Jessica Lilly Published

Tourism Progress Stalled By Landownership In Southern W.Va. 


In 1948, a hiker named Earl Shaffer came up with the idea of an alternative to the Appalachian Trail (AT). It would be a trail that stretches from the deep south to New England, just west of the AT. It wasn’t until 2007 that the Great Eastern Trail Association was created and parts of the trail started to open up to hikers. But when hikers get to southern West Virginia, they find a trail that is incomplete.

Still, in 2013 Joanna “Someday” Swanson and “Hillbilly” Bart Houck completed the first thru hike of the Great Eastern Trail (GET).

“A new trail system like this just doesn’t pop up every year,” Houck said before attempting the hike. “To actually try to be one of the first to hike this trail and to showcase it and to bring it into light is actually a very humbling experience.”

The hope for this trail was that it would relieve some of the foot traffic on the iconic Appalachian Trail which hosts about three million visitors each year.

“It also is going to be an economic boost for this area that needs a boost other than coal,” Houck said. “I’m not against coal. Actually, I have a lot of friends that are in the coal industry. But this is a way to showcase southern West Virginia in a different light.”

Nearly a decade later, what is the impact of the Great Eastern Trail in southern West Virginia?

Back Out On The Trail 

Tim McGraw is president of the TuGuNu Hiking Club, which maintains and promotes the Great Eastern trail in southern West Virginia. McGraw got involved with the project because of his love for the experience of being outdoors in southern West Virginia.


Jessica Lilly
Tim McGraw along the Great Eastern Trail in Mercer County.

“I like to be out in nature, particularly I like to be up on the ridges in southern West Virginia,” McGraw said. “For me, it’s kind of a spiritual experience. To be in the woods, I just want to share what I feel when I’m in nature. I want to share that with other people.”

The GET runs from Alabama to New York west of the Appalachian Trail, but portions of it are incomplete, especially in southern West Virginia. McGraw says the biggest challenge to completing the trail here is private land ownership. Trailblazers tried to keep the trail on accessible land by mapping it to connect public lands. Those lands include R.D. Bailey Lake Wildlife Management Area, Bluestone State Park and Twin Falls Resort State Park.

Scott Durham worked as superintendent of Twin Falls State Park in Wyoming County for 42 years.

“We let them co-designate some of our existing trails at Twin Falls as pieces of the Great Eastern Trail,” Durham said. “That designation has gone away, not because they’re not welcome, but because they’ve just been inactive.”

The proposed route for the Great Eastern Trail inevitably crosses private property to reach public lands like Twin Falls. According to a study from 2013 Wyoming County has the highest concentration of outside land ownership of any county in the state. In fact, Durham says Twin Falls was donated to the state by a private company,

“All the land around three quarters of the boundary of Twin Falls is corporate land,” Durham said.

Corporate landowners have a reason for not granting access to hikers – liability. For Durham and many residents in southern West Virginia, it’s a familiar story.

“I have worked in southern West Virginia for my whole career,” Durham said. “I’ve been involved in any number of economic development efforts, the real hard part of trying to create economic development in southern West Virginia always comes back to having access to buy land and own land.”

Durham says the Great Eastern trail would mean more than economic development to the region.


Jessica Lilly
Great Eastern Trail in Mercer County

“It brings a stamp of approval too,” Durham said. “If you go to someplace in Virginia, North Carolina, and they say well, ‘the Appalachian Trail runs right through here. That gives you an image of what that place is and the quality of the outdoor experience at that place.”

“It’s gonna bring hikers but it’s gonna bring other people too because it’s part of the package of what people are looking for when they’re going outdoors.”

There is a way around the roadblocks. Private landowners could open their land to hikers and the state could take on the liability. That’s how the nearby Hatfield McCoy ATV trail system was made possible. For now that’s not happening for the Great Eastern Trail.

If somehow hiking clubs found a way to complete the GET in southern West Virginia, what would a completed trail do for the economy in southern West Virginia? Well, there’s a hint at what’s possible further down the trail in Narrows, Virginia.

Welcome To The General Douglas MacArthur Hotel 

The General Douglas MacArthur Hotel was purchased by Narrows native Alan Neely in 2008.


Jessica Lilly
Allen Neely stands at the front door of the General Douglas MacArthur Hotel in Narrows, Va.

He has an award winning mustache and a passion for his hometown.

“Narrows Virginia is a National Trail town, because it’s the only town in the United States where two major hiking drills trails? intersect,” Neely said. “The Great Eastern Trail and the Appalachian Trail intersect on top of that mountain.”

After working as the lead construction contractor at Virginia Tech, he retired and rescued this historic hotel from demolition. Now about a quarter of his business is hikers.

“They’re (hikers) actually from all over the world really,” Neely said. “We had people from Brazil and Britain and Spain. They come through and they go back to their hometowns wherever it might be and tell of the little town that they love. You know, we’ve even had some people that hike through here, and they’ll come back and buy houses to move here. I mean, not one or two. I mean several.”

The vision for many coal and railroad towns in southern West Virginia also includes restoring a historic hotel or building and growing a tourism industry.


Jessica Lilly
Allen Neely in the lobby of the General Douglas MacArthur Hotel.

So what will it take to get the Great Eastern trail completed in West Virginia? Scott Durham says to start, it’ll take initiative.

“There needs to be people who step up,” Durham said. “But there are serious hikers here. It may just take that one person who cares.”

The state did create the first non motorized trail authority cooperating with private landowners in 2019. The Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority is meant to highlight the best of northern West Virginia’s trails for biking and boating. The authority represents 15 counties in the northern part of the state.