This time of year plenty of hikers along the Appalachian Trail are making their way through Western North Carolina. They are vital for the economies of towns that sit along the trail – like Franklin, which was the first designated Appalachian Trail Community.
There are expected to be over 3,000 thru-hikers this year. Those are hikers who plan to cover all of the almost 22-hundred mile trail that goes through 14 states. Going south to north means an early spring start is necessary to beat the winter in Maine where the AT ends, as it typically takes six months to do the whole trail. Many stop in Franklin early on to replenish supplies and rest. This has a big impact on the town says Outdoor76 co-owner Cory McCall.
“It’s not uncommon in March and April to see twenty or thirty backpacks on the ground in the store,” explains McCall, who runs the outfitter on Main Street in Franklin. “People are doing shakedowns to see what they truly need and what they don’t.”
March and April are usually the busiest months when hikers hit the 110 mile marker just outside town. McCall says hikers often buy new boots at this early stage of their trek.
“I think 110 miles I think people know if it’s working or it’s not,” says McCall.
While hikers get new supplies they spend the night in town and visit the local breweries. During those months the occupancy rate at local motels goes up according to the Franklin Tourism Development Authority. From February 2017-2018 to March the occupancy tax earning increased about 60 percent and then jumped an additional 30 percent in April. It continues at that level into the summer months when tourists come to town. This is vital for the town’s businesses says McCall.
“Really we don’t see tourists until May so the hikers provide us with two additional months to really get a jump start on the year,” says McCall.
Rick Weston and his wife Melissa Wilkins are from London. They’ve been on the trail for about 2 weeks.
“Yeah so quite boringly I’m an accountant and my wife is a lawyer. So two pretty steady boring office jobs so it’s been great to be in the great outdoors,” says Weston.
They have been planning for over a year for the AT hike. Since they came from abroad they needed visas to visit.
“This is our first real backpacking experience. We’ve done a lot of training but there are no real mountains in England - not like here - so we thought we would just dive right in and go straight for it and do the Appalachian Trail,” says Weston.
They went to Walmart for supplies as well as a local outfitter. Then planned to spend the night in town.
In 2016, the Nantahala Hiking Club surveyed almost 500 hikers about their background and how they spent their time in Franklin. The majority of them purchased something at an outfitter and almost all of them spent the night. More than three-quarters of them said they would consider Franklin a vacation destination in the future.
Wilkins says that seeing rural America was a part of the draw to hike the trail for them.
“Yeah we’ve been to some American cities - New York, Vegas, San Francisco - the usual tourist hotspots. But not Blairsville, Franklin and Hiawassee. So it’s interesting,” says Wilkins.
She goes by the trail name, “Bean Jar.” Weston choose the name “Stiff Upper Lip.”
The pair will continue up to Maine in hopes of finishing the trail in 6 months before their visas end.