The Crew Building the Next Great American Thru-Hike

In eastern Tennessee, 70-year-old trail builder Peter Berntsen is laying segments of the Cumberland Trail. The path will wend more than 300 miles through deep hollows, spiraling waterfalls, and diverse flora in the heart of Appalachia, at the mountainous edge of the Cumberland Plateau. He lugs an axe and mattock up a rocky and root-riddled stretch meandering through untouched forest. He and his two-man crew are slowly chipping away at the final 100 miles.

The Cumberland is on track to be all but complete in 2019 and will function as a leg of the country’s next great wilderness trail: the Great Eastern Trail, which will span 1,600 miles from Alabama to New York and be composed of already existing trails.

It may also serve an important purpose: to siphon foot traffic away from the nearby Appalachian Trail. “The Great Eastern Trail is going to ease the pressure off the Appalachian Trail,” Berntsen says. “If we can relieve just a bit from the big bubble of hikers that starts in Georgia every year, it’ll be beneficial for everyone.”

Last year, nearly 4,200 thru-hikers set off to walk the AT—more than three times the number of people who attempted in 2007.
Overcrowding has exacerbated issues like norovirus and trailside litter, prompting the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) to push for alternate start dates and travel routes for thru-hikers. The hope is that the Great Eastern will siphon some of the crowds, thus lessening the environmental burden on America’s favorite wilderness footpath.

The Great Eastern, however, is only around 70 percent complete. Without any setbacks, it could be finished within ten years. But first, trail advocates will have to overcome a number of hurdles between hikers and a new glorious trail.

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