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Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a wonderful experience, but not everyone can afford taking five or six months to walk the 2,180 mile pathway. Luckily, we are in the midst of what I think is a golden era of trail building in the Blue Ridge region. Since the 1970s, volunteers from various organizations have created numerous shorter long-distance trails that can be easily walked in four weeks or less.
Here are a few that are worthy of your hiking time. This is not intended to be a “best of” listing, but rather a “get acquainted with” what is available.
Volunteers of the West Virginia Scenic Trails Association (wvscenictrails.org) began working on the Allegheny Trail in the 1970s, and for 330 miles it traverses some of the state’s most inspiring scenery. Stretching from the southeastern border with Virginia to the Pennsylvania line near Morgantown, it passes through national forests, state parks and forests, and—with owner cooperation—across an assortment of private lands.
A number of years ago, Laurie and I were recognized by the association as being the first people to walk the trail’s entire length. We repeated the trip a couple years later. It’s the pathway’s diversity that continues to draw us back. Whereas the Appalachian Trail has what I call a “ridgetop mentality,” meaning that it strives to stay upon a region’s higher elevations, developers of the Allegheny Trail have opted to route the pathway across an assortment of terrains. Yes, you will hike over soaring summits with Olympian views, but other times you’ll be walking beside the waters of Glady Fork or the Greenbrier River. Some days you will be on lightly traveled dirt roads through open meadows of remote farmlands and other days will be spent marveling at towering spruce trees in patches of virgin forest. Primitive treadway in isolated mountain valleys is interspersed with the groomed trails of state parks.
The Allegheny Trail is also the place to be if looking for solitude. Several thousand people attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail each year. Fewer than 100 people a year hike the Allegheny Trail’s full length—and some report not seeing another backpacker on their entire journey.
Concerned that the Appalachian Trail might become impossible to maintain due to closings by private landowners in the late 1960s, volunteers from Pennsylvania’s Keystone Trails Association (kta-hike.org) and the Virginia-based Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (patc.net) plotted a route to the west. The aim was to use large portions of public lands in an area not yet rife with development pressures. The passage of the National Scenic Trails Act provided the protection that the AT needed, yet volunteers decided to continue planning and building the alternate route. Completed in the 1980s, the Tuscarora Trail branches off the AT in Shenandoah National Park to run for 250 miles through Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland (it was originally called the Big Blue Trail in these three states) and comes to an end when it reconnects with the AT in central Pennsylvania.
Laurie and I hiked the trail in bits and pieces over the course of several years, but kept on thinking about how it was custom-made to be done as a leisurely three-week thru-hike. There are 14 shelters along its length for convenient nighttime destinations (although some are far apart). A couple of small country stores right on the trail and passage through Hancock, Maryland, on the C&O Canal make resupplying fairly easy.
Like the Allegheny Trail, the Tuscarora is lightly traveled. So much so, in fact, that it reminded me of what my Appalachian Trail experiences were like in the early 1980s before the current thru-hiker boom.