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Seeking to escape the crowds, hikers turn Appalachian Trail into 'the opposite of social distancing'

Seeking to escape the crowds, hikers turn Appalachian Trail into 'the opposite of social distancing'

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Of all the places to go on spring break, Michael Ros figured, surely McAfee Knob would be safe.

Conscious of the risks posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Maryland student searched the internet for popular day hikes along the Appalachian Trail and decided to make the drive early Tuesday for a trek to the rocky outcrop in Roanoke County.

“I figured that would be a place to stay away from people for the most part, but to still be doing something,” Ros said.

He didn’t realize that as he planned his trip, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was warning people to avoid the scenic footpath.

At a time when more people are turning to outdoor recreation as a way to limit the spread of COVID-19 — and to find some relief in a world where public life is shutting down — conservancy President and CEO Sandra Marra warned that the AT is no longer a refuge.

Popular areas such as McAfee Knob have seen record visitation in recent weeks, leading to jammed trailhead parking lots, shelters full of overnight hikers and heavy use of picnic tables and privies.

“Hiking the AT has become, in other words, the opposite of social distancing,” Marra wrote in a post Monday to the conservancy’s website.

While the organization cannot close the 2,000-plus-mile trail from Georgia to Maine, the post stated, “we can and do, however, urge everyone to stay away from the Appalachian Trail until further notice.”

As he ate lunch Tuesday from the tailgate of his car, after completing the approximately 8-mile hike, Ros learned of the advisory from a newspaper reporter.

“Obviously, now I feel a little bit guilty about it,” he said. “Now, I definitely understand.”

By mid-afternoon, about 25 cars were in the parking lot on Virginia 311, and Ros said he encountered few people on his walk to the summit and back.

“I had the knob all to myself for 20 or 30 minutes,” he said.

But heavier crowds on weekends, and the continued spread of the virus, led to the appeal for hikers to find a less-traveled trail.

Two weeks ago, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy warned hikers not to congregate in groups or share water bottles and utensils. The following week, it urged long-distance hikers to postpone their plans to hike the entire trail or a section of the trail.

The latest advice Monday came after conservancy staff and trail volunteers were recalled from their jobs of maintaining the footpath and its trailheads and shelters.

“The A.T. is not a separate reality from the communities in which hikers live — so, until the risk of spreading COVID-19 has reduced significantly, hiking on a heavily-trafficked trail like the A.T. potentially increases rather than reduces harm,” Marra wrote.

Andrea Abbott and Abby Webb, Radford University students who made the hike Tuesday, said they learned about the advisory from another hiker when they reached the knob.

Had they known, Abbott said, they might have stayed home. But they thought they were doing the right thing by escaping to nature.

“At least we’re going on a hike,” Abbott said as they arrived back at the trailhead. “It’s not like we were going to the mall.”

Roger Davis of Vinton also headed to the trail without knowing the public had been advised to stay away.

“I felt the need to get out and enjoy some fresh air,” he said.

“No one is doing anything, so I feel OK being here,” the 74-year-old said. “You can’t stop living just because of the possibility that you might get something.”

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