The business of hiking
While Warren County and Front Royal are drawing up plans for extensions of the Appalachian Trail to bring hikers into town, there has been little discussion on the effect hikers have on the economy.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy states more than 2 million people visit some part of the trail every year, spending between $125-168 million annually, with $27 million going to local communities. How much of that is getting spent in Front Royal?
According to Alyson Browett, the Appalachian Trail Ambassador for Front Royal-Warren County and the chair of the Front Royal-Warren County Appalachian Trail Community Committee, between 750 to 800 hikers stop by Front Royal during the hiking season to buy food and supplies, stay in hotels, dine at restaurants and pick up or send packages at the post office.
“Hikers are hungry because they burn a lot of calories every day and when they get off the trail, they’re looking for a nice warm meal,” Browett said.
Browett said a one-way hike up the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, costs about $5,000 and takes about three to five months. According to Browett, many of the hikers are professionals.
“They’re teachers, police officers, people who just graduated college, retirees and veterans who have some disposable income and are between jobs or were able to get the time off from work to fulfill their lifelong dream,” Browett said.
According to an informal report compiled by the Mountain Home Bed and Breakfast, hikers stopping in Front Royal spend anywhere between $70 to $170 during their stay, which adds up to between $52,500 to $127,500 spent a year. Browett said one way to increase more spending is the establishment of an information kiosk at the trailhead near Route 522.
“We’re in the process of making one to show hikers where they can buy their supplies or sleep for a night,” Browett said. “Hopefully, that will boost more business in town.”
One of the biggest obstacles to increase the amount of hikers coming into town is lack of transportation, Browett said. Presently, when hikers come to the trailhead onto Route 522, they have to walk alongside the road to get to town.
“It’s three miles off the trail to get into Front Royal,” Browett said. “When you’re hiking 2,200 miles, you don’t want to add on miles out of the way. If there was some kind of public transportation to bring hikers into town, they might be more inclined to come.”
Browett said local businesses could also become more hiker friendly.
“Businesses could give out discounts to through hikers, because when they’re on the trail, they’re trying to conserve their money,” Browett said. “Other towns along the trail have that, like giving out a free slice of pizza. It really gets hikers to stop by.”
However, Browett said from the hikers she has spoken with, most are satisfied with their experiences in Front Royal.
Steven Burke, Front Royal town manager, said the town is trying to redress some issues preventing hikers coming into town, such as the lack of outdoor outfitters tailored to hiking.
“Right now, our planning commission is looking into establishing a tourism zone that would offer a reduced tax rate to business in that area, and an outdoor outfitter would definitely fit into that,” Burke said.
The Mountain Home Bed and Breakfast, located near the trailhead at Route 522, was established last March and has seen a season of hikers come through. Lisa Jenkins, an owner of the bed and breakfast, said attracting hikers to a business means keeping prices low and attending to their needs.
“Hikers coming along the trail have lived very simply for months, living close to the land,” Jenkins said. “They don’t have much clothes and they’re looking for a shower.”
The bed and breakfast has hosted about 150 hikers this year and has attracted hikers due to the amenities it has to offer, such as a dryer for boots, ice cream and pizza, transportation into town and providing clothes for hikers to wear while they do their laundry.
“It’s all about talking to hikers and finding out the little things they need to make their experience better,” Browett said. “We offer Q-tips, which might not seem like a big deal to most, but the hikers really like them.”
According to Jenkins, hikers from Georgia begin filtering through Front Royal from April to June and then hikers from Maine come in from August to September. Jenkins said her business is starting to experience a slowdown from hikers and has shifted its focus toward hosting people staying the weekend and sight seeing.
Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org