Officials ask: Please stay off the Appalachian Trail

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ROANOKE, Va (WDBJ7) — If you thought you'd go for a nice hike on the Appalachian Trail to avoid the crowds while social distancing, think again. At McAfee Knob on Friday, parking was already packed, and the trail was well-traveled.

"They think they're practicing social distancing, but in reality, they're doing the opposite," said Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club President Jim Beeson.

Beeson is now asking people who get outside "to avoid the AT, and to not hike the popular trails, such as Dragon's Tooth and McAfee Knob."

To be clear: this isn't a closure. Instead, the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club is joining the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association in asking people to use their better judgement, and stay off the AT.

The reason is twofold. First: crowds increase the risk of passing on coronavirus, even outside. Second, heavy traffic can damage the trails, and the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the AT, has shut down because of the pandemic.

The AT isn't the only trail facing overcrowding this weekend and beyond. Trails and parks across Virginia and the country have been packed as the weather warmed and people looked to get outside.

"Our hope is that people find a path less traveled," said Roanoke Parks and Rec's Stephanie Long.

Long is encouraging people to check out new and different parks and trail this spring, while still taking precautions.

"We can't clean every structure every day, so people need to be mindful of that and bring hand sanitizer," she said.

There are also resources available to help find new hikes, including the Roanoke Outside Foundation's website.

"We have over 60 different hikes mapped, and I would say probably 95% of them people have never heard of," said Pete Eshelman, Roanoke Outside Foundation's director

As to how long people will be asked to avoid crowding on the trails, no one can say for sure.

"You know, we're saying until further notice, until we have guidance from the health officials that we can resume our activities," said Jim Beeson. "We all want to know when we can get back out there."