How Many People Hike the AT Every Year?

The AT stretches 2,175 miles. Photo by Stan Zarnoch

The Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) stretches 2,175 miles from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Each spring, thousands of people set out to hike the entire trail, and innumerable others hike sections of it throughout the year. Just how to measure the number of people who hike the AT is the subject of a recently published General Technical Report by SRS scientists.  Before Stan Zarnoch, mathematical statistician and lead author, research social scientist Mike Bowker, and pioneering research scientist Ken Cordell conducted the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Pilot Survey, there was no standard survey methodology to gather this information.

Many parks across the United States have a gate or ticket booth where visitor numbers can be easily collected. In contrast, the AT is essentially a very long path that connects more than 75 public land areas in 14 states. While we usually hear about the individuals who set out to hike all 2,175 miles of the AT, many who use the AT are day hikers. Capturing the number of through hikers and day hikers is important so that the National Park Service, which has oversight of the trail through the National Trails System, can effectively manage the AT.

For the pilot study, the authors developed a survey design using two instruments—exit-site tallies and a survey questionnaire—to make visitation estimates on a section of the AT. They also used a model-based design for comparison purposes. The initial survey was performed over a 75-day period on a 109-mile stretch of the AT from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to 10 trail miles north of Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. The design-based approach visitation estimates were 66,967 and the model-based approach estimates were 70,912 with coefficients of variation of 23 and 16 percent. Using these numbers, the researchers extrapolated annual visitation for the entire trail at 1,948,701 with a coefficient of variation of 20 percent.

Read more about the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Pilot Study: