BLACKSBURG — As the iconic Appalachian Trail increases in popularity, so does the need to protect its longterm viability.
An example: Volunteers cleared more than 150 pounds of trash from on and around the trail to McAfee Knob last year alone.
And in certain well-used trail sections, erosion is quickening and shelters are overcrowded.
Enter a study led by Virginia Tech researchers. It is looking at the impact of millions of footprints on the trail and the recreation sites associated with it.
“Even footprints can be problematic when there are millions of them,” said Jeff Marion a U.S. Geological Survey scientist stationed at the university, where he also teaches classes.
According to estimates by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, about 3 million hikers use the trail each year on day hikes, longer backpacking excursions or thru-hikes on the entire trail, which runs south to north from Georgia to Maine. It’s a number that’s risen astronomically since the trail was completed in 1937.
The researchers from Virginia Tech are looking at how the foot traffic is affecting the physical well-being of the trail as well as recreation areas where day hikers tend to congregate. They are in the second year of a three-year study that will analyze 10 percent of the trail in more than 60 five-kilometer segments that were randomly selected. The study is funded by a federal grant worth almost $300,000.
The hope is to get the most complete set of data ever recorded of the more than 2,100 mile footpath, according to Marion, the study’s principal investigator.
The study will analyze the conditions, including erosion and heavy use.
Once the data is gathered and analyzed it can become a way to improve future trail maintenance and campsite construction.
The data will set a precedent for identifying where trails will have the lowest environmental impact, Marion said.
The study will be important for figuring out management practices in Virginia, said Andrew Downs, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s regional director for Central and Southwest Virginia.
The region has numerous popular trail attractions that draw in heavy day use traffic, such as McAfee Knob or Mount Rogers, Downs said. Shelters used in 2016 by thru-hikers attempting to complete the entire trail — more than 2,600 thru-hikers registered through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy as of last week — are also swelling beyond their capacities, Downs said.
This week, a team of three current and former Virginia Tech students are setting out on the trail to gather information. They will log data on about 30 different factors.
The crew is starting in Giles County and working their way south toward Georgia along the trail.
It’s important work that doubles as a fun summer job, said Johanna Arredondo, a Virginia Tech graduate student on the crew.
“We’re excited about this,” she said. “We’re getting paid to go hike.”
The hiking researchers will use a global positioning unit to determine exactly where they’re measuring on the trail. They will then gather data to show how foot traffic has worn on the trail and how things such as slope, alignment and maintenance affect its condition.
Researchers will then use a Geographical Information System (GIS) to look at the contour of the land around the trail to determine how things such as the slope of the hillsides the trail runs around, over and along are affecting wear and tear.
They’ll also investigate the conditions of campsites and shelters along the trail to determine how overnight campers are affecting those areas.
One of the most heavily trafficked areas of the Appalachian Trail in Southwest Virginia is between McAfee Knob and Virginia Route 311 in Roanoke County. The landmark — featured in the 2015 film “A Walk in the Woods,” Virginia vanity license plates and travel brochures — attracts an average of about 600 people just on Saturdays in the spring and fall, said Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club President Diana Christopulos.
Christopulos, who also is a member of a preservation group concentrating on the area, the McAfee Knob Task Force, said she and others in the area are paying special attention to how the area is treated.
Her group tracked the 150 pounds of trash hauled away from McAfee Knob last year.
“At this point the best advice I can give someone about thinking of hiking it [McAfee Knob] on a Saturday is don’t,” she said.
Instead she encourages locals to try out places like Wind Rock in Giles County, Tinker Cliffs in Roanoke County or trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
When people do decide to hike up to McAfee Knob, one of the best things visitors can do is take the alternative path to the scenic overlook known colloquially as the fire road, she said.
The path is easier to hike and is easier to maintain because it’s harder and wider, she said.
Currently, Roanoke County is eyeing a couple of places to build parking lots and connector trails to the fire road to reduce congestion on the trail and the overcrowded parking lot along Route 311.
Marion said that kind of forward thinking will help the trail’s condition in the long run.
Marion said he hopes improving the sustainability of the Appalachian Trail beyond McAfee Knob will mean people can keep using it for years to come. Proper trail alignment and sustainable placement of campsites will improve trail usage.
By keeping trail infrastructure sustainable, hikers should be able to avoid a hiking permit system on the Appalachian Trail that’s more common in backcountry areas of the western United States.
“We want people to use the trail without putting up gates or putting limits on use,” he said.
Once the trail is mapped and researchers can definitively say where relocations would be best for the footpath and recreation areas around it, the success and longevity of the Appalachian Trail will ultimately be determined by making sure hikers understand how to use the path in an environmentally friendly way, Marion said.
By teaching people the importance of not littering, staying on paths and being responsible, an Appalachian Trail with a scientifically researched route will endure for generations, he said.
“With education you can deal with problems,” Marion said.