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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.