The Appalachian Trail (AT), an iconic pathway stretching over 2,190 miles, has been a cherished destination for adventurers since its completion in 1937. Every year, the trail beckons more than three million hikers, eager to immerse themselves in the breathtaking beauty of the Eastern United States. Originally proposed in 1921, the trail has undergone continuous improvements and changes over the years, ultimately earning the distinction of being designated the Appalachian National Scenic Trail under the National Trails System Act of 1968. While the AT has witnessed countless triumphs and unforgettable moments, it has also been marked by cases of missing hikers, encounters with unforeseen difficulties, and even a handful of mysterious murders.
The AT is not without its share of challenges, and occasionally, hikers go missing or face unexpected difficulties along the trail. Despite these occurrences, it’s important to emphasize that the vast majority of hikers complete their journeys unscathed, reveling in the soul-stirring experience of the AT. However, over the years, the Appalachian Mountains have held their secrets close, with hundreds of individuals reported missing in its vast wilderness, some never to be found. These tales of disappearances add an air of intrigue to the trail, captivating the imagination of adventurers and igniting a quest for answers.
As the Appalachian Trail continues to weave its way through the rugged landscape, the question arises: How many people have actually gone missing on the trail? Each year, an average of six people go missing on the Appalachian Trail, which has also witnessed a total of 11 recorded murders since 1974, averaging one every four years, according to The Appalachian Trail Conservancy. While these incidents are rare, they serve as a haunting reminder that even in the midst of natural splendor, human darkness can cast its shadow. Despite these tragic events, they remain outliers in the larger tapestry of the AT’s vibrant history.
Missing on the A.T.
One of the most well-known cases of a person going missing on the Appalachian Trail is that of Geraldine Largay, a 66-year-old hiker from Tennessee. In July 2013, Largay was hiking the trail with a friend when she became separated from her companion. She was last seen on July 22, 2013, near the Poplar Ridge Lean-to in Maine. Despite an extensive search effort that lasted over two years, Largay’s remains were not discovered until October 2015, when a surveyor found her tent and scattered bones in a densely wooded area. According to the medical examiner’s report, Largay had died of starvation and exposure.
Another well-known case of a person going missing on the Appalachian Trail is that of Thelma Marks, a 56-year-old hiker from Pennsylvania. Marks disappeared while hiking the trail in 1981, and her body was not discovered until four years later. Her remains were found in a ravine near the trail, and it was determined that she had died from exposure. While the circumstances surrounding her disappearance remain unclear, some have speculated that she may have fallen or been pushed off a nearby cliff.
These are just two of the many cases of people going missing on the Appalachian Trail over the years. While some of these cases can be attributed to hikers getting lost or succumbing to natural causes, others remain shrouded in mystery. Some have suggested that foul play may have been involved in some of these disappearances, while others point to the rugged and unforgiving terrain of the trail as a contributing factor.
Factors for Going Missing on the Appalachian Trail
One of the challenges of hiking the Appalachian Trail is that it can be difficult to navigate, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the area. The trail passes through some of the most remote and isolated regions of the eastern United States, and hikers must contend with steep climbs, rocky terrain, and unpredictable weather conditions. In addition, the trail is marked by a series of white blazes painted on trees and rocks, which can be difficult to spot in some areas. For those who are not well-prepared or who lack experience hiking in wilderness areas, these challenges can be overwhelming.
Another factor that may contribute to disappearances on the Appalachian Trail is the presence of dangerous wildlife. The trail passes through areas inhabited by bears, snakes, and other predators, and hikers must take precautions to avoid encounters with these animals. While attacks by wildlife are relatively rare, they can be deadly when they do occur.
In addition to natural hazards, the Appalachian Trail is also home to a number of shelters and campsites that can attract unsavory characters. Some hikers have reported encountering individuals who appear to be living in these areas and who may pose a threat to others. While the vast majority of hikers on the trail are law-abiding and respectful of others, there have been isolated incidents of violence and theft.
Murder on the A.T.
Lollie Winans and Julianne Williams
In May 1981, two women, 27-year-old Lollie Winans, and 21-year-old Julianne Williams were hiking the Appalachian Trail in Virginia when they were brutally murdered. Their bodies were found in a tent near a popular camping area known as the Skyland Resort, and both had been sexually assaulted and stabbed to death. Despite an extensive investigation, the killer was not identified until 2019 when DNA evidence linked him to the crime. The perpetrator, a man named Darrell David Rice, was already serving a life sentence for a separate kidnapping and sexual assault case.
Another well-known case of murder on the Appalachian Trail is that of Rebecca Wight, a 29-year-old hiker from Pennsylvania who was killed in May 1988. Wight and her girlfriend, Claudia Brenner, were hiking the trail in Pennsylvania when they were approached by a man named Stephen Roy Carr. Carr, who was armed with a high-powered rifle, demanded that the two women surrender their backpacks. When they refused, he shot Wight twice, killing her instantly. Brenner managed to escape and alert authorities, and Carr was eventually apprehended and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2013, the remains of Scott Lilly, a 30-year-old hiker from Indiana, were found near the trail in southwestern Virginia. Lilly had been shot to death, and his killer has never been identified.
The murders on the Appalachian Trail have understandably shaken the outdoor community and raised concerns about safety on the trail. Many hikers worry about encountering dangerous individuals while out in the wilderness, and some have called for increased security measures to be put in place. However, others argue that such measures could detract from the sense of adventure and freedom that draws so many people to the trail in the first place.
Dangers of the Appalachian Trail
In response to these incidents, many hikers and outdoor organizations have taken steps to increase awareness and promote safety on the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a non-profit organization that works to protect and maintain the trail, offers a range of resources and information on trail safety, including tips on how to avoid confrontations with wildlife and dangerous individuals. In addition, many hikers carry pepper spray or other forms of self-defense and travel in groups to reduce their risk of becoming victims.
Despite the risks associated with hiking the Appalachian Trail, the vast majority of hikers who visit the trail each year have safe and enjoyable experiences. For many, the trail represents a chance to connect with nature, challenge themselves physically and mentally, and form lifelong friendships with fellow hikers. While the risks associated with hiking the trail should not be taken lightly, they also should not deter anyone from spending time doing what they love in the backcountry.