While much of the Appalachian Trail doesn't run through Central Appalachia directly, the AT serves as a testament to the larger region's beauty and natural assets. For those of us who haven't (yet) been able to take six or seven months to thru-hike the AT ourselves, hiker and filmmaker Kevin Gallagher turned his six month hike from Georgia to Maine into a four-minute film, The Green Tunnel, accessible to all. Seeing the incredible beauty and witnessing the changing seasons in this film could trigger anyone's interest in hiking at least a section of the Trail in person!
But the grueling (and rewarding) kind of experience of hiking the AT, often included in the umbrella of ecotourism, isn't the only way to see Appalachia's natural wonders.
The International Ecotourism Society defines 'ecotourism' as "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people." Appalachia — including areas on and off the Trail — has tremendous ecotourism potential, and entrepreneurs and communities throughout the region are looking to ecotourism as a means of attracting visitors (and their spending money) to the area.
Lynda McDaniel writes about the "Heart of Appalachia" project "based in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to develop ecotourism and agritourism in southwestern Virginia. The authority covers seven counties—Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise—as well as the city of Norton." McDaniel describes the area's assets as an ideal place for ecotourism projects to locate:
The Heart of Appalachia region of Virginia comes with first-class credentials for ecotourism. A large portion of it has been designated as a bioreserve through the Nature Conservancy's Clinch Valley Program, and this area is one of only 40 places worldwide to be named part of the organization's "Last Great Places" ecosystem protection initiative. The Heart of Appalachia's natural havens include thousands of acres of the Jefferson National Forest, the 4,500-acre Breaks Interstate Park (which includes the "Grand Canyon of the South"), and the 850-acre Natural Tunnel State Park, among others. The Appalachian Trail, the Trans-America Bike Route, and the new Heart of Appalachia Bike Route and Scenic Drive weave their way through the region.
Businesses located along the Clinch River also aim to capitalize on the growing interest in ecotourism. River Place on the Clinch, located in Kyles Ford, Tennessee describes itself as an 'authentic Appalachian experience', including its designation as a stop on the Appalachian Quilt Trail.
Eastern Kentucky's most famous ecotourism attraction is the Red River Gorge, with seemingly endless hiking, boating, rock climbing and camping opportunities.
In West Virginia, the New and Gauley Rivers attract many visitors each year for some of the best whitewater rafting in the U.S. The Gauley in particular has become such a popular, and treasured, whitewater route that proposed mining activities near the river has attracted tremendous attention.
Ecotourism holds a lot of potential for Appalachia, and exemplifies why protecting our lands and landscape is so important for future economic development opportunities. What other great examples of ecotourism have you witnessed in the region? Or, if you've visited, what do you wish you had the chance to see or do while in Appalachia?