As I’ve worked with maps of the Appalachian Trail for the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by seeing what the land around the AT looks like from satellite imagery. It’s often very different from what we, as hikers, realize is nearby. What you see from above tells a very different story about the landscape than what thousands of through-hikers have seen.
The mountains and forests surrounding the Appalachian Trail have traditionally been very busy with logging and timber cutting, although today the amount of logging is certainly less than it was a hundred years ago. Maine and New Hampshire, especially, were cut with wild abandon. Today, the aerial view of the AT shows that there is still plenty of logging in Maine, but not much near the trail in New Hampshire or anywhere else that I could find.
Land ownership is an important consideration in timber cutting near the AT– in Maine, the trail mostly follows a narrow strip of National Park Service land sandwiched between private land owned by logging companies. Further south, the AT mostly walks through National Parks (where logging is not allowed) or National Forests (where logging is regulated by the Forest Service). What surprised me so much about the aerial view of logging lands in Maine is how invisible they are from the Trail, despite being sometimes only a quarter mile through the woods.
A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close this cut comes to the AT, though you’d rarely notice it from the trail.
Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company’s land.
A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you’d never notice this from the Trail.
The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.
The other major business in the mountains and rural areas is farming. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the trail walks along long mountain ridges, and occasionally dips into valleys that are filled with farmland. Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts are also patchworks of farmland although nowhere near as completely as those two large, flat, rural states. I find the farmland to be very pleasing to walk through, almost as much as a deep forest. There’s just as much peace to be found in a pasture, unless you happen to be nervous around bulls.
A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.
Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.
A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.
The Appalachian Trail crosses over, or within a short distance of, more than a dozen ski resorts. From the sky, one can see just how much of an impact this use of land can have. In some cases, the clearcut ski trails make for a good view where there may not have been one on top of a mountain otherwise. Hikers also tend to enjoy the ski resorts because there may be buildings where we can camp on top of a mountain, or restaurants and stores near the trail. A less flattering look at these resorts is that they become essentially permanent marks on the landscape, and often go along with major housing and condo developments. Like logging, I see them as an important economic driver in rural mountain areas which can have negative impacts if not regulated and held in check to some extent.
Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.
Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.
I expected to find suburban developments in droves in the far northern section of Virginia, where the AT passes very close to Washington, DC, and was not wrong. But there are many large developments very close to the trail in other places, as well. It’s hard to miss these when looking at aerial images. Messes of yards and roads in deep woods very near to the AT stand out like a sore thumb. In one case, where a planned development was cancelled and later turned into a National Recreation Area, you can still see the abandoned roads even decades later– a near-permanent mark upon the land.
In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.
In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.
In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned (northwest of the AT, faint lines in the woods).
Even the high mountains aren’t immune to vacation homes and real estate development.
I was surprised to see that Interstate 90 passed by less than half a mile from Upper Goose Pond Cabin, one of the quietest, most peaceful shelters on the AT. Roads are an interesting feature on the landscape, with thousands of miles of them winding all over the country and criss-crossing the Appalachian Trail. In some places I was surprised to see so few roads, though the Trail seems to cross them so often. In other areas, zooming in a little closer showed that there were many more small roads that weren’t visible from further out.
Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn’t really so far from a major Interstate highway!
In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.
But zoom in much further, and you’ll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.
To find total wilderness near the trail, I had to look for areas with strongly protected public land. Shenandoah and Smokey Mountains National Parks had the largest uninterrupted road-free areas I could find. Baxter State Park was the only land I could find that wasn’t owned by the Federal government and did have deep wilderness. The National Forests along the Trail were hit and miss– many National Forests are filled with roads and logging, but some have heavily protected by Wilderness areas. After looking along the entire AT for visible human impacts, the truly wild areas seem scarcer and more important than ever.
Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.
The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.
The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by hikers and car-bound visitors, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.
Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.