By Thomas Safranek
I met my wife thru-hiking the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Ten years later I am now working for the National Park Service and we have traveled the county for my job. When work brought me to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area I was excited to explore a new place, the Cumberland Plateau. Almost two years later I am still shocked how beautiful this area is and now that I have a three year old and a 1 year old I get to share my love for hiking with them.
The Sheltowee Trace National Recreation Trail cuts through the Daniel Boone National Forest and ends in the Big South Fork NRRA. The trail is named after Daniel Boone, who was given the name Sheltowee (meaning "Big Turtle") when he was adopted by Chief Blackfish of the Shawnee tribe.
My kids are growing up hiking the Sheltowee just like I did in Virginia hiking the AT. After every turn they are looking for the “little turtle” that blazes the trail, just like I looked for the white blaze in Shenandoah National Park. Along the way they see tall, wide and even sometimes cascading waterfalls. They see flowers bloom on Mountain Laurel and rocks shaped like chimneys. They hike under or around huge arches and sometimes climb on giant boulders. While I hear some pouting every now and then they are learning to love nature and are excited to hike the Sheltowee Trace on their “adventures with Dad”.
There are a lot of similarities between the Trace and AT. Both trails were spearheaded by visionary US Forest Service land management planners, Verne Orndorf and Benton MacKaye. In the 1970’s Verne Orndorf gained inspiration for the trail from local Sierra Club members who wanted a long-distance footpath in Kentucky. MacKaye gained inspiration for the AT from the Green Mountain club’s Long Trail in Vermont.
Old homesteads, oil and gas wells and logging tracts, remnants of past land uses, can be seen along the trail. The trail wanders on top of bluffs, along ridges and dips into gorges surrounded by towering cliffs. Similar to the AT the Trace crosses private, state and federal land while hiking the trail and has a non-profit organization, the Sheltowee Trace Association, to “protect, preserve, and promote” it.
One day I hope my wife and I can thru-hike the Sheltowee Trace with our boys but perhaps when they get older they will want to experience the trace on their own; that is fine with us. Long distance trails have become more popular over the last ten years and therefore more important. I owe the AT for introducing me to my wife, it challenged me and I am who I am today because I was able to complete it. I want more people to experience completing a long distance trail, whether as a thru-hike or section hike, therefore I think we need to protect our public land so that we can offer more long-distance trails. The Appalachian Trail will always have a special place in my heart and I can only hope that one day my boys will be able to have a similar experience.
Thomas Safranek is a Park Ranger in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.