Reflecting and Reimagining the Visitor Experience
June 25, 2021
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) enjoyed unprecedented visitation. Millions flocked to the Trail to reflect, find solace and joy, and steep themselves in experiences only the outdoors can provide. That’s what the Trail is for: for visitors to access experiences and opportunities found nowhere else.
But as much as visitor use is the purpose of the A.T., growing visitation can also pose challenges. Greater visitation translates to greater impact on the Trail and its resources. More visitors, particularly new visitors, may not understand or be fully aware of their impact on the footpath, the Trail’s various facilities, or the natural resources around them. Greater visitation also puts a strain on limited stewardship capacity. The A.T.’s volunteer force, approximately 6,000 stewards strong, must grow to respond to more maintenance needs and, with it, more training and skills development. And with more visitation comes greater curiosity. A growing need to understand the Trail’s history, culture, geology, biology, and ecology creates an urgent need for interpretation and programming.
In short: the rapid growth of visitor use has generated the need for a dedicated team to focus on visitor services.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has taken the last year and a half to reimagine and restructure its visitor use and visitor services programs to the following:
Director of Visitor Use Management: The ATC recognizes a growing need to understand recreation ecology — or the scientific study of environmental impacts resulting from recreational activity in protected natural areas — across the A.T. To oversee this work, the ATC has created a new director-level position tasked with understanding the science behind maintaining and protecting the Trail and its resources in the face of growing visitor use. Morgan Sommerville, formerly the Southern Regional Director, will now take on the role of Director of Visitor Use Management. In this new role, Morgan will work with volunteers and agency partners to deal effectively with the visitor use challenges that impact the natural resources and recreation opportunities provided by the A.T.
Associate Director of Visitor Services: Complementary to Visitor Use Management and its focus on recreation ecology and the resources of the A.T., the ATC created a new Associate Director of Visitor Services position to focus on the visitor experience. Tasked with overseeing the ATC’s visitor centers, retail program, information services, and interpretation and programming — the four main focus areas of the new Visitor Services team — the Associate Director of Visitor Services will work with volunteers, communities, and agency partners to create a more expansive and informed visitor experience. Dakota Jackson, formerly of ATC’s Next Generation Advisory Council and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, will take on this role in July 2021.
Visitor Centers: The ATC’s visitor centers are not just sites for A.T. visitors, volunteers, and local residents to become informed and inspired. In many ways, they are anchors of the communities in which they are sited. In Damascus, Virginia, and Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, the ATC is forging new partnerships with both townships to elevate the visitor center experience. In both towns, the ATC will manage visitor centers in coordination with the local community, allowing the ATC to focus on the visitor experience and the township to create a lasting connection to an iconic recreational resource. In addition, the ATC Visitor Center in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, will undergo a much-needed renovation, creating a welcoming and inspiring space for all. We plan to make future announcements for each visitor center location. For more information on the Boiling Springs Visitor Center in Pennsylvania, click here.
The A.T. has always been the “People’s Trail,” and while the pandemic was an outsized challenge for many, it also created opportunities for connection to something new. For many, that “something new” was the Appalachian Trail. We at the ATC are excited by the ways in which the A.T. experience can be enriched through a robust visitor services program. We look forward to advancing this work in the upcoming months and years and creating exceptional visitor experiences for all.