Outdoor Recreation in Appalachia: If You Build It, They Won’t Necessarily Come

It’s no secret that central Appalachia is in the midst of an economic transition. The coal industry is declining, demographic shifts are seeing many of our young folks leave for more urban or suburban areas, and local economies are struggling. But does that mean that all is lost for Appalachian communities? Of course not. Currently – perhaps more than any other time in the region’s recent history – these communities are moving towards what’s being referred to regionally and nationally as “economic diversification.” Everything from light industry to local entrepreneurship to initiatives based around local food and crafts are revitalizing many struggling places across the mountains, and developing new outdoor recreation opportunities for residents and tourists alike is a major part of that picture, thanks to our region’s abundance of natural areas and trails.

All of this work does come with some growing pains, though. One of the biggest in terms of outdoor recreation comes in how we’re promoting local trails to hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and others. For decades, we’ve mostly relied on word-of-mouth descriptions to relay information about a local trail or destination. “Well, you turn left down there where the old gas station used to be” is not an uncommon way for directions to local trails to be phrased in much of the Appalachian region. In addition, many of the local residents seeking to promote outdoor assets aren’t actually trail users themselves. Central Appalachia, in fact, has some of the highest rates of physical inactivity in the country – meaning that many folks in the region are just now getting involved in regular outdoor activities for the first time.

The upshot of all of this is that visitors hoping to travel to our region to hike or ride trails (and, importantly for local communities, spend their tourism dollars) may end up getting shortchanged when it comes to info on where to go. Someone from Atlanta or Charlotte, for example, doesn’t know where the old gas station near Coeburn, Virginia was two decades ago, and they’re not going to find it by looking at a map. And if they do make it here and ask for information on the trail, can they trust that they’ll get reliable info if most of the folks in the area have never been to that trail themselves?

If the above seems a little too hypothetical, let’s illustrate things with an example. We put ourselves in the shoes of a first-time visitor to the area looking for information on the Guest River Gorge Trail, a 5.5-mile multiuse trail in the Jefferson National Forest and one of the region’s most popular recreational features. As one of the region’s flagship trails, there should be a ton of reliable info available for someone coming to the area for the first time, right?

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The Guest River Gorge in October.

Not so much. We looked at the top 15 hits for an online search for the trail that referred to the websites of regional towns/counties, marketing groups, or local businesses to see how the trail was being marketed by folks in our region. (These aren’t all of the regional outlets promoting trails, of course, but it’s likely a representative sample.) We ignored personal blogs, magazine articles, and other sites that aren’t official outlets for regional outdoor recreation. Out of those 15 places, here’s what we found:

  • None of these websites provided a map of the trail itself, and only three (20%) of them mentioned how long the trail was. One of these listed the trail as being 3 miles longer than it actually is.
  • Only half of these 15 websites mentioned where the trail was located to begin with. Of these, one website erroneously mentioned that the trailhead is found more than 10 miles from where it actually is, near an abandoned office building well outside of the national forest. This same website also mentioned that 3-4 other trails started from the same trailhead when, in reality, they’re located on the other end of the county.
  • Only four websites each provided information on the difficulty of the trail and provided a summary of what users can see as they bike or hike the gorge. One of these four encouraged readers to connect to a trail at the end of the gorge that no longer exists in a maintained fashion.
  • Five of these 15 sites did nothing more than mention the name of the trail and provide a photo. These included no information on where the trail was, what users could see on it, what shape it was in, how difficult it was, etc.
  • Not a single one of these websites included a comprehensive description of all four of the main features hikers are looking for when it comes to info on a trail: location, length, difficulty, and a detailed summary of what to expect on the trail.

And we could go on. Considering that this is the case for one of the region’s most well-known trails (the situation for lesser-known trails is considerably worse), it becomes easy to see what a mess a first-time visitor would find themselves in if they were trying to visit the Gorge and plan a hike. The Guest River Gorge thankfully has the benefit of being profiled by individuals and groups from outside the region in ways that do list all of the typical information found when promoting a trail, but this is a rarity in an area that historically hasn’t been the focus of outdoor recreation-based tourism.

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This view might be pretty, sure, but where is it? What is the trail like that gets you there? This info can be even more vital than know there’s a view to begin with.

So, it’s obvious that our region as a whole is still failing visitors when it comes to reliable trail info, despite the fact that we have a great network of trails in place across the mountains and lot of good work already being done to promote them. But what can we do to fill these gaps? Thankfully, this issue is an easy one to fix, provided that we put in a little effort and improve communication between stakeholders. We’ve put some tips below that spell out some basics of what hikers, mountain bikers, and others are looking for when they plan a trip to a new trail. These include:

  • Provide users with real, useful info. Hikers and other trail enthusiasts aren’t looking for a pretty picture, a sentence or two about the beauty of the forest, and a note that a trail exists when they’re planning a trip. They’re mostly looking for specific details. How long is the trail? How difficult is it, and what obstacles can users expect to find? Where is the trailhead located? Are there issues with access due to limited parking or gated roads during certain seasons? What scenic features are users going to see, and are there loop options with other trails available? Going the extra mile and providing this type of info ensures that you’ll actually make people to want to visit. Otherwise, they’ll probably opt for trips to other parts of the mountains (like the Smokies or Asheville – see those links for some wonderful examples of outstanding trail promotion) where that type of info can easily be found.
  • Put yourself in a visitor’s shoes. It sounds simple, but it can be easy to take information on a trail for granted when you’ve lived around the trailhead for years. If you grew up in the area surrounding the hike, you probably know exactly how to get there without directions…but very few people outside of your local town do. If you want to attract those folks to the trailhead, they need to have info first. Before you publish a deliverable promoting a local trail, give it a read-through as if you’ve never heard of the place before. Would your info make you want to visit,  and – if you did want to go – could you actually get there and plan a trip based on that info alone?
  • Be honest with what you’re selling. The quickest way to make sure a visitor doesn’t come back to the region is to pull the wool over their eyes about what to expect on a trail. A number of outlets in our region often feature stock photos of waterfalls or scenic views that aren’t actually from the trail they’re describing or, in some cases, aren’t even from the same state. One local community here in southwest Virginia, for example, welcomes visitors to its website with a photo of a mountain summit that’s actually some 60 miles away in North Carolina. There’s no need to do this when we have so much scenic beauty that can easily be photographed for a trail writeup. Talk to local photographers and hikers before you go digging into generic stock photos for promoting a hike. Chances are, someone has got something that you can use for free that will work even better than what you could dig up online.
  • Don’t promote what you can’t maintain. Not every trail that was around 20 years ago is still maintained. That’s the case for the Austin Gap Trail, a route descending off of Virginia and Kentucky’s Pine Mountain Trail into Wise County in southwest Virginia. The Austin Gap Trail is still on maps and still technically exists, but actually following the trail is another story. Its lower trailhead is not immediately obvious, and the route has faded into obscurity and can be nearly impossible to follow in places during winter months, much less when summer undergrowth obscures the forest floor. That hasn’t stopped numerous regional marketing groups from listing the Austin Gap Trail on outdoor recreation offerings for the area, though…all without any mention of the trail’s status or difficulty. Contacting trail maintenance groups and land management agencies to ask about the status of a trail before promoting it is an essential first step in marketing regional outdoor opportunities. Otherwise, you risk sending novice hikers out to hike a trail that requires some serious backcountry orienteering: something that will likely lead those people to not return for a second visit or, at worst, get lost while they’re here.
  • Visit what you plan to promote before you promote it. Most of the issues raised in the points above can be solved with one simple step: go out and use the trails you’re aiming to promote yourself. Take a weekend afternoon and go hike a local trail, or call up a regional mountain biking or horseback riding group and see if you can go along on an upcoming ride. This not only puts you in the shoes of an actual users but also means that you’re going to run into the same issues that visitors will on the trail. And, of course, that means you’re more likely to mention them in promotional materials. Can’t make the trip yourself? Call up local trail users and get their input. It will work just as well.

Obviously, not every single feature along the trail or every little issue with using it needs to be discussed in a trail writeup. But as the issues we mentioned at the top of the post show, simply listing that the trail exists isn’t going to cut it, either. Really bringing outdoor recreation enthusiasts to the region is going to take more than simply having the trails themselves, namely making sure that they can trust regional outlets to be a reliable source of up-to-date info when they want to plan a trip. Getting there isn’t hard, but it will take some changes from how we’re currently thinking about trail marketing. As our local hikes and biking opportunities get ever more popular, it’s up to us to make sure they stay that way.

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