published Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Chattanooga is a hiking 'trail town'

Ernest and Mary Sikes, of Mobile, Ala., walk to their vehicle after viewing the valley from Signal Point.
Ernest and Mary Sikes, of Mobile, Ala., walk to their vehicle after viewing the valley from Signal Point.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Pat Appleton remembers that she "laughed hysterically" when she first heard a decade or so ago that Chattanooga could become the "Boulder of the East" as a center of outdoors pursuits.

The retired schoolteacher, now 72, had been hiking in Colorado and other places out West in the summers for years and knew what those areas had to offer and "how ridiculous I thought that [aspiration] was."

Her only laughter about it now is the joyous kind.

"I'm certainly glad I lived long enough to see that may be truly coming to pass," she said Tuesday night, before going with her Chattanooga Hiking Club group Wednesday on a section of the Cumberland Trail. "There's no doubt in my mind it's happening."

Appleton takes delight in Chattanooga officially becoming the first "trail town" of the Great Eastern Trail that stretches from Flagg Mountain in Alabama to upstate New York. Unlike the Appalachian Trail, the GET is a network of existing and planned trails covering nearly 1,800 miles -- about 72 percent of which already is open for hiking.

Chattanooga's key role in the GET system is being celebrated this weekend with a group of hikes on area segments as well as a ceremony at noon Sunday on the Tennessee Riverwalk. The Riverwalk is one of the links in the network, as are the North Chickamauga Creek Greenway trail, the Guild Trailhead and trails on Lookout Mountain.

Also close by, the Cumberland Trail and the Georgia Pinhoti Trail are major sections of the GET. For a while some stretches of road will be designated as parts of the GET to get from one trail to another, but Chattanooga's plans for Riverwalk additions, for example, are part of the Great Eastern Trail Association's excitement -- and that of area hikers.

"We've discussed the Great Eastern in our Wednesday group, and people are pretty excited about it," Appleton said.

"I think it's an exciting thing for Chattanooga to have a long trail coming through, and it fits in really well for all the neat outdoors things coming here in the last few years. There's a lot of interest in hiking in this city, and we are a prime place for it. When I started with the hiking club, the first hike I went on there were 11 people. Now we average 30 every Wednesday, and that's in just four years."

Donald Box, a longtime club member and trip leader, said he thought the city's hookup with the Greater Eastern Trail "will serve as an introduction to a number of people in this area of what is around them, and it's a possibility that it will introduce people farther away to Chattanooga.

"Someone may decide to take a long hike and now pick Chattanooga [as part of the route], and after seeing the city they may say, 'I'd like to come back some time.'"

Don Deakins, who is very active with the Cumberland Trail Volunteers and has done a lot of measuring and mapmaking for CT segments, said that about 180 miles are complete of that trail's eventual 300 or so miles from Signal Point overlooking Chattanooga to Cumberland Gap, Ky.

"I hike the Cumberland Trail regularly, and I run into people all the time from Knoxville or other surrounding areas," Deakins said. "Two weekends ago I hiked two days with a group from Memphis. There were nine of them, and they hiked three days in this area."

While the GET likely never will match the mystique of the Appalachian Trail, it does have similar isolation in some areas yet maintains a closer connection to civilization and keeps trip planning from being too intimidating.

"A lady from California called me the other day about the Great Eastern Trail," Deakins said, "and one of the things that appealed to her is that there are more towns along this route for resupply. I kind of like that, too, to be honest. I'm spoiled. I like to take a shower every night."

Contact Ron Bush at rbush@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6291.

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