For years, Appalachian Trail thru-hikers have been stopping in Franklin for supplies, rest, and Internet access, but last week the town solidified its place as a trail destination. Mayor Joe Collins signed a proclamation accepting the town’s designation as an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy at a celebration event in the town hall.
“It’s such a natural fit. We’ve always appreciated the hikers and hopefully this will allow us to broaden our relationship with them. Hikers are great people,” Collins said.
The Appalachian Trail passes 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap. Franklin’s position 100 miles from the trail’s southern starting point makes it a natural stop for hikers making the 2,170-mile trip from Georgia to Maine.
Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board Chairman Robert Almand described the magic feeling of discovering the AT as he welcomed Franklin into the greater community of the trail at the ceremony last week (April 23). Almand told the story of his first encounter with the trail in the ‘80s while picking up trash near Moody Gap on Earth Day.
“I noticed the AT ran through there, and I went down the trail a little ways to explore and kept seeing those white blazes,” Almand said. “I realized I could walk all the way to Maine if I kept going.”
The Appalachian Trail is one of America’s true pilgrimage routes, stretching nearly the length of the East Coast and attracting some 2,000 thru-hikers each year.
Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the ATC’s designation as an official trail community. The effort was driven by the Nantahala Hiking Club — whose volunteers maintain the 80 miles of the AT between Bly Gap and the Nantahala Outdoor Center — the Franklin Main Street program, and by local businessman Ronnie Haven.
The trail has been both a passion and a resource for Haven, who owns and operates a group of motels between Franklin and Georgia.
“At age 16, I thought I could walk to Maine and back before school started, but I didn’t make it but to Pearisburg, Virginia,” Haven said.
Haven was one of the first Franklin-based business people to embrace the trail hikers as customers. His hotels are known as a stopping point, and Franklin’s trail celebration “April Fools Trail Days” owes its genesis to the hiker bash Haven has hosted at the Sapphire Inn for the past six years.
Haven’s bash includes trail advice from legends, music, and demonstrations of mountain cultural activities, like five-string banjo picking and clogging. Haven said the new ATC designation would allow the town to take on the role as cultural ambassadors of the Western North Carolina high country.
“There’s people who come here from all over the world, and some of them never heard tell of some of the things like we do,” Haven said.
The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. In order to qualify, communities must meet two of four requirements. Franklin met all four by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems, and getting the county planning department to commit to consider the trail in its land use plans.
Nantahala Hiking Club President Bill Van Horn hailed the effort as confirmation of Franklin’s commitment to the AT motto “Join the Journey.”
“Today Franklin has truly joined the journey,” Van Horn said.
Van Horn spearheaded the trail advisory committee, which spent the past year meeting to plan local efforts around education and trail stewardship. Along the way, the committee conducted an informal survey of thru-hikers. The survey found that, on average, thru-hikers stay 1.4 nights in Franklin and spend $124 during their stay.
Both the town of Franklin and Macon County have shown strong support over the past year for becoming an official trail community, but it’s the Nantahala Hiking Club and its volunteers that have undertaken the hard work of maintaining the AT over the years.
Don O’Neil, the NHC trail manager, is one of the many volunteers who maintain the 47 miles of trail that run through Macon County. For O’Neill, who hiked the AT in sections between 1981 and 1991, the motivation to maintain the trail is a sign of gratitude for the experience it provided him.
“I’m just giving back what I got out of the trail,” he said.
As the newest Appalachian Trail Community, Franklin is doing the same.