In the Mountains: The Appalachian Trail heals all

The Appalachian Trail, which runs along the western border of North Carolina, is the longest walking-only path in the world

2023 is the North Carolina Year of the Trail, and throughout the year, North Carolinians across the state have been celebrating the great outdoors by enjoying the state’s many walking, biking, and paddling trails. For those of us in the western part of the state, this may include a section hike of the Appalachian Trail (A.T.), which stretches for nearly 220 miles along the western border with Tennessee and an additional 96.4 miles in-state.

Here in North Carolina, section hikes of this iconic trail are common. Our home state is one of 14 that the A.T. passes through, and North Carolina’s very own Clingman’s Dome holds the record for the highest mountain peak on the trail at 6,643 feet. Although many have hiked parts of the A.T., fewer know the story of the trail, why it was built, and the ways it can reconnect us with the natural world and with each other.

Forging a New Path

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail, more commonly known as the Appalachian Trail, is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, stretching over 2,000 miles from Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The route passes through White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont, Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, winding through various other state and national parks and forests as well as a variety of “trail towns” along the way.

Today, millions of people hike parts of the trail every year, but before it was an international bucket list item, the Appalachian Trail was just a proposal from the mind of American forester, community planner, and conservationist Benton MacKaye.

MacKaye studied forestry at Harvard University, and later went on to teach there for many years. In 1921 MacKaye published his revolutionary proposal “An Appalachian Trail: A Project in Regional Planning” which introduced the trail as a solution to the so-called “problem of living.” This “problem of living” was, to MacKaye, a complication of daily life caused by high costs of living, soaring unemployment rates, World War I, “questions of personal liberty,” and other social and economic issues of the time.

Throughout his paper, MacKaye makes an argument for the importance of the working person’s leisure time “as an offset and relief from the various shackles of commercial civilization,” where the worker leaves the busy, claustrophobic life in the city for the fresh air and sprawling, bucolic setting surrounding the Appalachian Mountains with its many opportunities for recreation, recuperation, and employment.

“The project is one for a series of recreational communities throughout the Appalachian chain of mountains from New England to Georgia, these to be connected by a walking trail,” MacKaye writes. “Its purpose is to establish a base for a more extensive and systematic development of outdoors community life. It is a project in housing and community architecture.”

The Appalachian Trail was only a part of MacKaye’s original proposal, which also included shelter, community, and food and farm “camps.” Within his paper MacKaye also included a map with an initial plan for the route of the trail, which is largely the same as today’s completed path.

The Trail of Today

MacKaye’s article was published in the October 1921 edition of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, and within just a few years the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) was founded in 1925 with the mission to “protect, manage, and advocate for” the A.T. Undergoing such an enormous project took time, and construction on the trail was not completed until 1937. Today, ATC partners with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, dozens of state agencies, and 31 local trail-maintaining clubs to manage the upkeep of the trail.

The Appalachian Trail is iconic for many reasons. Its status as the longest walking-only trail in the world makes it stand out, but the societal, social, and health benefits of the trail aren’t unique to the A.T. Rather, these benefits are indicative of getting outside and communing with nature more generally.

One of MacKaye’s primary goals for the trail in his initial plan was for it to act as a refuge for people to leave the city and experience the healing benefits of the natural world. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy continues this legacy today, explaining how natural light, birdsong, and walking and hikingthree major components of the trail experienceare majorly beneficial to mental and physical health.

Natural light, they explain, helps regulate the body’s internal clock leading to better, more restful sleep. Birdsong has been linked to reduced stress and increased relaxation. Walking and hiking have clear physical health benefits, but ATC also says this activity can be mentally beneficial, influencing a positive mood and high self-esteem, and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“It's great to see more Americans, including students here at Lees McRae, getting out and enjoying all the outdoors has to offer,” Instructor of Outdoor Recreation Management Richard Campbell said. “It is easier now more than ever to enjoy the outdoors in all seasons, and multiple studies have shown that spending time outdoors helps reduce stress and anxiety while also providing many other social benefits. It is especially gratifying to be teaching students who are preparing and planning to work in the outdoor recreation industry to provide these opportunities and benefits to people, communities, and society.”

Even though the days are getting colder, and the leaves have fallen from the trees, there is still plenty of time to celebrate the North Carolina Year of the Trail before the new year rolls in. Whether you only spend a couple hours on the path or six months conquering the entire length, the Appalachian Trail is one experience that shouldn’t be missed.

By Maya JarrellNovember 10, 2023
Campus LifeCommunity