An A.T. alternative: Long-distance trail under construction for the western Appalachians
As the Appalachian wilderness trail Benton MacKaye dreamed up in 1921 becomes busier and busier, a geographically scattered group of trail enthusiasts is building an alternative — the Great Eastern Trail , a 1,800-mile route stretching from Alabama to New York.
“The idea was to have the several existing trails thorough the western Appalachians connected together, and it was in hope it would take some of the pressure off the Appalachian Trail,” explained Great Eastern Trail Association President Tim Hupp.
Planning the route
Incorporated since August 2007, the Great Eastern Trail Association is working to turn the GET from a fragmented collection of local trails into one continuous route through the western Appalachian Mountains. It’s further along with that mission on the northern end than in the South, Hupp said.
“The northern half of it is built, and where they have to go in the southern half is pretty much determined, but that still has to be built,” he said.
The trail begins in Alabama, where it uses the existing Pinhoti Trail to travel from Flagg Mountain into Georgia, but trail developers face a 220-mile gap to connect the GET south to the Florida Trail . Crossing into Georgia, the GET continues to follow the Pinhoti Trail before diverging through ridgetop logging roads in the Chattahoochee National Forest and turning north toward Tennessee. Here hikers face another gap, as trail developers are still evaluating options to connect the Georgia Pinhoti Trail to the Cumberland Trail . When complete, the Cumberland Trail will traverse more than 300 miles to Cumberland Gap, where it will join the 120-mile Pine Mountain Trail , which is also still under construction. Currently, 165 miles of the Cumberland Trail and 44 miles of the Pine Mountain Trail are open, with roadwalks filling in the gaps.
Lines drawn atop Benton MacKaye’s original sketch of the proposed Appalachian Trail route show how the proposed route, actual route and planned Great Eastern Trail interweave. Donated image
In western West Virginia, the GET uses a network of existing trails to cross through coal country to Virginia, where it follows the state line for 350 miles, crossing back and forth between West Virginia and Virginia 14 times along the New River north to Hancock, Maryland. Traveling south along the New River, the route follows the in-progress Mary Draper Ingles Trail to Virginia and then uses roadways to reach the Appalachian Trail at Pearis Mountain, sharing its route with the famed long-distance trail for 20 miles to Peters Mountain. From there, it takes the Allegheny Trail for 24 more miles before asking hikers to complete a 40-mile roadwalk, then rejoining the Allegheny Trail for another 20 miles. The trail then switches between various roads and trails for 150 miles more.
The group has accomplished a lot over the past decade, with the GET boasting continuous trail from Alleghany County, Virginia, to Addison, New York — but there’s still much to do. Building new trail, of course, but also building awareness, along with amenities and wayfinding for hikers. The GET currently offers only infrequently spaced hiking shelters, and it doesn’t have a uniform blazing system, though the GET Association is in the process of installing signs.
Before getting involved with the GET in 2009, Hupp was a member of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club , focused on taking care of and maintaining the venerable long-distance trail. But the GET Association’s efforts on Shenandoah Mountain in Virginia, near Hupp’s home in Rockingham County, piqued his interest.
“Shenandoah Mountain has kind of spurred fascination for me,” he said. “It’s got trail along the top of it, or at least horse roads, that go on for 65 miles, and it’s just across the county from me. But one thing leads to another. I got to know other trail sections and start wanting to hike them.”
The A.T.’s quieter cousin
The completed GET won’t be the A.T.’s identical twin. It follows a completely different route, after all, and while Hupp said it’s incredibly scenic — especially in the southern portions along the Cumberland and Pine Mountain Trails, which take in gorges, plateaus, cliffs and waterfalls — most of its length is lower in elevation than the parallel portion of the A.T., following river valleys to a greater extent than its more famous cousin. It’s also shorter than the A.T. — 1,800 miles compared to 2,194.3 — and doesn’t stretch as far north, meaning that it skips the above-treeline experience the A.T. offers in the White Mountains of New England.
But the biggest difference, said Hupp, isn’t about natural surroundings.
“It would be a lot lonelier,” he said. “There are few other hikers on it.”
So far, only four people have thru-hiked the GET, with the first two people to do so finishing in 2013. By contrast, 3,598 people registered to start an Appalachian Trail thru-hike between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30 this year. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy , one in four thru-hikers actually completes their goal, meaning that about 900 of those likely finished — in addition to the approximately 3 million people who visit the A.T. each year.
Pressure on the A.T. has ramped up significantly over the last decade. In 2019, the last pre-COVID thru-hiking season, the ATC recognized 1,034 people for completing at least 2,000 miles of trail, compared to 628 in 2009. While hikers say there’s still plenty of solitude to be had on the trail, shelter areas are often crowded. The thru-hiking experience is fundamentally different than it was in its earlier decades.
For the GET, Hupp envisions a hiking experience more along the lines of what adventurers may have found along the A.T. in the 1950s, when the number of successful thru-hikers for the year could be counted on one hand.
“I hope it becomes the choice of people hiking. You want to hike the Great Eastern Trail because it’s another trail, and because of what it has to offer,” Hupp said.
Adena Spring Shelter on the Pine Mountain Trail in Kentucky offers Great Eastern Trail hikers a respite from the elements. GETA photo
While he believes the A.T.’s historical legacy means that thru-hiker traffic on the GET will never rival that of the older trail, he believes the GET will one day see enough use to enhance the economies of the towns through which it passes, in the same way that A.T. thru-hikers bolster the economies of trail towns like Franklin and Hot Springs.
“I hope it would give some economic growth for those parts in southwestern West Virginia and northwestern Kentucky,” he said, referencing the most economically struggling regions in the trail’s path.
“A number of places, the GET follows MacKaye’s route, and sometimes it follows some of the branch trail routes,” said Hupp.
MacKaye’s proposal included not only a main A.T. route but also various spur trails. The GET would follow one of those spur trails closely through Tennessee and into Kentucky, then share the originally proposed main A.T. route along the Virginia-West Virginia border and into Maryland before striking out on its own through Pennsylvania and to its proposed terminus in south-central New York.
If the GET Association is successful in its efforts, the Appalachian Mountains could soon hold a trail system that more closely resembles the one MacKaye envisioned 100 years ago.
For more information on the Great Eastern Trail, including trail maps and descriptions, photos and contact information, visit greateasterntrail.net.