Archived Outdoors

Appalachian Trail conference serves up full buffet of hiking fare

out frComing to Cullowhee soon: four days of total immersion in everything trail.

Camaraderie with fellow trail enthusiasts and taking in the region’s trails is the top draw that will land hundreds of hikers at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Biennial conference held July 19-26 at Western Carolina University.


But the real trail geeks will revel in nitty-gritty nuances of trail construction or philosophical discussions on the human phenomenon of recreation hiking.

The event is hosted by the five southern Appalachian Trail maintaining clubs and convenes trail managers, hikers, and fans to celebrate and conserve the iconic footpath. Organizers expect 1,000 participants of all ages for come in celebration of the A.T. and take part in the many happenings. The event rotates its location among the regions of the A.T. This year, Cullowhee will host the Southeast’s festival and act as base camp to the Southern A.T. and the region surrounding it. 

“This event is only held in the Southeast once every eight years,” said Morgan Sommerville, regional director of the ATC. “So the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is excited to bring this informative and entertaining event to North Carolina to showcase the Appalachian Trail and the surrounding beauty.”

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The program will include nearly 150 organized hikes, more than 70 workshops and two dozen excursions, live music, dancing, and outings to some of the region’s best locations. Read on to discover a sampling of what the conference will bring, and for a full menu, go to


Hikes: hitting the trail is what it’s all about

Make sure those boots are in working order. There will be 66 guided hikes offered from Saturday, July 20 through Friday, July 26, across the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.

Hikes will run the full range of difficulty, from an easy stroll along the greenway in Franklin to a strenuous 10-hour trek from Stecoah Gap to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.

The hikes will cover 114 miles of the Appalachian Trail in a series of section hikes from Deep Gap/Standing Indian Mountain in North Carolina to Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies to Max Patch in the Pisgah National Forest. There will be 14 different hikes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, five hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway, several hikes to waterfalls and vistas in the Cashiers and Highlands area, and of course, Panthertown Valley just a hop and skip from Cullowhee.

Most hikes will depart between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., but there will also be half-day afternoon hikes and half-day morning hikes to allow for participation in other workshops or activities that day.

Participants can view a full breakdown of each hike, departure time, length, difficulty etc. online. 


Workshops: boning up on trail talk

More than 70 workshops are packed into the four day AT conference, running the gamut of talks, presentations and hands-on sessions for outdoor enthusiasts.

Learn the “Gentle Art of Wandering” with archeologist and author David Ryan at 8:15 a.m. on Saturday. The workshop is geared towards teaching the mindset and art of wandering in the woods. Or, for those worried about a sprained knee or the risks of sunburn while out in the woods, attend the seminar  “Common Medical Issues” at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, put on by Justin Padgett with the National Outdoor Leadership School Wilderness Medicine Institute based in Cullowhee. 

Female hikers can learn tips on “Backpacking for Women” at 8:15 a.m. on Sunday. This program teaches the ins-and-outs of gear, getting started, and safety for women of the trail. Or, if you’re a hiker who likes to walk but really just enjoys a good meal, “Feasting in the Wild Backcountry” at 1:15 p.m. Sunday might be just the right program. Plus, there is food sampling involved.

The full lineup includes programs on topics of cultural heritage, environmental issues, hiking and backpacking skills, trail management, tools for environmental organizations, social media and more. Some are all-day ordeals, while others are a couple of hours. Some are scheduled in the evening, allowing for participants to go on many of the fieldtrips offered and return in time for a seminar or two.



When the sun goes down on the trail conference, the event really gets kicking. Live music, dancing, presentations about hiking trails and a Cherokee storyteller are on the nightly event schedule running from Sunday, July 21, to Thursday, July 25, at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. The evening events begin at 8 p.m., with the educational talks being held at Forsyth Auditorium.

Admission to the entire week’s evening events is $15 with conference registration or nightly tickets are $7 and children under 12 are admitted free. 

Here’s the line-up for talks, but to learn about the musical shows and concerts each night visit

• Sunday, July 21: Author Jennifer Pharr Davis, who holds the record for speed hiking the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail, will talk about her experiences during the 46-day journey. 

• Monday, July 22: Author Danny Bernstein will present a slide show of her 1,000-mile hike of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, featuring the beauty, vibrancy, and history of this end-to-end route, captured in her book, The Mountains-to-Sea Trail Across North Carolina. 

• Tuesday, July 23: Jim Kern, founder of the American Hiking Society and two other state and regional trail clubs, will talk about essential elements for founding a successful outdoor non-profit.

• Wednesday, July 24: Darcy Douglas will present a slideshow about the 288-mile Benton MacKaye Trail that runs from north Georgia to Davenport Gap at the north side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

• Thursday, July 25: Swimmer, an accomplished Cherokee dancer, storyteller and public speaker.


Excursions abound: sample all the region has to offer

Want to get out, but don’t quite feel like another hike? The trail conference has two-dozen or so excursions on the menu from Saturday, July 20, through Tuesday, July 23. 

The options are plentiful and aimed at highlighting the beauty, culture and adventure opportunities in Western North Carolina.

Participants can get their feet wet while whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River or tubing on the Tuckasegee River, or burn some rubber while mountain biking in Tsali Recreation Area or road-biking on the Blue Ridge Parkway, or flex their artistic muscle with an arts and crafts tour of Asheville.

There is also a tour of Cherokee, featuring the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Qualla Arts and Craft Center, and a chance to experience a modern Native American town; a visit to the Biltmore Estate and gardens; and a stop at Wheels through Time, the motorcycle museum in Maggie Valley. Real cowboys and girls can ride horses through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The costs range from free to $70.

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