TRAIL

A large group of hikers wildly celebrate completion of the Appalachian Trail atop Mt. Katahdin in Maine.

An interesting pandemic trend during the past 17 months has been the increase in outdoor recreation. More people are getting outside to walk, bike, run, hike, camp, or just be in the woods and on the lakes.

According to a recent study by RunRepeat.com, hiking has seen a prodigious increase in both the number of people who get out to hike, and in the number of hikes that are being taken. Gyms have been closed all around the country, fitness classes canceled, and social distancing is the new status quo. The solution for many has been to get outside into the fresh air.

As reported in the study, the biggest change has been the incredible number of people actually out on the trails. The number of individual hikers in 2020 increased over 134% compared to 2019. But the number of recorded hikes in 2020 increased a whopping 171% compared to 2019. Research is currently being done by RunRepeat to determine how the trend has continued in 2021.

On one hand, this is a tremendous and positive trend. Hiking can improve one’s fitness level by increasing strength and endurance, improving balance, and strengthening the heart. As great as that is, many would argue that the mental health aspects of hiking are just as, if not more, important.

According to a Stanford University study, spending time outdoors, including hiking and camping, can reduce stress, calm anxiety, and lead to a lower risk of depression. I can personally attest to all of the above, as the trail is where I go to be in my happy place!

The study, done by researchers at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, showed that people who walked for 90 minutes in a green area (not an urban setting), had decreased activity in the area of the brain that correlates with depression.

So, when one reads results such as those submitted by RunRepeat and combines those results with conclusions that were made at Stanford, it looks like being in the great outdoors is good for our physical and mental health, and hiking in particular is just the ticket in this Covid-infected world for improving our quality of life and mental well-being.

Alas, with this good news comes some bad. Particularly with the increase in trail and national park usage, the question that is being asked is, are our trails being loved to death?

In the latest in a litany of related stories across the country, a recent article in the Washington Post (August 22) examines just that question. Sections of the nearly 2,200 mile long Appalachian Trail have become so popular and crowded, that officials are brainstorming to come up with solutions to deal with the aftermath of such allurement.

Areas on the AT such as McAfee Knob in southern Virginia, Max Patch in North Carolina, and Snickers Gap in northern Virginia have of late been literally overrun with day hikers out to get some exercise, commune with nature, and catch some great views. But human nature and Mother Nature are not always well-suited for each other.

First, there is the trash. While the principle of “Leave No Trace” is supreme in the hiking world, not everyone has received the memo. Dismaying and skanky tales of litter – ranging from candy wrappers, to dirty diapers, to masks, to tossed Styrofoam coolers, to bags of dog poop, to trashed food left in fire pits – are making the rounds among lovers of the woods.

Also not consistent with “Leave No Trace”, many weekenders incorrectly assume that the trail belongs to them, not to everyone. Large groups hiking across the trail, loud music, foul language, and campfires where there is no fire pit, are not only annoying, but can harm the wildlife as well as fellow human visitors.

And then there is the parking problem. At Laurel Lake, a half hour north of Gettysburg in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, the trail to Pole Steeple is a very popular local hike. It is a short, steep hike that affords a sense of accomplishment and a pretty nice view. The parking lot there can accommodate about 15 cars. On one nice weekend, I counted 56 cars in and around the Pole Steeple lot. The cars lined Old Railroad Bed Rd. for nearly 200 yards, many sticking out into the road and causing a backup on the narrow woods lane.

At McAfee Knob, the parking lot that is four trail miles from arguably the most spectacular view along the entire AT, regularly overflows onto busy Route 311, causing danger and annoyance to the local drivers and homeowners who are near the lot.

When asked to comment on the issue of too many people on our nation’s trails and in our parks, officials are careful. On one hand, they are pleased to have had their marketing of the land’s usage be so successful. On the other hand, in certain areas it is just too much. There has been much debate over how to handle the renewed and excessive popularity our parks are experiencing, but no real solutions have been forthcoming.

In many big national parks, like Yellowstone and Zion, visitors are of course welcome, but their cars are not. Shuttle buses run visitors in and out of the heavy trafficked areas, or entry is only allowed on a timed basis. This seems to have worked at those venues, but would not work at many others. Even Gettysburg National Military Park gets crowded with cars and pedestrians enough to make locals want to scream.

But these mitigations do not work everywhere. The Appalachian Trail, for example, cannot be restricted, as there are hundreds and hundreds of entry points. Parking areas can be expanded in some of the more popular places, but that is limited and the lots would still be full, with the problem still existing.

We love our parks. We love being outside. We love being one with nature. And certainly everyone has the freedom to recreate and visit the great outdoors. The only solution, as with many other things that some people ruin for others, is education.

Serious-minded hikers and lovers of the outdoors have learned how to protect and take care of the environment and our natural world. Day hikers can learn the same skills. Enjoy the outdoors, hike, camp, boat and connect, and when you leave to go home, make sure that you have not left a trace that you were there, so that no one would ever know that you passed that way.

The principle of Leave No Trace is an honored and dutiful code of ethics for those who spend time in the woods and waterways. Anyone who ventures into the wilds should take it upon themselves to learn the seven principles of Leave No Trace, and also encourage others to learn them as well.

The next column will review Leave No Trace and consider what it takes to be a responsible hiker, and not “be that guy”.

On The Trail by Ed Riggs will appear in the Gettysburg Times on Monday, Sept. 27.

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