Expert Advice on Thru-Hiking Alabama’s Pinhoti Trail

Pinhoti on Dugger Mountain

Inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s book “Wild,” and the film starring Reese Witherspoon, a growing number of people are attempting to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and other long-distance paths.

But, if you’re fairly new to backpacking, it’s wise to try a shorter thru-hike before attempting to travel hundreds or thousands of miles.

Stretching 171 miles across Alabama (and another 100 miles in Georgia), the Pinhoti Trail serves a great testing ground for hikers who want to build their thru-hiking skills.

“A lot of people are using the Pinhoti to prep for an AT thru-hike,” said Callie Thornton, a Pinhoti Trail veteran who runs a hostel near the trail’s southern terminus in Alabama.

Because the Alabama Pinhoti passes through two wilderness areas, hikers get experience navigating through remote woods. However, civilization is often relatively close, so hikers can bail easily if things go badly. Plus, the Pinhoti offers a good mix of difficult terrain, so people get a taste of what it’s like to face day after day of hiking while battling fatigue. Plus, a shorter thru-hike requires less planning, and hikers can gain valuable experience without investing significant time and money. If you’re interested in thru-hiking the Pinhoti, consider these tips from trail veterans as you map out your trip

1. Allow two to three weeks for the hike

While it’s possible to follow the Pinhoti Trail from Alabama to the mountains of north Georgia, hikers with less experience should first tackle the Alabama portion of the trail, which takes two to three weeks. With this hike, people have plenty of time to evaluate their gear and gain experience, but they won’t get overwhelmed with logistics or physical challenges.

2. Plan a spring trip

The best time to hike the Pinhoti Trail is from the end of March to the end April. During this period, temperatures are typically mild, with highs in the 60s and 70s, and lows in the 50s and 60s. Also, the Pinhoti is especially attractive in April as wildflowers bloom all along the trail. Alternatively, if you want more views along the high ridges, you can travel in winter when the trees lose their leaves.

3. Visit the Pinhoti Trail Alliance website

The Pinhoti Trail Alliance  houses the most extensive information concerning the trail and provides valuable trip-planning tools. On the site you’ll find a data book with mileage markers for key locations, as well as maps, trail descriptions, hiking advice and links to other resources.

4. Get fit before hiking

While you won’t hike thousands of miles to complete the Pinhoti, you need to be in decent physical condition. “The hiking is mostly moderate or strenuous,” said Ken Hyche, who helps lead Pinhoti hikes with the Sierra Club. Between Porters Gap and Adams Gap, you’ll traverse 14 rock gardens, where it’s easy to twist an ankle in fields of unstable stone. When you leave Adams Gap and travel north toward Cheaha, the going gets tough as you make a steep ascent up boulders on the Stairway to Heaven. Also, the Pinhoti includes several mountain ascents where the trail rises abruptly, rather than following a gentle grade on switchbacks.

5. Pack a tent, hammock or some form of shelter

At least a dozen shelters lie along the Pinhoti in Alabama, but there are stretches where you’ll need to pitch a tent, hammock or rainfly. On the Pinhoti Trail Alliance website, you’ll find details about shelter locations. If you’re into hammock camping, you’ll find plenty of trees along the entire length of the trail. If you start your hike at the southern terminus, you can stay at the Coosa Hiker Hostel. Run by Callie Thornton, former president of the Alabama Hiking Trail Society, the hostel opened in January 2015 and includes four bunks, two full-sized beds, a shower, Wi-Fi, and plenty of tent sites.

6. Don’t worry about resupply mail drops

When people hike thousands of miles on long trails, they mail resupply boxes to post offices along the way. But, the Alabama Pinhoti isn’t long enough to require mail drops, and you can get everything you need in towns along the trail. For example, near Porter’s Gap you can exit the Pinhoti and travel a couple of miles on Alabama Highway 77 to reach Hogan’s Hunting Supply & Feed store, which has gear and food. Just be aware that resupply points are slim north of Cheaha, so you should arrange transportation to resupply in Oxford or Heflin. While you can call for a shuttle (see below), many people rely on a friend or family member to assist with resupply efforts.

7. Be aware of local shuttles

If you need a ride between the trail and civilization, you can contact the Coosa Hiker Hostel for its shuttle service, which has a full-time driver who works all week. If you have an emergency, the shuttle can pick you up, but for other transportation needs, you should arrange rides well in advance of your hike. Also, the hostel shuttle will not arrange to pick you up at the end of your hike at the northern terminus of the Pinhoti in Alabama. (Should a shuttle driver fail to make the trip for any reason, a hiker would be stranded in a remote location.) Before you begin your hike, place a vehicle at the northern terminus trailhead on Forest Service Road 500 (visit www.pinhotitrailalliance.org for directions), and get a ride to the southern terminus.

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