For decades, hikers from across the country have flocked to North Georgia for the beginning of a bucket-list adventure.
Laden with backpacks, camping and hiking gear, nearly 200 average hikers a day start the Appalachian Trail, trekking through the Hawk Mountain shelter.
But the heavy traffic in the area left its footprint, leaving signs of damaging sprawl across the Hawk Mountain area.
A cooperative effort is underway to repair damage and prevent future sprawl, involving members of the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army’s 5th Ranger Training Battalion at Camp Frank D. Merrill.
“It’s just a few miles into one of the earliest sections of the Appalachian Trail,” said Holly Krake with the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests. “There’s a wood-sided trail shelter there that’s so popular, on any given weekend in the busy season — March, April, May — you might have anywhere from 75 to 100 or more folks camp there.”
The sprawl left by these campers was notable, Krake said.
“It had been so heavily used over such a long time in such a concentrated manner that all tree branches from about six feet down were stripped off, camp areas were down to bare mineral soil with no natural forest litter, and rhododendron and mountain laurel were totally stripped away to make way for tent paths and that sort of thing,” she said.
A survey by the trail club last year showed during the spring busy season about 200 hikers a day traveled the southern portion of the trail, leaving an estimated 3 pounds of garbage a day behind.
The collaboration of these entities resulted in the Hawk Mountain sustainability plan, which includes creating 30 new, more sustainable campsites nearby, a new water source and a fresh waste management system.
If the sustainability efforts succeed, the project will serve as a model for the Forest Service and partners along the entire Appalachian Trail to find a balance between use and preservation, Krake said.
The effort on Hawk Mountain began in February, with more than 1,000 volunteers already participating.
A group of 32 Army Rangers and 10 trail club members spent a day carrying bear-resistant storage boxes, heavy beams and sheets of plywood for the new campsites and a new moldering privy.
Andy Baker, Blue Ridge district ranger for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, said a moldering privy — or solid human waste disposal location — existed at the old campsite, but a new one was sorely needed.
“Moldering privies are not a new system” he said. “But we added a new one at the new campsite. There’s been a human waste management system out on the trail for probably a decade now. Any time you encourage people to gather, you’re going to need a human waste system.”
Baker said the project was wrapping up in time for the peak season, thanks to the efforts and expertise of those involved.
Krake said the last of the updates include 30 tent platforms for the new “sustainable campsites.”
“They’re separated from others, so you still have the solitude aspect, plus the social aspect that folks go to the mountains and go to the Appalachian Trail for, but in a much more sustainable manner,” she said. “So rather than kind of a free-for-all picking your camping spot, we’re really trying a new model of dispersed camping.”