Susan Sakna and her two dogs were far from their home in Massachusetts. But like many Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, Sakna discovered the perfect temporary respite for the night staying at a hotel in Franklin.
This was an opportunity to rest her weary feet — and the dogs’ weary paws — before tackling more of the nation’s most-famous hiking trail. Stopping in Franklin has become routine for AT hikers such as Sakna.
Franklin serves as a chance to get rid of equipment found to be useless and to stock up on items discovered to be essential. Most of the hikers taking breaks here are about one-week in to their six-month journey; Franklin is 100 miles from the trailhead in Springer Mountain, Ga. This means that Franklin serves as the first place to closely evaluate and correct gear needs and equipment problems.
The AT passes just 11 miles from Franklin at its closest point near Winding Stair Gap.
“It’s very pretty here,” Sakna said as she sat outside a Franklin hotel surveying the surrounding mountains with dogs Max and Shay. Sakna was waiting for a shuttle to arrive and transport her and the dogs back to the AT. “And it’s good to get away from the trail — in some ways, you really can’t even see the mountains when you’re on it because of all the rhododendrons around.”
As AT thru-hikers pour into Franklin at an ever-increasing rate each year, town officials and business owners seem to increasingly relish and appreciate their role as an AT trail destination. Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, the hikers generally came and went with little notice or fanfare. No more: Franklin, these days, prides itself on having close ties to the AT. And, the town is gearing up for April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31, capitalizing on the town’s close proximity to the 2,181-mile long trail stretching from Georgia to Maine.
Franklin as hikers’ paradise
“We see the Appalachian Trail as one of our main economic drivers,” said Linda Schlott, Franklin Main Street Program executive director. “And Trail Days just continues to grow.”
Franklin started April Fool’s Trail Day’s four years ago. In March 2010, the town officially was designated an Appalachian Trail Community at the invitation of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Franklin became the first location in the South to receive the conservancy’s designation as an official trail community.
The Appalachian Trail Community designation is a relatively new program designed to promote the economic benefits of the trail to nearby communities and to foster local stewardship of the trail. For its part, Franklin showed its tie to the trail by creating a trail advisory committee, hosting an annual trail event, initiating an AT-focused education program through the school and library systems and getting the county planning department to commit to considering the trail in its land use plans.
Franklin has bigger eyes than just mining the AT, however.
“We’re not only looking at AT hikers but to use this as a base for all hikers,” Schlott said of the town’s trail-friendly status.
Macon County, in addition to the famous AT, has a substantial portion of the Bartram Trail, plus easy access to hundreds of miles of hiking trails within the Nantahala National Forest.
Important economic boost
Rob Gasbarro, co-owner of Outdoor 76 in downtown Franklin, said the gear-heavy store on Main Street gets a lot of AT thru-hiker traffic.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Gasbarro said. “And, Trail Days is a great opportunity to introduce locals to people doing the six-month pilgrimage.”
Down the street at the Life’s Bounty Gift Shop and Bakery and Café, co-owner Tony Hernandez has grown very fond, too, of the thru-hikers — they come in hungering for the carbohydrates, sweets and the breakfast specials offered there.
“Basically, most of my customers this morning all have been hikers,” Hernandez said one day last week. “And, they are wanting lots of carbs or breakfasts.”
Hernandez welcomes the hikers in, packs and all; just as Franklin these days is doing, too.
Franklin a do-or-die town for A.T. hikers
Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail — those who attempt an entire 2,181-mile trek from Georgia to Maine, from start to finish — are starting to show up in Western North Carolina.
To finish the trail before the New England winter sets in, hikers must set hit the trail in Georgia in March. Of the 2,000 or so who set out to thru-hike the trail, only 25 percent actually make it. Most drop out the first month. That makes the Nantahala and Smoky mountain ranges do-or-die for hikers — this is the stretch of trail where they decide to either pack it in or keep on packing.
Hikers who hop off the trail in Franklin to restock on provisions will find a little extra encouragement in their trying early weeks with the annual April Fool’s Trail Days on March 30 and March 31. Here’s the lineup:
• Hiker bash at 6 p.m. both nights at the Sapphire Inn on East Main Street. A chance for hikers to connect and share stories and advice.
• Trail Days event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 31, with outdoor gear vendors, food, entertainment and more. There also will be workshops, a rock climbing wall, children’s activities. One of the day’s highlights will be the 2012 Go Outside and Play Road Show presented by Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. This exhibit encourages participants to become more involved with their local outdoor community and to inspire spectators to be more active in the outdoors.
828.524.2516 or www.aprilfoolstraildays.com.