Monday, January 28, 2013

Some thoughts on the New Backcountry Camping Fees in the Smokies

While visiting the ATC website a few days ago, I found out about Great Smoky Mountains National Park's plan to charge a daily fee for backcountry camping. Considering how many times I've visited the park, I'm a bit embarrassed this was the first time I had heard of this situation. It's $4/day/person, will be starting on February 13, and will be used to fund an online reservation system and pay for backcountry improvements.

Naturally, this hasn't been enacted without controversy*. The best argument those who oppose it have is based upon the history of the park. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, unlike most of the other large western parks, came from the federal government purchasing (some would argue seizing) privately owned land in the 1920s and 30s. Although a lot of it was just forest land that was being cleared by lumber companies, many of the landowners were small farming, some of which had been on the land for over a century. Part of the multitude of agreements that created the park was that the NPS could not charge an entrance fee or toll to enter the park. This was primarily because Newfound Gap Road (US 441) was a major thoroughfare across the Appalachians in the days before Interstate 40. It's a unique situation for a park as large as GSMNP, compared to other parks such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, which charge $20 - $25 entrance fees. As such, many people enjoy the fact that they've been able to go hit the backcountry in the Smokies, and enjoy it without the usual fees and such they might encounter at state parks, national forests, or the parks out west.

As for me, although I'd rather not pay anything than something, I'm not against the fees. Provided they are used to improve the reservation process and the backcountry experience, particularly along the A.T., then it is a worthwhile fee. The per night fee is not too high, and it costs $20 for a seven day permit, which is even less. It appears the only change that will affect thru-hikers is that they'll have to pay the $20 fee, and still follow the usual AT in the GSMNP rules. I doubt this is just a first step towards charging general admission fees. For one thing, it would violate Tennessee state law. For another, the outrage would be swift and terrible. Like it or not, the car drivers are much more crucial to the area's economy than thru-hikers or even just your typical backcountry campers. Frontcountry campsites already charge fees, so it doesn't seem out of order to charge for backcountry sites.

It has always been a tenuous battle between accessibility and experience in our parks. Ideally, we'd be able to hike, camp, and see the sites in any of our national parks without paying fees. The scenery would be untrammeled, the wildlife ecologically balanced and free from horrible invasive species, and there wouldn't be any trash covered campsites or trampled and degraded trails. Unfortunately, we'll never reach that ideal. However, we can always aspire to that, and to do that we have to be willing to pay the price. Perhaps this fee is unjustified, a cash grab by an overreaching government. Perhaps it's an absolutely necessary fee to give much needed help to a beloved, yet beleaguered, national treasure. I've shared my thoughts, how about yours?

*Perhaps this site is making a good argument against the fee. I can't really tell, because it is one of the worst designs out there. Normally, if you want someone to support your cause, the best way to do is NOT put white text, particularly an awful script font, on a colored background.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Walking along the AT: Harper's Ferry

Date: June 21, 2012
Direction: NOBO from John Brown's firehouse across Potomac, then SOBO
Distance: ~1 mile along trail
Start (NOBO): John Brown's firehouse, WV
Turnaround Point: North side of bridge over Potomac River, MD
End (SOBO): Stairway spur off of Appalachian Trail

Lampost with two white blazes, signifying a turn on the AT at Harper's Ferry, WV

If they even think of Harper's Ferry, most people know it as the former site of a United States Armory where John Brown attempted to start a slave revolt in 1859. A few more, particularly Civil War history buffs, will recognize it as a key strategic point in the early part of the war, and the site where 10,000 Union troops surrendered to the Confederates after being surrounded in September 1862. A few more people will vaguely remember it as one of the first (or last) Amtrak stops on the Capitol Limited from D.C. to Chicago.

However, for hikers and fans of the Appalachian Trail, Harper's Ferry is known for something else. It is the home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the non-profit group who heads up the maintenance and conservation of the Appalachian Trail. Although not directly on the trail, it is fairly close to it, and is considered the traditional and ceremonial halfway point of the trail, even if the actual halfway point is in Southern Pennsylvania. For many hikers, the HQ and visitor's center would merely be a quick stop for water, email, and a picture on their journey northward (or southward). For Erin and I, it would be our turnaround point on a short hike. It was only about a mile from the National Historic Site in the older part of the town, how hard could it be?

Harper's Ferry is a very scenic place. Located at the juncture of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, close to where the Potomac bisects the Blue Ridge, it is surrounded by high ridges and hills. The lower part of town is also the older part of town, where most of the historical buildings and the ruins of the armory can be found. The upper part, where most of the people live and where the ATC headquarters is, is high up on a ridge behind the old part of town. In other words, you have to go uphill or downhill to get anywhere. For an out of shape hiker like myself, this meant any distance would be at least a bit uncomfortable.

In addition to the elevation changes, there also was the temperature to consider. As about everybody in the United States can attest, the summer of 2012 was really warm. It had been warm during the length of our trip, which had taken us from Grayson Highlands up the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and through Shenandoah National Park. Although it was pleasant up at Grayson Highlands, the rest of the trip had been quite warm. As Harper's Ferry was rather low, we didn't even have the slight elevation advantage we'd get up on the Blue Ridge. The temperature was well over 90, and probably close to 100. I don't recall it being overly humid, but the temperature was so high even a bit of humidity would push the heat index up into triple digits. It wasn't exactly ideal hiking conditions.

Nevertheless, we decided to push on, riding the NPS shuttle bus from the National Historic Park's visitors center to the historic part of town. We took the obligatory pictures of the old buildings and the firehouse where Brown and his doomed compatriots made their stand. We then walked over to the riverside, taking some pictures of the Potomac cutting its way through the Appalachians and trying to stay in the shade of the few trees that were around. Finally, we couldn't put it off anymore, and decided to begin our trek along the A.T.

We walked the short distance up to the railroad bridge, which also included a walkway for the Appalachian Trail to cross. By the banks of the river a hiker was taking a nap, letting his clothes dry as he likely waited for the cooler and shadier hours of the day to continue on his way. The bridge wasn't terribly long, but the heat made it feel longer. We made it to the Maryland side of the trail, making this the sixth state I had touched along the AT. We stood there for a while, looking back at Harper's Ferry and the high ridges surrounding it on the other side. The trail went down stairs to join the footpath along the old Chesapeake and Ohio canal, continuing its long path north to Katahdin. We, however, turned around, our goal much closer.

Crossing back underneath a railroad viaduct, we then had to determine where exactly the trail went. We looked around, and eventually found the white blazes that showed us the way to go, in this case through a small area between buildings, before reaching a set of stone steps. These steps were historic, having been there since the early days of the town. In other words, they were uneven, they were large, and they were steep. And for most of their run, they were in the sun.

It was here than Erin and I disagreed on our course of action. Erin wanted to walk up through town, returning along the Appalachian Trail. I believe she thought it would be less arduous, less steep, and possibly have more shade. I, on the other hand, wanted to continue along the trail, perhaps fearing that if we walked a different way up to the ATC vistors center, I would talk myself of walking back on the AT. Particularly if the visitors center was really close to the old part of town. Keep in mind that we hadn't quite pinpointed where the visitor's center was, so for all we knew it was just in the back of all the historical buildings, and not up a great big hill.

For the time being, I won the argument, and we continued on up the trail. We passed the old church on the hillside, and ruins of other old buildings. We eventually made it up the old stairs, found a water fountain to refill my water, and mercifully had some shade to walk through. We stopped briefly at Jefferson Rock, admired the view, and continued walking up, this time on a dirt track much more typical of the AT. Knowing how the At enters and exits Harper's Ferry, I knew that if it started heading back down to the highway we'd have gone too far, so I was wary of any downhills along the path. Fortunately (or unfortunately, for my lungs), we didn't run into too many.

Eventually we came to a set of stairs that branched off the trail, going out of the woods and back into town. We weren't sure if this was where we needed to get off to get to the ATC Visitors Center, but we didn't want to miss the turn off and get stuck having to backtrack. Erin hurried ahead up the steps, scouting out the situation. She found some buildings, some NPS vehicles, and a cemetery, so I followed her up.

It turns out we were still a ways from the ATC Visitors Center. However, we had found a back way to get to the NPS Historic Park Headquarters. After a quick break for water and shade, we walked on through town until we hit Washington Street, the main street in town and the street where the ATC Visitors Center could be found. We had done most of the uphill climb on the AT, so after a couple blocks of walking we were there.

We spent just a short time there, enough to look around, renew my membership with the ATC, and get some water. We were only there a short time, although we did see a few thru-hikers. Like them, we were at the halfway point of our trek, although ours was much less significant, although I'm sure I was just as sweaty as any of them. The ATC was selling cold Snickers bars, but I didn't buy one. I regretted that within minutes of leaving, just as I regretted forgetting to take a picture of the place.

Instead of finding the AT again and walking back down, we chose to walk back along Washington Street. Although not as steep as the stairs, it was still plenty steep going down, and I'm glad we chose the trail to come up on. Much of the walk down was in the sun, and I'm pretty certain it would have sucked going up that way. For once, it appeared walking along the AT was both the scenic choice and the sane choice.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wintertime Hiking Blues

Not technically taken in winter, and not taken while hiking, but still a nice snowy picture.

According to, it's 15 degrees here in Vermilion County, Illinois. Besides the fact it has been dark for six hours, it is far too cold for me to hike right now. I suppose I could go somewhere south and west, where the weather would be warmer. However, that would take money, something which I don't have.

I got new hiking shoes for Christmas, and I'm curious about how well they'll perform. Because it has been somewhat snowy at times since then, and because I just plain hate dealing with ice, I've yet to try them out. Unless the weather turns unseasonably warm, it looks like I'll have to wait until March before I put them to use on a trail.

I think it goes without saying that I won't be stepping off at Springer (or Katahdin) this year. Even if some generous benefactor were to avail themselves of the donation button on the right side of this page and fund a trip, I'm not at all in shape, or have the logistics figured out to a point where I could do this. On the other hand, if someone has $20,000 burning a hole in their pocket, I could probably find it in me to get started by late March or April. Considering my current situation, I can't imagine getting it together for 2014 either. Of course, 2014 is a year away, so a lot can happen.

Regardless of what happens, or where I may end up a year from now, I will be getting out on those trails this year. Although I'm scrapping January, I'm setting a goal of ten miles for February, and fifteen miles for March. I'd like to think these goals are incredibly conservative, but considering how badly I failed my goal in 4Q 2012 (6 miles or so out of 30), I figure I've got to be realistic. I'll be keeping you abreast of my progress, so stay tuned.

Although the weather may have curtailed my hiking, it hasn't been erased from my mind. Just today, I saw the word "swag", and instead of thinking of crap you get at parties or conventions, I thought of low spot on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia called the Swag of the Blue Ridge. From what I can gather, swag is an old-timey term for a gap between two lofty peaks, and for some reason it has stuck with me. Hopefully, I'll be able to check out this particular swag, sooner rather than later. For now, I have to be content re-reading the books I have on the Appalachian Trail and hiking, following the interactive map at, and marking the time until Spring.