I would never do or say anything to question the role of major hiking trails. I have spent some of the best days of my life (hundreds of days in all) on the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail. The very existence of the PCT, AT and other long distance trails have been and will continue to be responsible for introducing millions of people to the joys of being outdoors. That alone is an invaluable contribution.
Just a few weekends ago, I met a man and his 5-year-old daughter on top of a small mountain in western Maine. He had thru-hiked the AT in 2002 and was overjoyed to be taking his child on her first hike. It was a tangible reminder that a long hike changes us (and likely the people around us) forever.
The role of lesser trails
Yet, the increasing notoriety of the major trails has brought major challenges. One is the paradox that the more people try to find a wilderness experience, the less likely they are to get one. More than 3 million people hike at least some of the Appalachian Trail each year. In many years, I am one of them. But in the last 25 years, I’ve been limiting my major trail visits to early spring and late fall for two reasons: a. I prefer the solitude that hiking in the “off season” provides and b. I have found incredible joy in hiking lesser known trails.
In the early 1990s, my hiking partner, Wayne and me started researching and collecting guidebooks for lesser known regional trails. Some of them intersect with major trail systems (or in some cases, are becoming parts of interstate trails), but many of them are “stand alones” that exist largely because of small, dedicated organizations that keep the trails open and protected.
So much to explore
So far, we have completed hikes on the New England Trail (CT-MA-NH), Midstate Trail (MA), the North-South Trail (RI), the Wapack Trail (MA-NH) the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway Trail (NH) and the Taconic Crest Trail (MA-VT). We have also started (or have plans to start) many more, including the Horse-Shoe Trail (PA), the Finger Lakes Trail (NY) and the Tuscarora Trail (VA-WV-PA-MD).
What we’ve found is that most of these trails are known only to the organizations that dedicate their time and resources to them. This is a huge advantage to those of us looking for solitude, but not so much for ensuring that the lesser trails remain viable. When you purchase maps and guidebooks from the organizations that publish them you are taking an important first step in helping them keep their trails protected and available for all of us to enjoy.
Trails don’t just happen. They need our support.
The challenges small volunteer trail organizations face are enormous and include the need to negotiate (or renegotiate) easements over private land, making trail improvements (building bog bridges, clearing trees, etc.), updating trail descriptions in guidebooks and on websites and keeping their memberships strong through various outreach efforts. All of this requires substantial donations of time and money.
This hiking season, I urge everyone that enjoys the outdoors to explore some of the paths less taken. But more than that, I hope we will all consider paying our love of trails forward by contributing some of our time, talents or financial contributions to help keep these lesser known gems available for those that follow in our footsteps.
My Current East Coast Bucket List
The following is my admittedly east coast centric list of regional trails on my “have done” and “to do” list (along with links to their support pages). I’ll be adding lists of trails in the central and western United States soon.
Mid State Trail (PA)