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The Birmingham News
March 9, 2008

Pinhoti Trail Connection to
Appalachian Trail Set to Open

Hiking to Maine?
Start in Alabama
By Thomas Spencer
News staff writer

Workers from Masonry Arts and Brook Wallace Equipment transported 
and set a 10,000 pound boulder with a plaque designating the Pinhoti Trail at Cheaha 
Mountain State Park as a connection to the Appalachian Trail. The boulder was hauled by 
an all-terrain loader one mile up the trail in a trip that took nearly 4 hours.

Cheaha Mountain State Park
The rumble of the front end loader died away, the 10,000 pound limestone and granite 
boulder finally in its place.

The fog had cleared, and from the rocky overlook, the land fell away to the wooded valley
that stretched out west 2000 feet below. The shadowy humps of mountains to the north 
and to the south touched the low clouds.

And snaking into the woods was the Pinhoti Trail, marked with blue blazes, heading toward 
the ridges beyond, a continuous footpath that is now connected to the Appalachian Trail 
and can take a hiker up the spine of the mountains from Alabama 2,504 miles to Mount 
Katahdin in Maine.

Tom Cosby, a hiker and marketing director of the Birmingham regional Chamber of 
Commerce, watched the boulder placed in its spot, marking the Pinhoti Trail’s highest 
point in Alabama. It was a crowning moment of more than two decades of work, and the 
fulfillment of a vision first articulated in 1925, a feat that will be celebrated next 
Sunday (Mar. 16) with the official opening of the Pinhoti Trail’s connection to the 
Appalachian Trail.

“This puts Alabama on the map as a mountain hiking destination,” Cosby said.

The Pinhoti also stretches south and will eventually be completed to Flagg Mountain in 
Coosa County, the southernmost mountain of the Appalachian Mountain system. Backers 
hope eventually to make the case for getting the Alabama extension recognized as the 
official southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which would take an act of Congress.

334 miles to the AT
From Cheaha, Alabama’s highest mountain, it’s 334 miles up through the remote regions of 
the Talladega National Forest and through the Chattahoochee National Forest in 
northwest Georgia to the beginning of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain.

Currently, the trail (AT) takes about six months to hike. Adding the Pinhoti connection 
would extend that hike by about a month.

“For those hardy souls who want to hike the length of the Appalachians, you really ought to 
start in Alabama,” Cosby said.

An Alabama extension was envisioned even when the Appalachian Trail was just an idea. At 
the founding meeting of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the father of the trail, Benton
MacKaye, laid out a vision for a trail that would run 1,700 miles from Georgia to new 
Hampshire, “with extensions proposed to Katahdin in Maine, in the north and, in the south, 
to Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and then to Birmingham, Alabama.”

A senator from Maine had the trail extended into Maine in the 1930s. But it wasn’t until 
the early 1980s that the real work of making the Alabama connection began.

That’s when Mike Leonard, then a lawyer at the Birmingham firm Cabaniss, Johnson, 
started looking at a map and dreaming.

“When I was a teenager and in college,” the North Carolina native said, “I spent a lot of 
time hiking on the Appalachian Trail. When I got to Birmingham, I was looking at a map and 
I thought, “Gee, it would be interesting to link the Pinhoti Trail to the Appalachian Trail.”

He got involved in the effort to have the national forest land around Cheaha protected as
a wilderness area. When that work was completed in 1983, he started trying to put the 
route together on paper, determining the possible paths and landowners.

Overcame roadblocks
“Plenty of people said it couldn’t be done,” Leonard said. “There were roadblocks, such as 
a piece of property that took four years of negotiation to secure.

In 1986, Leonard returned to North Carolina but stayed active in the effort to connect 
the trails, lobbying Congress and working with Georgia groups and Alabama’s land 
conservation fund, Forever Wild, for money to support land purchases.

Leonard estimated that the project, with the help of Forever Wild, the Georgia 
Conservation Fund and the USDA Forest Service, has led to the acquisition of about 
7,000 acres in Alabama and 400 in Georgia.

“I’ve spent more time hiking around Capitol Hill and Goat Hill talking to people about the 
Pinhoti Trail than I ever did hiking it,” Leonard said. “I’m hoping to solve that problem. I’m 
55. I’m still in pretty good shape. I’ve got some hiking left in me.”

Leonard said others, such as Pete Conroy of Jacksonville State University, deserve 
credit for pushing the project along. The late U.S. Rep. Tom Bevill championed the trail in
Congress, and other members of the Alabama congressional delegation were helpful, as 
were landowners such as former State Rep. Gerald Willis, who donated a key 8 mile trail 
easement through land he owns in Cherokee County.

But as important as those efforts were, the trail wouldn’t have come about if not for the 
countless volunteers with Alabama and Georgia trail groups who hacked through the woods 
and hand built the trail.

“I can’t understate the importance of that,” Leonard said.

Pristine Wilderness
Hikers in the know have been taking advantage of the route. Wendi Merritt, a self 
employed investigative consultant, has hiked from Sylacauga the length of the Alabama 
Pinhoti and across the border to Cave Spring, GA.

That trek takes 7 to 14 days, during which you never pass through a town, most of it 
spent climbing and descending the pine topped mountains of the Talladega National 
Forest, past waterfalls and mountain streams and small valley lakes. There are ridgetop 
views where the only thing you see are other forested mountains with no sign of human 
civilization, breathing in smog free air, rich with the smell of pine and earth.

“The Pinhoti . . . Oh, my goodness. It is the place to get away. To me it is solitude,” 
Merritt said.

Highlights for Merritt included the Lower Shoal Creek Shelter, where two creeks merge 
and border the shelter on three sides with rushing water. Then there is the rocky, steep 
climb up the “Stairway to Heaven” in the Cheaha Wilderness, which arrives at a rocky 
overlook called Heaven.

“It’s very exhilarating to reach the top of it,” Merritt said. “It is a magnificent 
experience. People don’t realize this is here. There are mountains in Alabama.”

For Cosby, that’s been a long running frustration.

When he can persuade people to come take a look at central Alabama, what they see 
confounds their expectations.

“They see the hills and they’re surprised it’s not flat cotton fields, that we have these 
beautiful mountains here,” Cosby said.


^ climb up.