‘Trails Forever Hikes’ Hiking Program

March 15, 2024

by Danny Bernstein

Spring is almost here and so is the Friends of the Smokies (FOTS) hiking program. This year, the two hiking programs, Classic Hikes of the Smokies and Get on the Trail with Friends and Missy have combined into one awesome hiking series: Trails Forever Hiking Program. To kick off the series, hike leaders and helpers gathered to participate in a one-day training program. Though the two programs have been active and successful for a couple of decades, the training and discussions are new.

Dana Soehn, President of the Friends, welcomed us and kicked off the program. She talked a little about her childhood in Western Missouri in the 1980s and her move to the Smokies as a summer intern in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. She retired after thirty-three years in the Park Service. Dana focused on the purpose of the hiking program: to create lifelong stewards of the park. She wants the Friends (and the hiking program) to connect people, communicate stories and cultivate relationships in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The park needs Friends more than ever. There are seventy-one items on the Annual Needs List – that could be the subject of a blog or two of its own. The 2024 Needs List is not just a “nice to have” wish list; we all have those.

To quote the FOTS website, “Every year, the park asks Friends to support special projects and programs that would otherwise go unfulfilled.” Donations “help us fund these requests and it makes a huge difference in providing visitors with the best possible experience while protecting and preserving our beloved Smokies.” These are critically important projects that regular Federal funding cannot provide. When we pay for a FOTS hike, the donation goes directly to the Trails Forever program.

Hiking Program for 2024

Beyond merging two historic hiking programs into the Trails Forever Hiking program, FOTS will provide two staff members on each hike. This allows the staffers to meet hikers and donors. This is also an opportunity for hikers to learn about other park and FOTS initiatives.

The timing of the hikes has been changed. FOTS now offers two hikes a month from April to October. On the first Tuesday of the month, we will have a “challenging” hike. On the last Wednesday of the month, an “easier” hike will be on the schedule.

For example, the first long hike will be on Porters Creek Trail in April with a short detour at the Messer Barn site. The shorter April hike will be on the Abrams Falls Trail in the Cades Cove area.

The actual leaders training was a consolidation and formalization of all the good leading practices we have been doing all along. The leader should:

  • Carry a trail map,
  • Stop at all trail intersections,
  • Toward the end of a lunch or snack break, the leader should give hikers a five-minute warning,
  • If we meet other hikers, those going uphill have the right of way.

We also heard from National Park Service (NPS) employee Josh Albritton of the Preventive Search and Rescue group. Josh let us in on several Search and Rescues that he was part of. The key to avoiding a “Search and Rescue” incident is hiker education and preparedness. That lays the responsibility on the individual hiker, even if they are part of a group. They should plan before the hike to:

  • Bring the proper clothing including a rain jacket,
  • Wear good boots and socks,
  • Take food and lots of water for the day,
  • Remember their personal medication,
  • And stay fit.

Our last speaker was NPS employee Josh Shapiro who is the longtime Trails Forever crew supervisor for the program, including the restoration of Abrams Falls trail. See https://friendsofthesmokies.org/blog/abrams-falls-trail-restored-2021 for details of this fascinating project. We were also joined by NPS employee Adam Monroe who heads the volunteer program for Trails Forever.

Unfortunately, the high-altitude areas of the Smokies were experiencing high winds and the park was going to close US 441 through the park in the early afternoon. So, we sped up the program and did not have much time for socializing.

But never mind. The Trails Forever leaders were able to connect, communicate and cultivate relationships. Sign up for hikes as soon as the schedule appears on the website https://friendsofthesmokies.org/hike-with-trails-forever/. And see you on the trail!