Smokies’ mania: 75 hikes for the 75th anniversary

Jerry Span stared down the sign post for Old Settlers Trail. The temperature registered a mere 6 degrees, and the 17 miles of frozen trail stretching before him through a remote corner of the Smokies loomed large in his mind.

As the outdoor director for Fontana Village, Span’s job was leading hikes. This one had been on the schedule for months, but only one other hearty soul showed up.

“We can do this,” Span thought, hitching up has backpack and thinking of the body heat that would warm his limbs once he got moving.

The hike was one of 75 Span pledged to guide this year in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When he pitched the idea of “75 for the 75th” both his boss at Fontana Village and the park service applauded.

But less than two months into the taxing project, the realities of the intensive schedule were starting to sink in. The hikes criss-cross every corner of the park. Cataloochee one week, Fontana the next, with a jaunt up Deep Creek squeezed in between. With only 52 weeks in a year, Span had to double up on two hikes a week for much of 2009.

The line-up leaves little wiggle room for canceling a hike and still meeting the goal of 75. Thus the onward-and-upward mantra at Old Settlers trailhead earlier this month.

Span has just one comrade in arms for all 75 hikes — Cheryl Morgan, a local woman. But Span didn’t expect many takers for the full line-up. He mostly hopes to be an inspiration for people to kick their hiking up a notch.

In particular, it will help those striving for their 900-miler status: an elite title for those who have hiked all 900 miles of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“The logistics of doing all 900 miles is a nightmare. I’ve talked to a lot of people who say they’ve been working on it for 15 years, so this helps with logistics,” Span said.

“For people who had been thinking about starting, this gives them an incentive.”

The hikes include a shuttle service, making transport to far-flung trails on the Tennessee side of the park easier to get to. It also helps with long trails, which are hard to accomplish solo if you have to hike back out the same way you came. Those on Span’s hikes will benefit from two vehicles, allowing a shuttle between the trailhead and terminus. The cost of the hike if you ride along in the van is $15 per person.

The hikes are organized through Fontana Village and its hiking club, called Fontana Hiking Club. Span organized the hiking club last year, attracting people from across the region for guided treks.

Mapping out the year of hikes was a challenge in and of itself. Longer hikes were more suited to summer when there’s more daylight. Span studied each trail description before penciling it in. Take Eagle Creek, for example, with more than a dozen stream crossings.

“We put that in the summer because we definitely don’t want to be getting our feet wet in the winter,” Span said.

With the worst of winter hopefully behind them, Span is looking for participation on the hikes to ramp up, especially as attention surrounding the park’s 75th anniversary culminates moving toward summer. If Span is still around, just look out for the 100th.

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