Admin., Smoky Mountain News

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has requested that the federal government officially close the 2,193-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the 31 official A.T. Maintaining Clubs, 29 — including the Carolina Mountain Club and Nantahala Hiking Club — joined the ATC in its request.

The formal letter asks that the trail be closed immediately through April 30, with managers then convening intermittently to decide whether the trail is safe to open again.

“We are alarmed at the incredible increase in usage at many of the ANST’s most popular sites and believe that uniformity in access (i.e. none) is the only way to provide the proper safety for our gateway communities, trail users and federal employees,” the letter reads. “It is now clear to us that the lack of uniformity across our connected units is causing confusion and preventing appropriate social distancing in addition to continuing to allow for the potential contamination of physical structures such as privies and shelters with no Service, Conservancy, or Club staff or volunteers available to keep them sanitized.”

The unprecedented request for closure comes on the heels of a surge in visitor use despite multiple social-distancing orders issued by state and local governments. The Trail, which spans 14 states and passes through 88 counties, is within a day’s drive for half of the U.S. population. Crowding at iconic and well-known A.T. locations became unsafe, as many believed they could avoid COVID-19 by journeying to public lands.

Prior to the request for closure, the ATC asked all staff, volunteers and visitors to voluntarily stay off the trail, and the National Park Service office closed all the shelters and privies it manages. The A.T. passes through several NPS units and national forests that have closed completely or otherwise removed A.T. access prior to sending of the letter.