The story below is an excerpt from our Sept./Oct. 2014 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, view our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Top: The view from the Wesser Bald Lookout Tower is the real payoff for the hike.Bottom: The Nantahala Outdoor Center is hiker-friendly.Right: The Wesser Bald Lookout Tower was originally built in 1936.
The Appalachian Trail that you and I walk today is a very different pathway than the one followed by hikers in decades past. When Earl Shaffer, the AT’s first thru-hiker, walked the trail in 1948, the route went across miles of private property with the permission of landowners who lived and farmed on and near the crest of the mountains.
In addition, multiple miles followed roads, sometimes for expediency and sometimes because landowner permission could not be obtained. By the time I did my first thru-hike in the early 1980s, the trail had been rerouted onto scores of miles of road because many of those families had left the mountains and much of the property had been closed to the pathway.
Thankfully, the Appalachian Trail Act, signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, allocated federal money to purchase land to protect the trail and, I’m happy to say, today less than three miles of its entire length remain to be protected.
Many beautiful places were brought into the purview of the AT as the result of these protected-land relocations, but, in some ways, it changed the character of the trail forever. This moderately strenuous circuit hike provides several examples of what has been gained. And what has been lost.