Appalachian Trail Visitor Use Study

Recently the National Park Service partnered with The Pioneering Research Unit of the USFS Southern Research Station in Athens, Georgia, to design a statistically valid, reliable, and uniform method of collecting and reporting public use data for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail.


The Appalachian Trail (A.T.) is a 2,175-mile marked footpath extending from Mt. Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in North Georgia. It traverses fourteen states, eight National Forests, six National Park Service units, one National Wildlife Refuge and about six dozen state parks and forests. The A.T. is a congressionally recognized National Scenic Trail and is often referred to as the nation's longest and most accessible National Park.

The Trail follows the often forested peaks and valleys of the Appalachian mountain chain and at times crosses through populated areas such as Damascus, VA. It is used by day and weekend hikers, section-hikers (who hike the entire Trail in sections) and thru-hikers (who hike the entire length of the Trail in one season). Along its length, there are hundreds of access and exit points.

While National Park Service (NPS) administrative supervision falls under the jurisdiction of the Appalachian Trail Park Office in Harpers Ferry WV, the non-profit Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) plays a significant management and conservation leadership role. Under ATC oversight, 30 volunteer Trail clubs maintain specific sections of the Trail. According to ATC estimates, over 5,500 individuals volunteered 195,733 hours to Trail conservation, maintenance, and education efforts in 2005.


The Appalachian Trail has been in existence for over 75 years and never had a science-based calculation of Trail users. Since the completion of a 1970 study, the annual number of A.T. users has generally been reported to be between three and four million.

With the exception of a few NPS units (such as the A.T.), most sites report monthly visitation estimates. Visitor counts are necessary for key Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) measures. Without an accurate visitor count, the Appalachian Trail Park Office cannot report to mandatory performance measures related to improving park safety.

Over 150 million dollars have been spent to acquire protected lands for the Trail, and approximately 1.5 million taxpayer dollars are spent annually for operations. With a national investment on this scale, managers should be able to reasonably account for Trail use.

Study Objective:

To (1) develop and design an Appalachian Trail visitor use estimation methodology that can be applied to other long-distance U.S. trails, to (2) estimate baseline Appalachian Trail use on a pilot study section of the Trail, and to (3) provide the means / protocols for updating estimates in future years using feasible index measures. In order to meet these objectives, scientists will be utilizing components of the National Visitor Use Monitoring program.

A secondary objective will be to review, identify, and recommend the adjustment of problematic pilot study issues in preparation for a more efficient future full Trail study.

Field interviewing in a 109 mile section between Harpers Ferry, WV, and Boiling Springs, PA, was conducted during the mid to late summer of 2007.