If you’ve been on the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail in the past few years, and thought, as I have, “there are a lot of people out here,” you’re not wrong. You may have also heard that crowds on these trails increased after popular books like “Wild” and “A Walk In The Woods” were published. This is also quite true. But few people have gone further than to show anecdotal evidence of this. Luckily, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy has been keeping track of this trend for decades– since long before Bill Bryson set foot in Amicalola Falls State Park.
The ATC was very helpful in sending me some graphs to show the trend of increasing hiker use on the Appalachian Trail. The first graph shows the number of people per year who applied for the 2000-miler certification (whether as section hikers or through-hikers). You’ll see that the numbers generally climbed slowly from the Sixties through the mid-Nineties, with a few jumps after National Geographic published a book and an article about the Trail.
Once “A Walk In The Woods” was published, the numbers jumped by more than 50% over two years. What surprised me, though, was that those numbers started to fall after only a few years, and continued to fall until around 2008. Since 2008, though, the numbers have grown steadily. The graph mentions the National Geographic film on the Trail released to Netflix in 2009, but I would also argue that the increasing prominence of hiker blogs and social media online has spurred the increase as much as any traditional media. But that’s an argument for later.
The previous graph tells how many hikers finish the Appalachian Trail each year, that’s not the full story. Conventional wisdom says that about one-third of hikers who start the AT each year will finish. Another graph provided by the ATC shows the number of people who start the trail each year (this number is probably not 100% accurate, but it’s as accurate as we can get, and the trends mirror the number of finishers, so it’s probably quite good).
Again, I was surprised to see that the numbers of hikers dropped between 2000 and 2007 (apparently my year on the AT was the least crowded of the new millenium! Who knew?) before skyrocketing again. So will numbers spike after the “A Walk In The Woods” movie comes out this summer? My money says yes. And will the numbers gradually decrease for several years after? My guess is that if the numbers do fall after that spike, they won’t fall to pre-2014 levels unless something big changes in the management of the trail, the culture of hiking, or some other major external factor.
So what about the Pacific Crest Trail and “Wild”? The PCTA doesn’t give out numbers as readily as the ATC, but I put together what I could. A recent post on their blog reports that 2013 and 2014 were record years for thru-hiker permits issued, at 1042 and 1468, respectively, but what did things look like before? I went to their 2600-Miler list and counted entries going back to 1995 and compiled this graph. See if you can tell which year “Wild” was published.
Reviews for the film “Wild” were much better than for the film “A Walk In The Woods”, including nominations at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Also, “Wild” was released in the winter, while “A Walk In The Woods” won’t see wide release until after through-hiker season is well underway.
So if you’re concerned about crowding on any of these trails, the next few years will be crucial. As the PCTA says in the above blog post, “Education Is Key”. Make sure your fellow hikers know how to protect the ecosystem around the trail, the physical treadway of the trail, and the culture surrounding the trails. Hopefully we can all enjoy the pleasures of a through-hike without crowding out the fun.