By Ethan Woodhouse
Aug. 14, 2012. While the Appalachian Trail’s (A.T.) nearest output to our portion of the High Country is nearly a two-hour drive away, the legendary footpath is forever connected with Watauga, Avery and Ashe counties.
Sharing a mountain range (the Blue Ridge) and name with the resident university has allowed such a bond to be built. The A.T. is the star attraction of the never-ending backyard shared by all residing in or visiting the western portion of N.C.
Today, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) celebrates its 75th anniversary of completion. The closest registered hiking paths to Watauga and the surrounding counties are in Bakersville, N.C., Hampton, Tenn. and Roan Mountain, Tenn. All of these locations are no more than one and a half hours drive away, no more than a moderate level of difficulty and offer hikers magnificent views, unique biological and geological sites and miles of solitude and adventure.
Randy Johnson has called the High Country home for over 30 years, giving him ample opportunity to traverse all portions of the A.T.
Johnson first hiked the A.T. in high school, back in the 1960s, he said. More recently, he cross-country skied part of the trail last winter. In between, he has hiked portions of the trail, from Maine to Georgia, “hundreds and hundreds of times.”
“We’re lucky here in the High Country because the Roan Mtn. section of the A.T. is easily one of the top, 6, 8, parts of the A.T.” said Johnson. “It’s just awesome. Between Roan Mtn. and Elk Park, that’s a spectacular section right there, one of the top ones in the country. Certainly the Great Smokies is also one of the most memorable parts of the A.T.”
Outside of North Carolina, the Trail sprawls from Springer Mtn., Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine; covering over 2,180 miles. The longest hiking-only footpath spans 14 states and 250,000 acres of contiguous, protected trail lands.
History of the Trail
Benton MacKaye proposed the idea of the A.T. in an Oct. 1921 article entitled “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning.” Over the course of the following 15 years, hundreds of state and federal partners, volunteers, local trail-maintaining clubs, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy banded together to clear the path, which would be completed in 1937.
Since the Trail’s conception, almost 99 percent has been relocated or rebuilt to better protect the Trail and allow visitors to better traverse more scenic landscapes.
An estimated 2 to 3 million people visit the trail every year and about 2,000 attempt to “thru-hike” the 2,000+-mile trail. One in four complete the full trek. Earl Shaffer of York, Penn. was the first to complete a “thru-hike,” 11 years after the trail’s completion in 1948.
Thousands upon thousands of woodland creatures call the trail their home, from the harmless to the more threatening. Perhaps the most symbolic creature living in the Appalachias is the American black bear. Sightings of the creature on the trail are rare, but confrontations are even rarer. The furry creatures are most common in the Shenandoah National Park and New Jersey portions of the Trail.
Venomous snakes like the Eastern Timber Rattlesnack and copperhead are more common, and threatening, to hikers. Mice, ticks, mosquitoes and black flies tend to cause travelers the most annoyance. Deer, elk, wild boars and even the majestic moose also make their homes all along the trail.
Of the southern states that the A.T. runs through, N.C.’s 88 miles of trails is second only to Virginia, which at 550 miles of trails is easily the largest portion of the A.T., and that is without considering the 200+ miles of trail that run along the N.C./Tenn. border. The lowest point on the N.C. trails is 1,725 ft. above sea level and highest reaches over 5,498 ft. into the sky. These mile high peaks accompanying 4,000 ft. wide gaps make N.C.’s portion of the trail particularly scenic and memorable.
Johnson has hiked all over the world- Australia, Japan, the British Isles and numerous other locations. But he can’t keep away from the A.T.
“This area, the Appalachians, you could argue that the A.T. is one of the most world class recreational experiences out there,” said Johnson. “The A.T. is an icon around the world. It was one of the earliest end-to-end trail experiences that elevated hiking into a full mountain range or a true cultural experience. Why wouldn’t you come back to the best trail in the world? The Appalachians are an awesome area. Some mountains are higher, out west, Austria, so on, but that doesn’t mean you don’t come home when where you live and what you have is known all over the world for being a great place. That’s what we have here.”