In 1948, Earl Shaffer became the first known hiker to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. After finishing, he thought about the many other trails he knew of, or had heard of, that ran to the west of the AT. He wondered: Could they be connected to form another great interstate trail? Perhaps from Alabama clear to New York?
His idea gained a little traction in East Coast hiker groups but mostly remained just that, an idea, for over 50 years. Until, in 2000, when the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club began making concrete plans to bring the trail, known then as the Western Appalachian Alternative, to life. A man named Lloyd MacAskill, a member of the club, outlined a route from the Alabama state line clear to the Finger Lakes of upstate New York.
Fellow hiking groups took notice of McAskill’s plan and by 2007 enough energy had coalesced around the idea to form the Great Eastern Trail Association. The GETA charged itself with organizing the dozens of regional hiking clubs along the proposed route in order to begin building and connecting trail segments as necessary.
The GET crosses nine states and covers 1,600 miles, though there is still much work ahead of the volunteers who are toling to complete the trail’s final sections. Much like the AT was at first, the GET is in patchwork shape, requiring hundreds of miles of on-pavement road walking for thru-hikers to complete.
Many proposed trail linkages cross private property, and gaining access to private land with the goal of building a public trail isn’t an easy ask. The hiking clubs trying to piece together different trail networks to form the GET don’t have the money to buy private land as needed to secure access. Big coal mining interests in West Virginia and Kentucky have flat-out refused to allow any trail construction across their property, mostly out of liability concerns, so, in the foreseeable future, there will more pavement walking in coal country and elsewhere along the disparate trail networks. It’s unknown when, or if, the entire GET will officially be roadless and complete.
But, the whole GET, as is, can still be walked.
The first known thru-hike was completed in 2013 by Joanna Swanson and Bart Houck. The two built a blog about their experience, which features tips and updates on trail completion and conditions. The pair estimates that about 70 percent of the trail is finished, more, they say, than what met Earl Shaffer when he first thruhiked the AT.
To hike the entire GET today requires considerable planning, route finding, and a strength of will something like the AT, with a well-trod trail system and plenty of company doesn’t. There wil be big chunks of solitary travel, hard-to-find trailheads, and difficult resupply points. An adventure, in other words.
“Know your limits,” Houck said in an interview. “Start out small. Plan, but be flexible. You can create and accomplish goals so easily out there. Each day is a goal, each state is a goal.”