The president of the group dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Appalachian Trail is asking hikers to stay off the 2,200-mile trail until further notice to help protect it from overuse and to help slow the potential spread of COVID-19.
Sandra Marra, president and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, posted the plea on the organization's official website.
"In these unprecedented times, I am making an unprecedented request," Marra wrote. "Please stay away from the Appalachian Trail. Whether your hike is for a couple of hours or a couple of days, staying away from the Trail minimizes the spread or contraction of COVID-19."
A post on the Conservancy's Facebook page also said the Trail saw a record number of day hikers over the weekend, and asked hikers to stay away to help preserve the Trail and prevent overuse.
The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine, including several trailheads and stops along the Susquehanna River and its surrounding area in Central Pennsylvania.
Marra acknowledged in her post that many people are escaping to nature to seek isolated and unpopulated spaces.
"On the A.T., however, what they've found are trailhead parking lots exceeding their maximum capacities, shelters full of overnight hikers, day hikers using picnic tables and privies, and group trips continuing as planned," she wrote. "Popular spots along the trail like Blood Mountain in Georgia, the McAfee Knob area in Virginia, and Annapolis Rocks in Maryland have seen day use reach record-breaking levels.
"Cars line the highways leading to popular day-hiking spots on the Trail. Hiking the A.T. has become, in other words, the opposite of social distancing."
Marra pointed out that even a simple half-day hike can spread COVID-19. Hikers could eat lunch at a picnic table, take a break in a shelter, use a privy, or share a map or food with someone they encounter on their hike -- all of which could lead to unknowing contamination.
Since A.T. volunteers who help maintain the trail have been recalled, shelters, trailheads, and privies could be impacted by increased visitor use, Marra said.
And some of the rural communities along the trail might not have the healthcare resources to care for a sick hiker or manage a COVID-19 outbreak should a hiker contract the virus on the Trail, Marra said.
"The A.T. is not a separate reality from the communities where hikers live," Marra said. "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."
While no one can physically close the Trail or its connecting trails, Marra said, the Conservancy urges everyone to stay away from it until further notice.
"There is an unfortunate truth about this virus," she wrote. "Unless everyone is safe, no one is safe. So take a walk around the block. Spend time with your loved ones. And, please, stay home."