding up the completion of America's next big wilderness route
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In early May, I hiked with Peter Berntsen through eastern Tennessee, where the 70-year-old trail builder is laying segments of the Cumberland Trail. The path will wend more than 300 miles through deep hollows, spiraling waterfalls, and diverse flora in the heart of Appalachia, at the mountainous edge of the Cumberland Plateau. I followed as Berntsen lugged an axe and mattock up a rocky and root-riddled stretch meandering through untouched forest. He and his two-man crew were slowly chipping away at the final 100 miles.
The Cumberland is on track to be all but complete in 2019 and will function as a leg of the country’s next great wilderness trail: the Great Eastern Trail, which will span 1,600 miles from Alabama to New York and be composed of already existing trails. It may also serve an important purpose: to siphon foot traffic away from the nearby Appalachian Trail. “The Great Eastern Trail is going to ease the pressure off the Appalachian Trail,” Berntsen says. “If we can relieve just a bit from the big bubble of hikers that starts in Georgia every year, it’ll be beneficial for everyone.”
Last year, nearly 4,200 thru-hikers set off to walk the AT—more than three times the number of people who attempted in 2007. Overcrowding has exacerbated issues like norovirus and trailside litter, prompting the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to push for alternate start dates and travel routes for thru-hikers. The hope is that the Great Eastern will siphon some of the crowds, thus lessening the environmental burden on America’s favorite wilderness footpath.
The Great Eastern, however, is only around 70 percent complete. Without any setbacks, it could be finished within ten years. But first, trail advocates will have to overcome a number of hurdles between hikers and a new glorious trail.
A quick overview of hang-ups that could hamper the Great Eastern: most notably, the coal and timber companies in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that have been unwilling to allow a path through, indefinitely halting construction in those regions. In northern Georgia, much of the path follows paved roads, and progress has been slow due to negotiations between dozens of landowners and government entities. Almost 200 miles of the originally proposed route in southern Alabama, which would have connected to the Florida Trail, was put on the back burner due to lack of a viable route.
Since construction and land acquisition is left to regional trail-building clubs with limited budgets and bargaining power, as well as bare-bones staff, blazing new tread has generally been slow. Trail organizers estimate the obstacles could delay a complete path until as late as 2040. So for now, hikers must navigate the absent chunks by walking on paved roads for around 400 miles.
“Every hiking trail once started on a shoestring budget,” says Tom Johnson, president of the Great Eastern Trail Association (GETA), the nonprofit group that loosely oversees almost two dozen regional trail clubs building the Great Eastern. “The Appalachian Trail went through the same process. It was finished in 1937, in the sense that there was a connectivity from Maine to Georgia, but a lot of it was on roads, and 43 percent was on private land.” It wasn’t until roughly 2010 that most of the road walks were eliminated and privately owned land was acquired and protected.
While the natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail is unmatched in the East, it was clear to the organizers that the Great Eastern offers what the AT cannot: solitude.
Much like the Great Eastern, the Appalachian Trail started out as a collection of footpaths scattered throughout the east that were eventually strung together. When public land wasn’t available, builders sought access from private property owners—some obliged, while others refused. It wasn’t until the National Trails System Act was passed in 1968 that builders made any headway. The act named the footpath a National Scenic Trail, which gave it federal funding and permanent protection, as well as powerful allies like the National Park Service. The biggest advantage was the power of eminent domain. In some cases, private land acquisition was met with fierce opposition from locals, but without that authority, it’s possible the AT as we know it would be much different.
“We would have probably ended up with more road walking and inferior locations,” says David Startzell, who was the executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy from 1986 to 2012. “It’s possible some sections might not have even survived simply because a landowner could have closed off a given section without any decent rerouting alternatives.”
Federal backing is a luxury that Great Eastern organizers neither have nor want. While it’s an attractive option to mend budgeting woes and speed up the process, those on the GETA board fear that landowners could perceive such a designation of the Great Eastern as a bureaucratic intrusion by the federal government, disrupting agreements already in place. The relationships between regional trail clubs and locals have gotten them this far, and that’s the model they’re sticking with.
Startzell says it took 30 years to considerably reduce road walks and establish a protected corridor on the Appalachian Trail after the federal designation and with strong central organization. The Great Eastern, without those advantages, faces an uphill battle. “I won’t say it’s not possible,” Startzell says, “but it’s going to be a very big challenge.”
The concept for the Great Eastern was first proposed by Earl Shaffer, who in 1948 was the first person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. He recognized that trails already existed in the region, and in a 1952 letter to his brother John, Shaffer suggested the trails be linked together. For years, the idea, known then as the Western Appalachian Alternative, floated around in small hiking circles. But the concept didn’t pick up steam until the popularity of the Appalachian Trail skyrocketed in the early aughts.
In 2003, the plan was set in motion by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club, and the Great Eastern Trail Association was formed in 2007. Regional trail-building clubs began working to lay down new tread to connect the extensive network of footpaths from Flagg Mountain in central Alabama all the way up to the North Country Trail in New York. The Great Eastern traces along the Mid State Trail in Pennsylvania, Allegheny Trail in West Virginia, Cumberland Trail in Tennessee, Alabama Pinhoti Trail, Tuscarora Trail in Maryland, and even the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, among others.
Great Eastern organizers aren’t trying to replicate the Appalachian Trail. Rather, they’re attempting to preserve it while at the same time showcasing another unique segment of the region.
While the natural beauty of the Appalachian Trail is unmatched in the East, it was clear to the organizers that the Great Eastern offers what the AT cannot: solitude. “What I really enjoyed about the Great Eastern Trail was that it is young and we didn’t see lot of people out there,” says Jo Swanson, who in 2013, along with Bart Houck, was the first to thru-hike the Great Eastern (one other person thru-hiked in 2016). Swanson thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 and says that while the social component made the journey special, on the Great Eastern she felt secluded and challenged.
Swanson had to prepare for six months before taking on the Great Eastern, compiling several guidebooks and mapping out exactly where the trail would take them. “There are sections that are marked so well, and others that are not,” she says. “It’s a trail you still need a map for. On the AT, you just follow the white blazes. On the Great Eastern Trail, you’re following a whole collection of different colored blazes, or shapes, or there are no blazes at all.”
The mixture of trail markers is a result of the Great Eastern passing through federal, private, and state-owned property—some with specific regulations on signs, trail width, and the blazes that are allowed. When route planning, builders first seek out public land. While state-owned land out east abounds, it’s often smaller and more fragmented compared to the large swath of federal land available for western trail systems. (In the western states, 47 percent of land is federally owned, while only 4 percent of land is in federal hands east of the Mississippi.)
The expanse of public land offers several key advantages, says Matthew Nelson, the executive director of the Arizona Trail Association. Government agencies that manage land typically have a mission to provide public access and recreational opportunities, and long-distance hiking trails fit into that mold, which improves the chances of getting a green light for construction. The 800-mile Arizona Trail lies mostly on U.S. Forest Service property—intersecting with only one private landowner. Nelson says the small number of stakeholders reduced negotiations and sped up the construction process. Out east, that’s not the case, as there are often hundreds of individuals and government bodies tossed into the mix. And due to environmental impact studies, it can still take months, even years, before the first inch of trail is constructed.
When Appalachian Trail builders were faced with crossing private property, they were able to purchase it. But trail clubs building the Great Eastern don’t have the capital to acquire every inch of woodlands the trail will trace through. “Getting private landowners to grant easements or rights-of-way is a delicate art, and some individuals have no interest in public access across their land,” Nelson says. “Trying to convince someone to agree to a recreation trail through their property is a tough sell.” In some cases, landowners refuse any access. A collection of almost a dozen coal and timber companies in West Virginia have halted progress on parts of trail due to liability concerns, says Doug Wood with the West Virginia Scenic Trails Coalition. “They don’t want anybody on their property unless there’s a multimillion-dollar insurance policy to cover damages,” he says. “You’re talking about some real expense on the part of a nonprofit to try to get an insurance policy.” At the moment, planners have no solution to move forward.
When a trail is blocked by private land with nowhere else to go, it’s typically directed to a nearby paved road, which not only takes away from the wilderness experience, but also can add a level of risk. “The Great Eastern Trail turns into eastern Kentucky with about 40 miles of road walking,” Johnson says. “The roads are narrow and dangerous, with no road shoulders and a drop-off to a ditch. It’s really difficult for hikers to get through that area safely.” (In 1978, 800 miles of the Appalachian Trail were either in private hands or along paved roads. But trekking along blacktop didn’t stop people from thru-hiking—and those on the GETA board are hoping that’s the case with their trail.)
Despite the similarities, Great Eastern organizers aren’t trying to replicate the Appalachian Trail. Rather, they’re attempting to preserve it, while at the same time showcasing another unique segment of the region. Even with the setbacks, organizers are confident and determined to push forward. For now, that’s all they can do. “I think so much work has been put into it, we will continue it, even with the problem in southern West Virginia,” Johnson says. “Eventually that will get solved, too. We just have to work on it.”
Out on the trail, the politics of constructing a hiking path are far less apparent. In early May, the Cumberland was quiet, save for the birds, rustling leaves, and the low clink of Berntsen’s mattock as he chipped away at a root. His job is straightforward: push forward, construct trail, repeat. The only thing on his mind, he told me, are the miles of trail he needs to finish.
A couple day hikers made their way down to the trail’s dead end, and neither had knowledge of the Great Eastern. As they trotted off, Berntsen said, “A lot of people have no idea this trail is here.”
Swanson hopes that as awareness of the trail grows, so will support for it. According to the American Hiking Society, trail recreation activities contribute $196 billion to the U.S. economy. If locals start to see the benefits of thru-hikers, Swanson thinks sentiments could change. But first there must be willing hikers.
“I think a lot of hikers are afraid to hike an incomplete trail because they think they won’t have fun,” Swanson says. “I found that I had a ton of fun trying to figure out where to go. It was like putting together a puzzle. It felt like the Appalachian Trail probably did 40 years ago. It still feels wild.”