By Dakota Jackson, Associate Director of Visitor Services

Moving the A.T. Visitor Experience Forward

November 19, 2021

One of my favorite things about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) hiking experience is that it can vary completely from person to person. There are hundreds of factors that can impact your personal experience on the Trail, including when you hike, who you hike with and what knowledge you bring with you before stepping onto that footpath. This is what makes the A.T. experience so alluring: the reality that, whatever your journey on the Trail, it will be unique to you.

But we also recognize that, depending on who you talk to or the websites you visit, it might seem like there is only one “real” A.T. experience. This is where the ATC’s newly-formed Visitor Services program comes into play: our key focus is to help ensure your experience on the A.T. is, at minimum, both safe and successful, and that you are able to approach the Trail in a way that is most enjoyable for you. In order to accomplish that, the Visitor Services team has three priorities in mind.

Creating a Visitor Experience for All

The Visitor Services team works to inspire, empower and educate current and future visitors of the A.T. by building on their current knowledge and experience with the Trail. Our goal is to foster the understanding that the A.T. is for everyone, no matter how far you walk along it.

More than 3 million visitors are drawn to the Trail each year, and while many immediately think of aspiring thru-hikers attempting to travel the entire Trail in one year, the vast majority of visitors seek the Trail for other reasons. Beyond hiking and camping, some of those reasons include opportunities to observe wildlife, to explore the Trail’s unique history, or simply for a chance to seek solace from our busy modern lives. Some might not even know what the Trail is but stumble into their A.T. experience by entering an A.T. visitor center, reading a book that features the Trail, or going on a class trip to visit their local section.

Each of these experiences, from thru-hikes to accidental strolls on the Trail, can all be improved upon by a welcoming, informative experience. By identifying these desires and meeting visitors’ needs, we can help people capture the A.T. experience they truly want.

Programs provided and supported by ATC Visitor Services can encourage people of all backgrounds to find and create their own A.T. experiences.

Connecting Through Stories

The stories we share through exhibits in our visitor centers, programs, and in our interactions with visitors must create meaningful connections to whoever walks in the door (literally or metaphorically — our website and social media channels are part of that experience, too). Identifying and sharing powerful stories — whether about the natural wonders of the surrounding landscape, the origins of the A.T., the indigenous communities that stewarded the land long before the Trail existed, or the people who continue to help build, maintain, recreate on and celebrate the Trail today — will connect visitors with the perspectives and voices that have helped create and protect the A.T.

Exhibits in ATC visitor centers will also be a place-based piece of the larger A.T. landscape. Each center will highlight the communities where they are located and help visitors better understand not only the Trail, but how the surrounding towns and cities — and, importantly, the people in these communities leading the way in A.T. protection — are key partners in making the A.T. experience even better for everyone. We are already undergoing this transformation as we develop our new visitor center in Damascus, where we will be rolling out a suite of exhibits and programs that empower visitors to responsibly explore Damascus, the A.T., and many other recreational resources throughout the area. Moving forward, we will continue to work with A.T. Communities to provide resources to hikers and visitors and share the stories that make each community along the A.T. unique.

Highlighting the Path from Recreation to Stewardship

ATC visitor centers, retail, and information services are doors to the world of the A.T. Through these services, we can not only attract new recreators who love what the A.T. provides — we can also help guide them in ways to embrace a roll as an A.T. steward.

Of course, that process begins by providing visitors with the tools necessary to go out and create their own A.T. experiences, empowering them to be more responsible recreators and embrace the many benefits the Trail provides. Some visitors may have no desire to ever step on the Trail but are still able to experience it through the stories we present about the Trail, its history and the benefits it provides for recreation, landscape conservation and beyond. By connecting visitors to these meaningful experiences, they can better understand what it takes to protect, manage, and advocate for the Trail — and we can then show them the many ways they can help steward the Trail and the countless experiences it provides.

Connecting visitors to meaningful experiences on the A.T. will help them better understand what is needed to ensure its continued protection for ourselves and future generations. Photo by Horizonline Pictures.

When I prepare to engage with A.T. visitors, I often reflect on my first camping trip on the Trail — a trip that at one point involved me huddling in a soaked sleeping bag and staying close to my tent-mate for warmth. I think about what my 16-year-old self needed to know for her first backpacking trip, how she would have had a much better time she had known how to keep her gear dry (and maybe considered a synthetic sleeping bag). But even beyond backpacking preparation and safety, I think she would have been in awe to know the scope of the Trail, how every inch of it its almost 2,200-mile length was shaped by the hands of a person who loved the A.T. — and wanted others to understand that love, too.

That is the ultimate goal of the ATC Visitor Services team. By creating a visitor experience for all, connecting visitors through stories, and highlighting the path from recreation to stewardship, we won’t only be better able to help A.T. visitors plan and prepare for their experiences (and avoid soaked sleeping bags). Perhaps more importantly, we will help visitors to find that sense of love for the Trail that ultimately leads thousands of people each year to help ensure this long, meandering footpath through the Appalachians will continue to inspire us all forever.