The Appalachian Trail, given its ever-increasing popularity over the past weeks, is no longer a viable space to practice social distancing. Sandra Marra, President & CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued this statement yesterday, asking hikers to please stay away from the famous route.
In these unprecedented times, I am making an unprecedented request: please stay away from the Appalachian Trail (A.T.). Whether your hike is for a couple of hours or a couple of days. Staying away from the Trail minimizes the spread or contraction of COVID-19.
In a time when social distancing is necessary to minimize the spread and contraction of a dangerous virus, many have escaped to nature seeking isolation and unpopulated spaces. On the Appalachian Trail, however, what they’ve found are trailhead parking lots exceeding their maximum capacities, shelters full of overnight hikers, day hikers using picnic tables and privies, and group trips continuing as planned. Popular spots along the Trail like Blood Mountain in Georgia, the McAfee Knob area in Virginia, and Annapolis Rocks in Maryland have seen day use reach record-breaking levels. Cars line the highways leading to popular day-hiking spots on the Trail. Hiking the A.T. has become, in other words, the opposite of social distancing.
These same crowds accessing the A.T. may not know how a simple half-day hike can spread COVID-19. While hiking, they may have eaten lunch at a picnic table, taken a break in a shelter, used a privy, or shared a map or food with someone unknowingly infected with COVID-19 and carried this highly contagious virus back to their communities at the end of the day. They may not have realized that ATC staff and Trail volunteers have been recalled from the A.T. and cannot maintain the footpath, trailheads, shelters and privies that may be heavily (or permanently) impacted by increased visitor use. And, they may not be aware of the rural communities adjacent to the Trail that may not have the healthcare resources to help a sick hiker or volunteer or manage a COVID-19 outbreak should a hiker transport the virus in from the Trail.
Many day hikers see the outdoors as an escape from the stresses of these difficult times. But with crowding from day hikers reaching unmanageable levels and the lack of any staff or volunteers to manage this traffic, it is necessary that all hikers avoid accessing the Trail. The A.T. is not a separate reality from the communities in which hikers live – so, until the risk of spreading COVID-19 has reduced significantly, hiking on a heavily-trafficked trail like the A.T. potentially increases rather than reduces harm.
The ATC does not want to do too little, too late. We cannot close the Trail. We cannot physically bar access to trailheads or connecting trails. We can and do, however, urge everyone to please stay away from the Appalachian Trail until further notice.
There is an unfortunate truth about this virus: unless everyone is safe, no one is safe. So, take a walk around the block. Spend time with your loved ones. And, please, stay home.