The Great Eastern Trail: An Appalachian Trail Alternative

Hikers head south heading to Florida on the Conecuh Trail, part of the Great Eastern Trail.
Hikers head south heading to Florida on the Conecuh Trail, part of the Great Eastern Trail. Joe Cuhaj
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The Appalachian Trail is one of the world’s most famous—and, increasingly, one of the most crowded. According to estimates by trail groups, in 2016 approximately 3,300 people attempted to thru-hike the entire 2,200-mile trail. And that number doesn’t even count the number of section and day hikers on the trail on any given day. No surprise, then, that media outlets like National Geographic have described the A.T. as becoming more of a "human highway than a wilderness path."

But there are plenty of lesser-known, but equally incredible, long-distance trails out there—even in the South. Which brings us to an A.T. alternative that’s gaining the interest of hikers in Alabama and elsewhere in the South: the 1,600-mile long Great Eastern Trail, or GET, that offers an alternative to the crowds of the A.T. while testing hikers’ abilities on a more primitive and wild hiking adventure. A bonus for Alabama-area adventurers? The state will play an important role in the development of this exciting outdoor initiative.

If You Build It

Hikers head out on the Pinhoti Trail, Alabama’s long trail, which is part of the GET. Joe Cuhaj

The story of the GET begins in 1948, when Earl Shaffer became the first person to thru-hike the A.T. He was so enthralled with the trail that he came up with an idea for a new trail, one that would be located on the west side of the Appalachians and stretch from Alabama to New York. At the time the project was known as the Western Appalachian Alternative. Shaffer’s plan was not to build a completely new trail but to connect existing trails to make this new corridor a reality.

But it wasn’t until 2000 when Lloyd MacAskill of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club took up the cause. In an article published in the Appalachian Trail News, he outlined such a path from Alabama to the Finger Lakes Trail in New York by identifying a network of trails that already existed and that could be "braided" together to create this new long path. One line in his proposal—“Don’t look now, but parts are already in place”—was a catalyst to help make several agencies and organizations, including the Southeastern Foot Trails Coalition and later the American Hiking Society, begin to take notice.

In 2007, the Great Eastern Trail Association was created, consisting of AHS, the Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance program, and 11 trail groups along the proposed route, including the Alabama Trails Association and the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, with the goal of getting the GET started.

Today the GET has become a reality, stretching from its northern terminus in New York State where it intersects with the Finger Lakes Trail (part of the North Country Trail) to its southern terminus in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest at the Florida state line, a trip of 1,600 miles.

The GET is still very much a work in progress—like the A.T. in its initial stages, it has a significant amount of sections called road-walks, where the trail is connected by stretches of road—but eager hikers are already taking it on in its entirety. The first thru-hikers to make the entire trek were Bart Houck and Joanna Swanson, better known by their trail names Hillbilly Bart and Someday. The duo was NOBO (northbound) starting in Alabama on January 10, 2013 and arrived in New York on June 18.

About the Trail

The spillway of the lake at Little River State Forest in Atmore, Alabama, looks almost like it did when built by the CCC in 1935. Joe Cuhaj

The trail is a rugged and wild route through some of the last remaining wilds of the Appalachians. There are no crowds here like on the A.T. For the most part, you’ll find yourself on your own surrounded only by nature. Each trail in the chain, like the Allegheny, Tuscarora, Pine Mountain, and C&O Canal Towline, offers majestic views, roaring streams, and beautiful tiered waterfalls.

In Alabama, the state’s venerable long path, the Pinhoti Trail, is the lynchpin that takes the trail into the Deep South. The Pinhoti stretches some 171 miles from the Georgia state line to Flagg Mountain in Weogufka. The trail offers spectacular views of the surrounding Talladega National Forest from large rock outcroppings and passes over the state’s tallest mountain, Cheaha, before heading to the CCC stone fire tower atop Flagg Mountain.

The current route has the trail then leaving Flagg and the Pinhoti Trail behind using trails in the Coosa Wildlife Management Area near Rockford, then heading to Little River State Forest in Atmore, where the mountains become low rolling hills of pine forest. A 25-acre lake is a refreshing oasis for hikers to cool off in before making the final stretch to the Florida state line.

With the exception of the Little River State Forest and the Conecuh National Forest, the GET is a road walk after leaving the wildlife management area, but volunteer groups are working hard to move the trail off the road and into the woods.

If You Go

The view from the Tuscarora Overlook along the trail of the same name. Virginia State Parks

Since their first thru-hike of the GET, Someday and Hillbilly Bart have shared a few things to remember before attempting a long distance thru-hike of the Great Eastern Trail:

  • Don’t hike alone! This isn’t the A.T., and you will be hiking without contact with others for weeks at a time.

  • Get some experience: Start with some overnighters locally, take some "gear shakedown" hikes to break in and test your gear (and to make sure you know how to use it), and gradually build up you distances and time on the trail.

  • Bring a GPS: Some sections of the trail aren’t blazed so it can help you when the path gets sketchy.

  • Bring a smartphone: You may not have a signal sometimes, but smartphones can still come in handy when you need help or to get in touch with a "trail angel" when you need something like a hot meal or a place to stay off the trail for a night.

  • Allow enough time for planning and preparing: Don’t just jump into this. There isn’t as much information about the GET as there is the A.T., so you’ll need to do more research and digging than if you were hiking the A.T.

Written by Joe Cuhaj for RootsRated.

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