America’s newest long-distance trail, “The Great Eastern Trail,” has reached Chattanooga. Warren Devine, board member of the Great Eastern Trail Association, spoke to a gathering of about 50 interested people Wednesday afternoon as an introduction of the trail to the Chattanooga community.
The GET goes through nine states between New York and Alabama and runs roughly parallel to and west of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Approximately 1,400 miles are now open for hiking out of the planned distance of 1,800. The northern terminus is the Finger Lakes Trail in New York with the southern terminus at Flagg Mountain, Ala. In between, the trail crosses through Pennsylvania, Maryland where there is a loop providing an eastern or western route, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia. Future plans include adding trails in Florida.
The Cumberland Trail Conference (CTC) and Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association (GPTA) are the two groups participating in the organization of the portion of the trail running through Tennessee and Georgia. As of now, there are 131 miles in Tennessee. The trail enters the state of Tennessee at Tri State Park, where Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee come together, and travels 245 miles to Soddy Daisy. From there the interim path extends to Red Bank, then crosses the Walnut Street Bridge leading to the Guild Trailhead on Lookout Mountain, and traverses the mountain to the Georgia state line. This segment designated as the “Lookout Mountain Section” is a total of 26 miles and could be covered by foot in two days at a fast pace.
The preferred route will eventually lead from Soddy Daisy along Montlake Road to Old Dayton Pike and then along the North Chickamauga Creek greenway to the Chickamauga Dam. From there it will follow the North River Connector greenway and the Tennessee River along the North Shore to the C.B. Robinson Bridge where it will cross the river. Heading south, the trail will follow the Riverwalk greenway to Ross Landing and from there to the Guild Trail and on to the Georgia state line. This route would be a total of 31 miles.
There are challenges for this proposed, preferred path. The area around Chickamauga Dam is now closed because construction on the locks has stopped. It is hoped that Senator Lamar Alexander can get that problem resolved. The North River Connector greenway has not yet been designed, and TDOT will not allow foot or bike traffic to cross the bridge over the river.
The trail is a composite of various trails built and maintained by different organizations and volunteers from each of the areas it travels through. It is a patchwork of existing footpaths maintained by local trail partners with new pathways built to fill in the gaps between the old ones. Some of the breaks in the route will use “interim” paths that follow streets and roadways until the “preferred” paths that follow greenways can be built.
Putting together a system comprised of independent trails has presented some challenges for the umbrella organization. The network consists of footpaths in nine states, involving 10 clubs and 11 existing trails. Initially, five gaps ranging from 50-200 miles between the existing paths needed to be filled in including one through West Virginia where there was no hiking organization to get involved. Progress made in the past five years includes trails, bridges and shelters being built, and brochures, signs and a website being created. It is now open for hiking north of I-64, which runs from Kentucky to Virginia.
The new GET is not intended for use by only long-distance hikers. Mr. Devine said that since the AT opened around 12,000 people have hiked it. Annually, 400-450 report they have completed the entire distance, but two-three million people hike parts of it each year. He touted the development of the new trail system as a place for solitude, to encourage conservation, saving land for national heritage, recreation and health and for community development. Historically, towns will benefit from having a hiking trail cross through.
In describing what to expect of the GET, he said that the highest elevation of 3,500 feet is lower than the Appalachian Trail, which has points as high as 6,000 feet. He said comparing the two, that this new one is more primitive and has less populated surroundings. Also, the interim routes will be used until more permanent ones are established.
In a question and answer session, the audience was told that the composite trail system is being marked with an identifying logo. An alternative route to get across the river was suggested for the Lookout Mountain segment of the trail. Garnet Chapin asked if other hiking clubs such as the newly formed Lookout Mountain Hiking Club, organized by John Wilson, might help in creating the pathways in this section. “Very definitely, we’d like your help” was answered. More can be learned about the Great Eastern Trail at www.greateasterntreail.net.
Mr. Devine told the crowd of interested people that “the Great Eastern Trail is another reason to complete the greenways in Chattanooga.” And, he added, “Chattanooga is one more reason for people to hike the Great Eastern Trail.”