COVID-19 highlights the importance of hiking trails

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought trail conservation to the forefront of many visitor’s minds after an influx of visitors hoping to escape urban restrictions left more than just footprints on Appalachia’s trails.


The pandemic has affected the day-to-day lives of almost everyone; however, not all of these affects have been negative. Social restrictions have led many people to reconnect with nature as a form of stress relief and to manage mental health during a time of what many consider increased anxiety and uncertainty.


For the people of Appalachia, where better to start than the renowned scenic trails on their doorstep?


“We’ve had a significant increase in day users in our state parks,” said Tennessee State Parks Director of Operations Mike Robertson. “More people are utilising our trails as an escape from the gloomy reality of the pandemic.”


One of the oldest and best-known trails in the region is the Virginia Creeper Trail, a 34.3-mile rail-to-recreation trail from Abingdon, Virginia, to Whitetop Station at the Virginia-North Carolina border. Lisa Quigley, the executive director at the Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy, noted the reaction of residents when the trail had to close for six weeks in March 2020.


“I had over 1,100 calls asking for the trail to be reopened following the initial COVID-19 closure,” said Quigley. “We always appreciated the trail, but we appreciate it even more now that we know what life was like without it.”


The Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy was formed as a non-profit organization in 1987 where volunteers would conduct trash pick-ups, bench building and light trail maintenance. Over the last 30 years however, the organization has grown into an essential vessel for conservation in the Appalachian area.


A Trail Clean Up Day takes place annually during the spring where conservancy members and volunteers from the public begin at the trailhead in Abingdon and clean all the way to Whitetop Station. Due to the increase in visitors over the past year, Quigley is hopeful that more volunteers will be eager to participate in this event.


“I suspect that we will have more participation from the public this year as a way of giving back to a part of nature that too many of us have taken for granted up until now,” Quigley said. “This year the Clean Up Day will likely be April 3 or April 10, and it will look a little different due to COVID restrictions on social distancing.”


COVID-19 has highlighted and exposed another crippling pandemic running rampant across the world today.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 40% of U.S. adults admitted to struggling with mental health or substance use in June 2020. The same survey reported that 31% of adults developed anxiety or symptoms of depression and 11% seriously considered suicide.

The heightened struggles associated with mental health throughout the pandemic have been caused by factors like increased isolation and loneliness, loss of income and a lack of accessible mental health resources.

For many Appalachians, however, the local trails have offered a serene escape where people have been able to shed the weight of the world - if only for a few hours.


Sara Saavedra is an avid runner who uses the Virginia Creeper Trail as a means of protecting her mental health and taking a break from anxiety.


“I’ve always loved the trails, but they became even more important to me with my personal journey a couple of years ago when I decided to get sober,” Saavedra said. “For my recovery, access to the trail for running was part of my toolkit for remaining sober and so, when the trail closed at the beginning of the pandemic, it was really hard for me.”


Due to the influx of inexperienced hikers on the trails following the COVID-19 reopening, Saavedra recalled the increase in trash she encountered on her runs.


“It was clear that some people weren’t treating the trails with the respect they deserve,” Saavedra said. “I think there should be more educational resources and integration in schools about trail conservation so that it is instilled in people from an early age.”


The Appalachian Trail Conservancy website is a resource that educates hikers about the trails and how to best protect them. The website’s information has been vital during the COVID-19 pandemic as it has provided hikers with guidance on how to stay safe while utilizing the trails. A recent featured article on the site focuses on camping during the pandemic and urges hikers to come prepared with their own tents instead of using the shelters provided on the trails.


“The Appalachian Trail’s iconic shelters have been great places to interact and bond with fellow hikers at the end of each day, but now they are also shared air space where the virus can spread,” said Information Services Manager Laurie Potteiger. “


So, what will be the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Appalachian trail conservation?


During a year which humbled humanity, many have gone back to basics and reconnected with nature. Cell phones, computers and tablets are no longer the escape from reality people once needed. Instead, they can trigger anxiety through an endless stream of news. Appalachia’s trails have been awaiting rediscovery, and according to many, they have played a healing role during the pandemic.


Now, more than ever, conservancies are saying we must return the favor.


For more information about the Virginia Creeper Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, visit their websites at https://www.vacreepertrail.org/about-us/ and https://appalachiantrail.org/ .

(Photo contributed by: Casey Keeley)

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