Soon the weather in Franklin, just like in the rest of the Southeast, will start to change. Flowers will begin to bloom, the snow will cease to fall, and hikers will file into town officially signally the beginnings of spring. Though there are many trails around the region that attract people from all over and of all different experience levels, none are more well known than the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).
The A.T. originates at Springer Mountain, Ga. and culminates at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Thru-hikers, as they are known, begin the nearly 2,200-mile journey in early March, trying to complete the trail before Baxter State Park, where Mountain Katahdin is located, closes in October for the winter. Those who have set out to conquer the trail stop at various towns along the way to resupply and perhaps to even sleep in a real bed.
According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), Macon County is home to 47 miles of the trail and Franklin sits 111 miles north of Springer Mountain, making it a perfect location to take a break and resupply between Hiwassee, Ga. and the Nantahala Outdoor Center at Wesser, N.C. Hikers that come to the Winding Stair Gap and Highway 64 junction often hitch a ride in to Franklin some 11 miles away.
Of course, hitching a ride in this day and time could be harder than some hungry, tired hikers would prefer. They still get to town, as the locals tend to recognize those who are fresh off the trail and readily pick them up, taking them wherever they may need to go.
“I gave three hikers a ride to the grocery store last week,” said Franklin resident Matt Parrish. “They were real nice. I waited on them and when they were finished, I took them on to their hotel.”
But what if no one is around to give rides? That is where local businessman Ron Haven comes in. Recognizing the value that the visitors bring to to the area, he runs a shuttle to pick up loads of hikers at a time.
“At the moment, I bet there are 200 hikers in town,” said Haven earlier this week. “I'll be bringing in another full load later on today.”
On Monday, amidst the unexpected spring snow, Haven gathered a group of volunteers to take four-wheel drive trucks to pickup points around Macon County to get the hikers off the trail and to a meeting point with Haven's bus that would then bring them down from the mountains.
Residents of Franklin acknowledge the symbiotic relationship that the town and the hikers possess. The hikers come to Franklin and stay at the various lodging options found around town, eat at local restaurants, and buy gear and other supplies at different stores that are located here. The citizens of Franklin benefit from the increased revenue that is added to the local economy.
According to Brandi Field, an employee at Three Eagles Outfitters for the past four years, thru-hikers and sectional hikers have been slowly trickling in off the trail for the last month, but with spring officially kicking off, that number is increasing.
“We definitely see an increase in business,” said Field. “Hikers come in to restock the dehydrated food and get new boots. This year, we've seen a lot come in to get liners for their sleeping bags. Nobody expected it to be so cold, much less to be snowing.”
Hikers also go to Three Eagles to exchange gear.
“If something they have bought is defective then we exchange it,” Field said. “Even though it didn't come from the store, we can still exchange it and then the company that produces it will credit us. The hikers are pretty thankful that we can help them out.”
Nick Potts, employee at Outdoor 76, was busy fitting an A.T. hiker with new boots, but took a moment to discuss the increased traffic the store had seen as well.
“Historically, January and February can be slower than most parts of the year since everyone is just getting over Christmas,” said Potts. “The hikers that start showing up around that same time really counter that. By March it's basically like tourist season. Our sales have boosted to tourist season levels. We've probably seen 20 hikers this morning. They probably spend $50 with us and then no telling how much in the restaurants around here.”
According to Potts, an avid hiker himself, Franklin is the last good stop before the Smokies where hikers can get everything that they are going to need for their trek affordably.
“The economic impacts are crazy. I don't think you can even put a number on it,” says Potts. “If we have 2,000 to 3,000 hikers come through and they each spend at least $100 in town, then that is going to help Franklin a ton.”
The hikers themselves are grateful for the hospitality that they are shown. Jonathan and Christy, two hikers from St. Louis, made their way around Franklin by means of the Sapphire Inn's shuttle to purchase some odds and ends.
“When it started snowing, we thought we better try to get off the trail. Of course we didn't know how we'd get to town, but when we got to Winding Stairs we saw a group of hikers piling on a bus and we just hopped on with them,” Jonathan laughed.
“Everybody we've encountered [in Franklin] have been very accommodating,” said Christy. “I know the weather is supposed to be getting better soon so we'll probably get back to the hike tomorrow.”
According to Franklin Chamber of Commerce Director Linda Harbuck, the hikers have an annual economic impact on the community.
“Some of the hikers stop in to the chamber for maps and information about the area,” said Harbuck. “We know that businesses such as hotels and restaurants benefit from the hikers each year. Being so close to the Appalachian Trail and having each access to transportation for hikers has really built Franklin into becoming known as a great trail town. Word has gotten out to the hiking community that Franklin is a great place to refuel and restock.”
Harbuck said that the economic impact of the hikers goes far beyond a few people stopping into to refuel.
“The people who stop in at Franklin are not always going to be on the trail,” said Harbuck. “We have seen several people come back to vacation in Franklin with their families after first visiting the area during a thru hike.”
The Town of Franklin recognized the importance of the Appalachian Trail to the hiking community and in 2009, submitted an application to become an official Appalachian Trail Community. The designation became official in 2010 and Franklin begin to explore ways to provide services to the many hikers who passed through town, and thus April Fools Trail Days was born. The event, which kicks off this Friday, features vendors, workshops and other festivities for the visiting hikers. This year marks the fifth year Trail Days has been held in Franklin. A Hiker Bash is also planned at The Sapphire Inn and begins at 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, as a way to share trail stories and connect with fellow hikers.