Becky Morris was approaching the halfway mark on a through-hike of the Appalachian Trail when she heard about a job involving the development of an even more remote long-distance hiking trail stretching from Alabama to the Finger Lakes region of New York.
“I’d gotten off the Appalachian Trail to look up a guy from Burkes Garden (Va.) I’d met on the trail, but I couldn’t find him,” she recalled.
While off the trail, she met another hiker who told her about plans to route a stretch of the Great Eastern Trail through Southern West Virginia. The hiker put her in contact with Peggy Pings of Morgantown, who directs the National Park Service’s rivers and trails program in the state.
“She told me about a job coming up through the Americorps program that involves getting a route for the Great Eastern Trail through the southern part of West Virginia,” Morris said.
The Texas native and former Florida pizza shop owner with four grown children thought about the job as she continued her through hike. At Harpers Ferry, the halfway point on the AT, she decided to give it a go.
Morris now works out of the Wyoming County Economic Development Authority office in Pineville, where “It’s been snowing every day since I’ve been here,” she said with a smile.
While the snowfall has hampered feet-on-theground scouting of trail routes, progress has been made.
A new hiking club has been formed to help plan, build and maintain the trail in Southern West Virginia. “Forty people showed up for the first meeting,” said Morris. “I expected it to be more like four, but there’s a lot of interest in the trail around here. For one thing, they’ve seen what the Hatfield-Mc- Coy Trail does for the area.”
Mayors and county officials are being informed of plans for the trail, and their suggestions are being sought, Morris said.
Mullens town officials have agreed to allow the trail to pass through town, and various state park and state forest managers are helping plan trail segments through their properties. Contacts are being made with private landowners to fill in the gaps between public lands.
“About 70 percent of the Great Eastern Trail is hikeable today,” said Tom Johnson of Front Royal, Va., chairman of the trail’s board of directors. “We’re linking together a lot of existing trails, and filling in the gaps between them.”
The biggest gap remaining right now is a 100-something mile section through Southern West Virginia, Johnson said.
“It goes from just north of Birmingham in Alabama to the Finger Lakes of New York – about 2,000 miles in all,” said Johnson. “The idea for it first came from Earl Shaffer, the first throughhiker to complete the Appalachian Trail. Since Earl spoke of it back in 1952, it’s been lurking in the background, but no one really did anything with the idea until much later.”
In 2002, Lloyd MacAskill of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club wrote an article calling attention to existing trails to the west of the Appalachian Trail that could be linked to form an Appalachian Trail West. “Don’t look now, but parts are already in place,” MacAskill wrote.
After MacAskill’s article appeared, long-distance hikers looking for a more primitive wilderness experience than is offered on the AT began braiding together a route involving existing trails. The Great Eastern Trail Association was formed in 2007 to coordinate work on the project.
“I see us following the model of the AT, and having sections of trail maintained by local hiking clubs,” said Steve Clark, a WVU Extension Service agent in Wyoming County and an Appalachian Trail through-hiker.
“Right now, our main focus is the area from Matewan to Camp Creek State Forest, then we’ll work more on getting it to Pipestem and the New River.”
While the Appalachian Trail makes use of distinctive white blazes on trees and posts, the Great Eastern Trail will use luminescent green paint blazes to mark its path.
Johnson said in Pennsylvania, several sections of the Great Eastern Trail are already marked as such. “There are no trail shelters in West Virginia, yet, but the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has built eight or 10 shelters on the Tuscarora Trail, and plans to add two more this year.”
“The trail will be a great way to expose people to the rich heritage here in Southern West Virginia,” said Morris. “We’re working with the Coal Heritage Highway to develop signage to put up.”
Interest in long-distance hiking is strong, she added, as indicated by recent callers from Israel and Ireland who inquired about the trail’s progress.
“People are saying they want to hike it now,” said Clark. “There are only a handful of long-distance trails in the United States, and the Appalachian Trail pretty much missed West Virginia.”
Clark said how soon the trail is completed in West Virginia depends on how soon agreements can be worked out with the land companies that own property between the state parks, forests and wildlife management areas along the route.
Area landowners are familiar with the concept of using private property for public trails, thanks to the development of the nearby Hatfield-McCoy Trail, used mainly by ATV and motorcycle riders.
“I would like to see the West Virginia section of the trail done in five years,” said Clark. “But it’s pretty much on the land companies just how long it will take.”
On the Net: Great Eastern Trail www. greateasterntrail.net.