NEEL GAP, Ga. — It is midmorning on a drizzly, foggy Saturday and David Flynt is several miles into his 24th hike along the Appalachian Trail.
“Each time we go, there might be a year or two in between,” the Woodstock, Ga., man said. “But you always want to come back.”
Known commonly as “the A.T.,” the famous trail celebrated its 75th anniversary this year – a milestone marked by the day in 1937 when the final segments of the 2,180-mile footpath were
Today, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy estimates that 2 million to 3 million people a year visit some portion of the A.T., which – for northbound hikers – begins at Georgia’s Springer Mountain and winds through 14 states to end at Maine’s Mount Katahdin.
“A lot of the thru-hikers wanting to make the entire trip show up in Georgia in the spring,” said Shelley Rose, the president of the 700-member Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, whose volunteers help maintain the A.T.’s 75 miles in Georgia.
The club is among more than two dozen groups that work with the Conservancy, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and state agencies to keep the trails clean, safe, well-maintained and properly marked with the A.T.’s iconic 2-by-6-inch white blaze.
“It’s a very unique management system that maintains and protects the trail,” Rose said. “In this case the federal government has effectively delegated maintenance to these local clubs.”
In addition to providing sweat equity, club volunteers also raise money to undertake larger projects, such as this year’s restoration of a historic Civilian Conservation Corps shelter at Blood Mountain – the highest point on the trail in Georgia.
Throughout its history, the trail has intermittently challenged, educated, delighted – and frequently confounded – generations of adventurers who attempt to hike its entire length.
Gene Espy, a retired aerospace engineer living in Macon, Ga., first visited the trail in 1945, during a camping trip between semesters at Georgia Tech.
“I was awed,” he said. “I decided right then, if I got a chance, I wanted to hike it.”
Espy, an Eagle Scout, fulfilled his dream in 1951, earning a place in history as the second person to hike the entire trail.
“Back then, the trail was a lot harder to find and you had to climb over fallen logs and blowdowns,” he said. “There weren’t many people, either. Sometimes you’d go a whole week without seeing anyone.”
Today’s A.T. thrives in a world made smaller by GPS and iPhones, offering new generations of hikers the opportunity to experience as much – or as little – wilderness as they desire.
“I was always afraid of heights, and this was a great way to overcome it,” said Pandora Hodge, of Atlanta, who made an inaugural trail hike last weekend with a group called “Run Girl, RUN,” which empowers women to pursue healthier lifestyles.
Jeff and Micah Lanning, of Tampa, Fla., chose the A.T. for a family vacation, bringing along – in addition to their four children – the family dog, Cooper, who carried his own backpack.
“We started at Springer Mountain five days ago,” Jeff Lanning said. “It was quite an adventure.”
The entire trip – 76.4 miles – took the family 10 days.
Hiking clubs such as the University of South Carolina’s Mountaineering and Whitewater Club also travel to Georgia to experience the A.T. firsthand.
“There are 15 of us,” freshman Brooke Turner said as the group took a break during a 12-mile trek to Woody Gap. “This is one of the places they go every year.”
For those who want some company or supervision on their trips, Georgia’s club sponsors hikes and outings almost every weekend, Rose said.
“We even do a series of shorter hikes, which, once combined, can allow someone to hike the entire 75 miles of the A.T. in Georgia within a one-year period,” she said.