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Appalachian Trail Celebrates 50th Anniversary

August 8, 1987

Undated (AP) _ In 1921, forester Benton MacKaye wrote about his dream of the country’s first national scenic trail, a vision that would be realized 16 years later as the Appalachian Trail.

This week, as officials celebrate the 50th anniversary of the path that runs through woods, mountain ridges and occasional towns from Georgia to Maine, hundreds of hikers will be quietly savoring the vistas and solitude of its 2,000 miles.

One of them is even recording a start-to-finish video.

MacKaye, of Shirley, Mass., presented his idea in an article called ″The Appalachian Trail, An Experiment In Regional Planning″ in the October 1921 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects.

The forester, who died in 1976 at age 96, helped design and route the trail, which stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, said Brian King, spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference.

Its 2,097 miles make it one of the longest marked footpaths in the world, according to the conference, a volunteer group that coordinates the efforts of trail clubs, state and local governments, federal agencies and individuals in trail management and maintenance.

Friday Aug. 14 marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the last link of the trail, the northern slope of Maine’s Spaulding Mountain. The trail’s official anniversary ceremony will be held that day on the trail in Carrabassett Valley, Maine. A celebration will be held Saturday in Hanover, N.H.

To mark the anniversary, Daniel Wingfoot, 39, of Conyers, Ga., is making a ″Golden Anniversary Expedition.″ Wingfoot, who hiked the entire length in 1985, left Georgia April 11 planning to spend 169 days on the trail. He should reach Mount Katahdin on Sept. 26, according to conference spokeswoman Jean Cashin.

Wingfoot is making the first end-to-end video record of a trail hike, compiling a condition report for the conference, and is cataloging the trees, flowers, ferns, berries, birds and wildlife along the trail.

Ms. Cashin says interest in the trail is up for the anniversary year. Following a February article in National Geographic, ″we got triple the mail and phone calls″ to the conference’s Harpers Ferry, W.Va., headquarters, she said.

The trail extends through Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Ms. Cashin estimated 3 million to 4 million people use the trail each year, but she expects a far greater number this year. Usually about 400 start in Georgia in April planning to go the distance, but this year at least 700 started.

About 1,500 have hiked the whole trail, ″but not all in one shot,″ she said.

Ms. Cashin, who has hiked 500 miles of the trail, said hiking the length of the trail usually takes about six months. It can be done in four months, she said, but hikers in a hurry do not have the opportunity to visit towns along the trail.

″Weekenders use the trail more during the summer than anybody,″ Ms. Cashin said. Most of the requests the conference gets come from weekend hikers, she said.

The heaviest use of the trail, which winds through eight national forests and six national parks, is in the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smokies.

Virginia has the longest section of the trail - about 500 miles - and West Virginia has the shortest section, about 25 miles along the Virginia-West Virginia border.

The greatest elevation is on Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies, 6,643 feet. The trail is slightly above sea level where it crosses the Hudson River at Bear Mountain State Park near Peekskill, N.Y.

There are more than 200 shelters, spaced about 10 miles apart, and 12 hostels along the trail.

Shelters are usually lean-to’s and some require reservations while others are on a first-come, first-served basis. Hostels, sometimes called hospices, are usually in buildings just off the trail and are run by churches or other organizations. They may offer beds and shower facilities. Those run by American Youth Hostels have a small fee.

One popular hostel is a church-run facility at Delaware Water Gap, Pa., King said.

The ″friendliest town on the Appalachian Trail,″ at least according to many hikers, is Damascus, Va., Ms. Cashin said.

The trail runs down Main Street, according to Mark Reeter, town manager of the community of 1,300 people.

″The trail for many years, since the beginning really, has been an integral part of the community,″ Reeter said. ″We are a very small community and the citizens have always enjoyed having hikers from all parts of the country and all walks of life share a bit of themselves with us - and the people of the town share with them.″

The Damascus United Methodist Church operates a hospice for hikers and the town opens the showers at the municipal pool for their use, he said.

″We are one of the few places on the trail that I’m aware of that hikers consider a home away from home - someplace where they can pick up mail, get a meal and rest for a few days.″

Asked about the impact of the trail on the economy, Reeter said, ″We don’t see it as a business. It provides an element of liveliness and color to a small community.″

Damascus had its first Appalachian Trail Days festival in May and plans to make it an annual event.

″The trail is famous for its camaraderie,″ according to Ms. Cashin.

King said he believes long-distance hikers see the trail as a ″personal therapeutic experience,″ while others hike it for exercise, the variety of terrain and the views.

The trail is not, however, without its problems.

Two Maine hikers were murdered near Pearisburg, Va., in 1981, while hiking the trail to raise money for a school for the disabled. The crime was the basis for a book, ″Murder on the Appalachian Trail,″ by Jess Carr.

All but 139.4 miles of the trail are protected from development - state park or game land, or property owned by the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service, King said.

Maine has the largest section of unprotected trail, roughly 82 miles, followed by Pennsylvania with 26 unprotected miles, King said. The remaining unprotected miles are spread along the trail.

″There is a great deal of negotiating going on,″ King said, adding that the number of unprotected miles should be less than 100 by next year.

Congress in 1968 passed the National Trail System Act, which named the Appalachian Trail as the first scenic trail. Seven trails are listed in the act, including the 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Canada to Mexico through California, Oregon and Washington.

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