When you are hiking on the Appalachian Trail and it starts raining, it’s nice to know that somewhere up ahead there is a cozy shelter you can duck into. Luckily, there are more than 250 trailside shelters on the AT.
Some of these shelters are almost 100 years old and have just as much history as the trail itself. This episode examines the history of those shelters and the hiker hostels along the trail that have become much more than just cover from the rain. They've become a place for community along the trail.
Andrew H. Brown, “Skyline Trail From Maine to Georgia,” National Geographic Magazine, August 1949, p. 218-236.
Sarah Jones Decker, The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts, (2020).
D. Jason Miller. “BackPacked Architecture: The Appalachian Trail and Its ‘Primitive Huts.’” Journal of Appalachian Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2015, pp. 247–62, https://doi.org/10.5406/jappastud.21.2.0247.
Mills Kelly, “Trail Shelters,” Appalachian Trail Histories.
MILLS KELLY: Hello and welcome to the Green Tunnel, a podcast about the history of the Appalachian Trail. I’m your host, Mills Kelly. We’ve got a great episode today, but first I need to say something to our premium subscribers.
[cricket noises, wind]
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[Rain sounds, walking sounds]
KELLY: Nobody likes getting caught in the rain. If you’re sleeping in a tent, it’s really no fun to hear the wind dropping large branches, or even trees somewhere close by. Or what about sleet? No one wants to slog up the trail while they try to avoid slipping on ice. Fortunately for Appalachian Trail hikers, Benton MacKaye already thought about these problems more than 100 years ago. His plan for the Appalachian Trail was more than a trail winding through the mountains. He wanted that trail to include a string of what he called “shelter camps.” These camps would be spaced at regular intervals, and they would make it relatively easy for hikers to get out of foul weather when it arrived.
[Weather sounds end]
KELLY: The volunteer clubs that built the trail took MacKaye’s idea to heart–and built a lot of shelters. Today those places include more than 250 trail side shelters. Hikers can also find shelter in many hiker hostels, campgrounds, high country huts, small hotels, and even private homes as places to sleep, prepare a meal, and meet other hikers.
[Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter]
KELLY: Over the years, these places of shelter have become essential nodes in the community of hikers, volunteers, and local residents MacKaye hoped his trail would help create.
KELLY: All kinds of people meet at these places for shelter. Some are long-distance hikers, some are day hikers, and some are trail volunteers The communities they form generally don’t last long – often just until the next morning. But the sense of community that hikers and volunteers carry with them up and down the trail is very strong. The trail shelters, hostels, and other places hikers stay make that sense of community possible. Take, for instance, the experiences of 2021 thru hiker “Friday”:
[Guitar music begins]
FRIDAY: Friday: You pretty much go and you look at the map, and I immediately would just click on the shelters to see how far the next one would be because you always knew someone was going to be there. So, if you were tired, or you needed a snack, or you just wanted to talk to somebody you could go to the next shelter, and usually without fail, especially this year there were so many people who hiked in the beginning, you were always going to run into somebody.
KELLY: The big push for building the trailside shelters began in 1937. That was the year when the Appalachian Trail Conference chairman Myron Avery declared the trail complete. The next big task for the trail clubs, in Avery’s view, was to begin building what he called “a continuous chain of public shelters in the form of open-front structures.” For Avery, these would not be “casually located, indifferent structures.” They would be purposefully placed shelters intended for the general public.
KELLY: Avery and MacKaye both saw the Appalachian Trail as a peoples’ trail—and that same sentiment extended to its shelter system.
KELLY: When Avery challenged the trail clubs to start building that chain of shelters, they didn’t have to start completely from scratch. The Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire and the Green Mountain Club in Vermont had already built a number of shelters on their trails – trails that eventually became part of the AT. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club had also begun building shelters several years earlier. But in 1937, only a few existed south of the Potomac River.
KELLY: When the ATC and the trail clubs began to build their own shelters, they partnered with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and state park authorities to get those shelters built. At that time, more than half of the AT crossed private lands, so the ATC and the trail clubs also had to obtain easements from landowners before building anything on their land.
KELLY: Who were these shelters for? Were they for all hikers? Or were they for the members of the trail clubs that built and maintained them? In the ATC, there were some strong opinions on both sides of the question. Avery and the National Park Service officer Ned Ballard were adamant that the shelters had to be for all hikers. And in the end their view prevailed. The shelters would be peoples’ shelters.
KELLY: Jason Miller is an associate professor in the Department of Sustainable Technology in the Built Environment, and associate Dean for the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Appalachian State University, and he’s a practicing architect. Several years ago Jason published an important article on the AT shelters titled “BackPacked Architecture.”
KELLY: According to Jason, one of the things that made it possible for the chain of shelters to be built as rapidly as it was was the fact that the ATC decided to standardize shelter design. This decision made it much easier for the trail clubs to pre-order all their building materials according to a predetermined plan.
JASON MILLER: It was pre-manufacturing and prefabrication before there was such a term or an industry. It was catalog homes right, and I think that’s fascinating because that’s basically in the 30s. That’s what they’re talking about, here’s the catalog that you need to do this out in the woods on a site that is appropriate, and so in site selection is a whole other thing for shelters’ kind of longevity I think.
KELLY: Of course, building a shelter in the forest took a lot more effort than just ordering and shipping building materials. First, you had to choose a good location. It needed to be near the trail, close to a reliable water source, and ideally in a scenic spot.
KELLY: Sometimes the perfect location doesn’t exist. Some have water sources, but they’re really far away. One example is the Ed Garvey Shelter in Maryland, where you have to walk something like half a mile downhill to the water source—which, consequently, means walking a half a mile back uphill loaded with your water. Or there’s the Peters Mountain Shelter in Pennsylvania and its three hundred rock steps up to the water source. These sites may not be perfect, but, at least there’s water.
[Water sounds end]
KELLY: And when it came to design, the ATC settled on the simple Adirondack style lean-to.
SARAH JONES DECKER: I think it was heavily influenced by the Adirondack shelters that were used by hunters and, early travelers in colder areas like New York, New England, and they, the basic design they said was directly copied from lean-tos used in New York because it was, a simple design with little upkeep, you know, the slanted roof keeps the rain off of it and they always had the one open side because before headlamps and things like that travelers always had a fire. And so there would be a fire ring close to that open side that would provide warmth and light into the shelter.
KELLY: That was Sarah Jones Decker, friend of our show and author of the book The Appalachian Trail: Backcountry Shelters, Lean-tos, and Huts. Sarah is a former thru hiker and now is a photographer, and a farmer. She spent two years re-hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail and taking photos of its shelters for her book.
KELLY: What Sarah just described became the go-to plan for the AT’s chain of shelters…a three-sided building, open in the front, with a steeply slanted roof.
[Hand construction sounds, sawing, hammering]
MILLER: They actually put out a manual of that country shelter lean-tos right it’s up north. So that lean-to construction is described in great detail, each step that you would take to construct one of those shelters.
KELLY: In 1939, the ATC issued their guidelines to the trail clubs on how to build a proper shelter. What that document doesn’t address is how much work it took to get all those building materials up to the work site.
KELLY: Imagine having to pack in logs, nails, planks, gallons of creosote, and more. That’s exactly what the trail clubs had to do. Where they could, the trail clubs cut, peeled, and shaped logs right on site, and many of those logs were taken from still standing American Chestnut trees that had died in the blight of the 1920s. Trail clubs tried to be as opportunistic as possible, but shelter building is just plain old hard work.
[Nature sounds, thunder]
KELLY: Sometimes nature conspired to make shelter building even more difficult. In the 1950s, Maine’s Appalachian Trail Club decided to build a new shelter at Chairback Gap. Although the site for the new shelter was close to a road, Mother Nature decided that was too easy. After heavy rain made the nearby Pleasant River much higher than usual, a club volunteer remarked that they couldn’t cross in the normal place. “My car was scarcely more than a quarter of a mile away,” the poor volunteer wrote, “but the nearest route was more than seven miles!”
KELLY: Despite the logistical challenges they faced, the trail clubs generally tried to stick to the ATC design. Except when they didn’t. Sometimes the shelters took on a regional flavor. These design decisions were often made in response to the local environment. For example, in Vermont hikers could easily become snowbound in bad weather. So the Green Mountain Club built four-sided shelters instead of the standard three.
KELLY: In other cases, local clubs took advantage of the building materials or existing structures easily at hand. The William Brien Memorial Shelter in New York was built entirely from local stone in 1933. Or there’s the Overmountain Shelter in North Carolina, which just happens to be a big red barn. Sadly, that shelter is now closed because the barn appears ready to tip over.
KELLY: In Southern Pennsylvania the trail shelters were built in pairs. Since 1989, Curt and Tawnya Finney have been the maintainers of the Tumbling Run Shelters. Hikers remember them for the unique signs on the sides.
CURT FINNEY: Our two shelters, um, are basically designated the “snoring” and “non-snoring” shelters. And that concept came from my dad. One evening we were out back in the early 90s, and we were there, this was during our peak thru-hiker season when most thru-hikers are coming through, between May and June. We arrived, we introduced ourselves, and right away they wanted to know why all of sudden once you cross the Mason-Dixon line, are there two shelters? And right away my dad speaks up and says, “Well that’s because we have to start separating the snorers and the non-snorers once you cross the Mason-Dixon Line, or you guys will not make it to Maine.” So, on our way home he’s like look, you gotta get some signs made up. So since then we have a shelter designated snoring and non-snoring.
KELLY: For a lot of members of the AT community, their favorite shelters are often the ones that are associated with happy memories. I asked Jason for a favorite and he said,
MILLER: Ah, this question about a favorite shelter, that is so difficult. Because some of them are tied up into, you know, the memory of them, and then some of them are just tied up in the architect nerding out. Roan High Knob because of its elevation and its status as a fire warden’s cabin in the early 30s is, amazing. It was one of the first shelters I stayed in as a child, and so I have you know it’s got a loft, you know what kid doesn’t love the idea of have- being able to go upstairs in the middle of the woods.
KELLY: Of course for others, the most memorable shelters are based on the people they meet on trail. Here’s Friday again:
FRIDAY: I liked all the ones in the Smokies because of the fire pit. That was when it was very cold still and even though we had a bunch of people in there to keep like body heat warm stuff like that. Oh yeah everyone’s on top of each other, but I liked that they had a fireplace in there and it was just everyone hanging out, even if they had tents outside it kind of just brought even more people in.
KELLY: And here’s thru-hiker G.O.A.T., or Great On All Terrain, who summited Mount Katahdin in 2021:
G.O.A.T.: There’s one in Vermont called the Lookout Shelter. It’s not an official AT shelter, it’s privately owned, but they let thru hikers use it and more or less it’s like a small house on top of Lookout Mountain with a fireplace. It’s all closed in with windows, top rafters you can climb up in, and they have this ladder up the top of the roof with like a viewing deck where you’re right before, as a Northbounder, you’re right before the White Mountains, which is the biggest challenge that nobody shuts up about. It’s like, “Oh just wait for the Whites.” And you can see them and it’s a little terrifying but you get a phenomenal sunset there, and you that’s where you that’s where we started really meeting Southbounders. So you know all the Northbounders and Southbounders always hear about each other and then you finally get to meet them.
[Rolling Stones return]
KELLY: Benton MacKaye hoped the shelters would become locations where communities developed. What he didn’t anticipate was how the shelters would become so important to a more transient community of long distance hikers, hopping from shelter to shelter.
[Rolling Stones end]
KELLY: In a very real sense, trail shelters, hostels, and other such places have become the waypoints for all the members of that community to interact and build their relationships. People meet and keep meeting at shelters throughout their time on the trail. Sometimes they take a day off – a zero day. Sometimes they take an alternate route, following yellow or blue blazed trails rather than the white-blazed AT.
MILLER: I think there’s some value and there’s great connective tissue in the idea that I’ll meet you at the next shelter, or I’ll meet you two shelters on. You know we’ll reconnect because you’re going to take a couple of zero days here if you, you know yellow blaze I’ll meet you here. it’s a lot easier than saying a particular tree or water cross right, so I think that as humans, we have as we kind of changed our you know and evolved our society and places really important, these are little places. And that’s critical to the idea of a community is a sense of place.
KELLY: Sometimes those places, though, can be at risk. You may have listened to our previous episode on Leave No Trace principles while on the trail. Well, let’s just say that people on the AT didn’t always prioritize those rules. By the 1970s, the backpacking boom had brought tons of people onto the trail, and the trail clubs had been complaining loudly about vandalism to shelters and veritable mountains of trash left at shelter sites.
KELLY: Thurston Griggs, President of the Mountain Club of Maryland, wrote to the Appalachian Trailway News in 1973 and listed destruction or removal of trail signs, pollution of springs with fecal matter, destruction of shelters, and extensive littering as just a few of the many offensives against the AT and its shelter system. The Mountain Club of Maryland even began dismantling and removing the shelters from its stretch of the AT. And they weren’t alone.
KELLY: The Appalachian Trailway News polled readers as part of an open forum. Should they keep building shelters? Should they get rid of them completely? Should they keep some and just stop building more? 60% of the responses advocated for keeping the shelters but building no more, and many tacked on additional requests to move problem shelters to more remote locations or to dismantle problem shelters altogether.
KELLY: Fortunately, the vast majority of respondents to the Appalachian Trailway News survey didn’t want to see the shelters go. In 1974, the ATC decided to put it to a vote: should they scrap all of the shelters and wipe them off the map?
KELLY: No, the ATC decided. The shelters would stay. Instead, the clubs removed many shelters that were close to roads, moved others to more remote locations, and began investing more heavily in Leave No Trace education.
KELLY: But what if the shelters had been removed. What kind of Appalachian Trail would we have today without those structures?
FINNEY: Well, I would imagine it would be a lot like the trails out west. My wife and I, we did the John Muir Trail here a couple years ago and there, everything is all backcountry. there’s no picnic tables and no privies except for just a- No there’s no privies at all, they do have a couple areas where they have some bear boxes different areas out, but everything is all backcountry.
FRIDAY: Like I said earlier, it’s a hub. And that’s where I met most of the people, because when I was hiking I was kind of like I was in there, like, I was not thinking about anything I was listening to music or podcasts, just wanting to get to the next spot where I could hang out with people, because for me that was that was why I kind of wanted to do it, I wanted to meet people who also wanted to hike and just kind of be out there, and so I think without the shelters I don’t I don’t know I think it’d be really sad.
G.O.A.T.: But if hypothetically they were to take those out, I think it would have been an absolute devastation on the culture of everything. So i’m I mean it’s phenomenal that they didn’t it was a fantastic choice, even though you know I don’t really love doing the 18 mile gaps yeah, yeah I think it would have changed things irreversibly.
MILLER: If the shelters were to go away, then the long green tunnel just becomes another trail. It’s what separates it from just about any trail, not to mention any long distance trail corridor. It’s kind of part of what makes the Appalachian Trail such a powerful draw to some and it’s a component of that it’s not the only thing. But I think it’s part of it.
[Pause, nature sounds]
KELLY: MacKaye also hoped his trail would become an economic engine for the depressed Appalachian Mountain region. In the earliest days of the trail, people who lived along the trail would take in hikers for a night or two, charging them enough to cover the cost of meals and with some left over for the homeowner.
KELLY: In 1949, a writer for the National Geographic who was hiking a stretch of the trail stayed at one such home. The meal he was served surpassed the wildest dreams of the average AT hiker. “Bowls of vegetables and stewed fruit, platters of meat, plates piled high with hot biscuits and cornbread, pitchers of milk and cream, jars of honey and homemade jam crowded the table. There were squash, string beans, and mashed potatoes; hot veal and cold ham; applesauce and pears; and quantities of sweet farm fresh butter to slather on the hot breads.”
KELLY: What hiker wouldn’t want a meal like that?
KELLY: The tradition of taking in hikers continues today, but mostly in the form of trailside hostels, many of them just rooms in a private home or a bunkhouse situation next to the house. One such hostel is the Wonderland Hiker Refuge outside of Linden, Virginia. The co-owner, Lyric, told us how she got started taking in AT hikers.
LYRIC UNDERWOOD: We had no intention of having a hostel at all whatsoever. We were just hiking our mountain one day, once we figured out where we were, and we were on trail, and it was in the middle about this time of June, about four or five years ago, we were hiking down the mountain. And we came across three thru hikers that were sitting at the bottom of the trail, and it was about 100 degrees outside that day. And they were really tired. And they were really hot. And so we just started talking to them. And we said, hey, do you want to come home with us? Kind of a deal, take a shower, wash your clothes, have some food. And so we invited them into our home, just as trail angels, I guess.
The Wonderland Hiker Refuge is really just six bunks in Lyric’s garage, but it comes with some home cooking, a chance to do some laundry, and the opportunity to rest for a day or so off trail. Lyric really thinks of her hostel as a refuge, especially for hikers in need. Not long ago, she took in a group on one of those terrible, no good, very bad weather days on the trail.
UNDERWOOD: And we picked them up and they were freezing, like shaking like on the verge of hypothermia. Like they had been out for four or five days. 40 some degrees, where everything was wet. And so we took them all in. It’s okay, we took them all in like if you don’t care, we don’t care. So I went to the store I made two gigantic pots of chili, two gigantic pots of macaroni and cheese two gigantic pots of cornbread and fed everybody. I have these amazing pictures on my Instagram of hikers just sitting all in my little tiny living room just on the floor eating you know, and they made their way like they just did it is and they stayed for four or five days we had a blast together right?
Other hostels are run much more like hotels. Serena Ryan opened the Notch Hostel in New Hampshire in 2015. I saw on her website that she had been inspired to open the hostel by the book AWOL on the Appalachian Trail and asked her to tell me that story.
SERENA RYAN: Sure yeah I was actually reading the book, while I was out on a mountaineering trip, I was climbing Mount Rainier out in the Cascades and I was reading his book and he talked a lot about the hostels that he had stayed at along the trail and one of the things he mentioned in there was that there wasn’t much of a of a hostel community in Lincoln, New Hampshire, which is where I go very often well, I should say where I used to go all the time when I lived in the Boston area and was hiking in the White Mountains, I would drive up to Lincoln every weekend and use that as kind of my base camp. So you know the light bulb went off, I was on this climbing trip wondering how I could possibly avoid going back to my cubicle with no windows in Boston. And I thought oh my gosh I should start a hostel in Lincoln, New Hampshire.
The Notch serves not only members of the AT community, but all others that visit the White Mountains. Just like Lyric, Serena wants her hostel to be a space for all hikers, especially those that come for hikes in the Presidential Range. From Serena’s perspective, having a mix of guests – AT hikers and others – is part of what makes the Notch special.
RYAN: So it’s been a really cool thing to see the fusion between the AT guests and the people coming for other purposes, I think, like sometimes the AT guests might be off put at first, and vice versa, like you know who’s the smelly guy or like what is this, you know woman that doesn’t know what- what like a trail name is you know, but by the end of it a lot of times they become pretty close and a lot of times I’ve seen guests with vehicles take thru hikers under their wing during their stay, giving them rides taking them to the grocery store, you know cooking dinner with them. And we’ve been told by the thru hikers that stay with us that it’s actually can sometimes be one of the best parts of the experience for them.
Like any place where diverse groups of people gather, trail shelters and hiker hostels can have their own share of problems. We’ve already discussed what can happen when too many hikers use, and sometimes abuse, a particular trail shelter. Hiker hostels can pose a different set of challenges, because guests are paying for the right to spend the night. Because more than 3 million people a year set foot on the AT, the potential for conflict among hikers is always present.
KELLY: Serena is very clear that her hostel is and will remain a place where everyone feels welcome.
RYAN: My primary focus is on community building. I’ve done a lot of work in the social justice and racial justice community, particularly, which is very small here in northern New Hampshire, trying to work on, on building that community space, starting at the hostel, but also, more broadly, and in like the White Mountains hiking community. We are very vocal about our hostel being a safe place for guests of color, trans guests, guests of any disability and we and other like marginalized communities.
I realized that I had an opportunity to use the hostel as a community building tool for an inclusive community in the White Mountains.
[Nature sounds, hiking sounds]
KELLY: It’s been 100 years since Benton MacKaye first proposed the Appalachian Trail and over that century the trail and the trail community has evolved and changed. But MacKaye’s vision of the trail as a people’s trail, a place where all can go and all will be welcome, has remained at the core of the AT hiker experience.Without the shelters and the hostels, the AT would be a very different place.
MILLER: The idea of why or how did this, you know how the shelter’s contribute to, to this idea of larger community that MacKaye was interested in is, they are the physical artifacts of an ephemeral year by year community right? Each year, a group of people decide, an ever growing number right, decide that they’re going to thru hike that that’s one sub community. Every year, there are continuing hikers and people who do section hikes and who just connect. there are the day hikers there are people who touched the trail once and maybe never again, and there are people who touch it for decades. That thing that stitches an ever changing trail, little relocations or erosion, or you know whatever the case may be. You take 2100 miles and you break it into 10 to 15 mile chunks because there’s something there physically that gives you a waypoint, that gives you a milestone that gives you a memory or gives you a lesson right, I mean it’s there.
KELLY: I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to more of those memories.
KELLY: Here’s hoping we meet at a shelter one of these days.
[Hiking sounds fade]
HAYLEY MADL: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at George Mason University. Today’s episode was produced by me, Hayley Madl. Abby Mullen is our executive producer and she also did the audio production for this episode. Mills Kelly is our host.
MADL: Gimme Shelter was written by Mick Jagger & Keith Richards and performed by The Rolling Stones. It is published by ABKCO Music, Inc. and is used here courtesy of ABKCO Music & Records, Inc. www.abkco.com All rights reserved.
MADL: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Staunton, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia.
MADL: We want to offer a special thank you to all our guests for this episode: Madie “Friday” Friday, Jason Miller, Sarah Jones Decker, Curt Finney, Jared “G.O.A.T.” Madl, Lyric, and Serena Ryan.
MADL: Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you soon!
Sarah Jones Decker is a photographer, writer, farmer, AT Trail Maintainer, and all around outdoorswoman. She graduated from Virginia Tech University and the Savannah College of Art and Design and is the co-owner of Root Bottom Farm in Marshall, NC. A long-time friend of our show, Sarah is also the author of The Appalachian Trail. Backcountry Shelters, Lean-Tos, and Huts.
Curt Finney grew up exploring Pennsylvania’s abundance of state parks. He and his father joined the ATC in 1989 and began maintaining the Tumbling Run Shelters in 1991. Curt and his wife Tawnya are still enthusiastic lovers of the outdoors and remain the devoted maintainers at Tumbling Run. Many AT hikers will have met Curt, Tawnya, and their dog Mocha at the shelters over the years. Sadly, Mocha passed away in December 2021 at the age of 13.
Madie Friday is a mechanical engineer from Wheeling, West Virginia. Madie had never been backpacking before when she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail. She set out in March of 2021 from Georgia and summitted Maine’s Mount Katahdin in September. Madie says she only wants to do three backpacking trips in her life: the AT, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
Jared Madl is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and has spent a significant amount of his life out in the woods. He spent six years planning and preparing to hike the Appalachian Trail and finally set out in March of 2021. In addition to the AT, Jared plans to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail to earn the “Triple Crown” of long-distance hiking in the U.S.
Jason Miller is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sustainable Technology in the Built Environment and Associate Dean for the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Appalachian State University. He is also a practicing architect at the firm David Jason Miller Architect, LLC. Jason is the author of the article, “BackPacked Architecture: The Appalachian Trail and Its ‘Primitive Huts’.”
Serena Ryan is the owner of the Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, New Hampshire. Serena started the Notch to service not just Appalachian Trail hikers, but for all those that come to enjoy the White Mountains. Serena is passionate about social justice in the outdoor community and is the founder of the initiatives Summits in Solidarity and the North Country Social Justice Collective.
Lyric and her husband Scott are the owners of the Wonderland Hiker Refuge in Linden, Virginia (mile 980 for Northbound hikers). Their hostel is a donation-based hostel and they have been running it since 2016.