Making Sense of the Vast History of the Appalachian Trail

by Mary Lee Clark

Making Sense of the Vast History of the Appalachian Trail

Land rights battles, geological changes and scenery choices are among the many reasons cited in changes made to the trail in the past 82 years. Today, the trail stretches 2,192 miles and looks very different than it did in 1937. ​

This is the history that Mills Kelly, a professor of history at George Mason University, his colleague Abigail Mullen at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, and his undergraduate students hope to capture. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the team is setting out to create a digital historical guide of the evolution of the Appalachian Trail over the past century. ​

The result will be a free, interactive research tool that will allow users to chart, examine and make sense of the routes the trail has taken throughout its long history. ​

"We're going to make it possible for the person interested in the story to not only see how the Appalachian Trail has changed over time, but to get all the contextual material around that so they can understand the decisions that were made and how it affected people's experiences on the trail," said Kelly.​

Brenda Ibarra, a senior history student, is a student research assistant for the project. Her fascination with the Appalachian Trail started in Kelly’s class HIST 300 Introduction to the Historical Method: The Appalachian Trail.​

"His class inspired me to do the whole thing," said Ibarra, who plans to start hiking the trail in 2022 after she completes her education to become a teacher.

Ibarra is collecting information from personal interviews with current and past hikers during the current planning stage of the project. Among the changes the Mason team is documenting is when McAfee Knob to the trail, now the most photographed portion of the trail, was removed from the trail due to disputes over property rights and access. 

Kelly, who was part of the team that conceptualized the undergraduate research program that later became the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research(OSCAR), said students will be crucial for the implementation of this project. ​

He enjoys the fact that undergraduate students bring different perspectives to their research and focus on topics that they are personally interested in, such as LGBTQ issues or endangered species along the trail, rather than what the experts are interested in. ​

"If you involve students in your research, especially undergraduate students, your field of vision expands dramatically,” said Kelly. ​

This project falls under the umbrella of Kelly’s larger project of documenting the history and culture surrounding of the trail called Appalachian Trail Histories,which includes research projects from his undergraduate students.