Taking on the Pisgah 400 Hiking Challenge to Stay Sane During COVID-19
By: Christine Martens
In mid-March, my husband John and I attended our annual guide training for Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Typically, we spend spring through fall guiding hikes and backpacking trips across western North Carolina. At this point, there was chatter of COVID-19 amongst the guides, but none of us quite knew the extent of what would face us next. We didn't know this training would be the last time any of us would do anything guide-related for months.
The stay at home order came shortly thereafter, and before we knew it, everything on our calendar got deleted or postponed. We filed for unemployment, and struggled with what to do next.
With nothing else to do, people began flocking to trails. Some of the most popular hikes were seeing more visitors than on holiday weekends in the summer. Soon enough, national and state parks started closing, trailheads in the forest started closing, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy issued a statement urging thru-hikers to call it quits on their hikes. Even our local trail clubs issued statements urging people to stay off trails. I can't tell you how torn we were during this period of time.We decided to go for a day hike in a very remote area of Pisgah National Forest that was still open. We went on a rainy mid-week day to check out some spring ephemerals, and as we hiked, we talked about how we could stay sane during this period. We also didn't see a single other person during our trek.
If we didn't hike, we knew we would go crazy. We needed a COVID-19 friendly project to keep us motivated, and in the quiet of the surrounding forest, it didn't take us long to figure one out. It would be the Pisgah 400 challenge.
The Pisgah 400 challenge involves hiking all of the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest. Most of the forest was actually still open during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, though many didn’t realize this because the most well-known trails were closed. We had hiked all of those trails many times anyway, so we didn't need to cover them again in order to complete this challenge. The challenge is called Pisgah 400 because there are roughly 400 miles of trail to cover, although many of them you have to hike "out and back," so you wind up doing a lot of them twice.
In order to reduce our impact, we mostly went hiking on rainy days mid-week. We rarely saw anyone, and when we did, we would do our best to scramble at least sex feet out of the way, and pull a buff over our faces. We also never stopped anywhere along the way for food or gas to minimize carrying any germs outside of our immediate neighborhood in Asheville. We also became much more diligent about safety since we knew that the rescue teams were stretched thin at this point. We always told someone our plans, and checked back in with them when we returned. We carried extra gear and food, so we could survive for longer if one of us got injured, and we could more easily self-rescue. The challenge was genius for keeping us sane during coronavirus. The Forest Service never closed most of the trails we needed to cover, and as time went on and North Carolina started opening back up, most of the roads and trailheads in Pisgah opened, as well.
At the time of this writing, we are dangerously close to finishing our goal. When we do, we will be the 34th and 35th people to claim to have hiked all of these trails. Originally, I thought a good timeline would be to try to finish by the end of the year, but at this rate, we will likely finish before the end of the summer. That is, if we can finally tackle my arch enemy of trails right now, which is South Mills River Trail.
This trail crosses South Mills River dozens of times, and, of course, we chose a rainy day to attempt it. You would think we would have enough experience fording rivers at this point to realize it was a bad idea to attempt this trail during a downpour, but in our defense, we didn't realize quite how much it was going to rain (the weather man should really lose his job). We had to turn around halfway through this 12-mile trail at a point where the river was simply too fast and too deep to cross. It was the safest thing to do, and I would make that same decision a hundred times over. No hike is worth the risk of getting swept away in a river.
I hope that someday things will go back to normal, but in the meantime, covering remote, unpopular trails seems to be a pretty rewarding way of staying sane during COVID-19. I highly recommend it.
Christine Martens and John Haffner are outdoor enthusiasts who have hiked several long distance trails, including the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. They call Asheville, North Carolina their home, where they’ve worked as hiking guides for Blue Ridge Hiking Company in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. Learn more about their adventures on their blog.