When Jackson Spencer set out to tackle the Appalachian Trail, he anticipated the solitude that only wilderness can bring—not a rolling, monthslong frat party. Shelters where he thought he could catch a good night's sleep while listening to the sounds of nature were instead filled with trash, graffiti, and people who seemed more interested in partying all night, says Spencer, who finished the entire trail last month in just 99 days. "I wanted the solitude. I wanted to experience nature," he says. "I like to drink and to have a good time, but I didn't want that to follow me there." Spencer, or "Mission" as he is known to fellow thru-hikers, confronted what officials say is an ugly side effect of the increasing traffic on the Georgia-to-Maine footpath every year: More people than ever causing problems.
At Maine's Baxter State Park, home to the trail's final summit on Mount Katahdin, officials say thru-hikers are flouting park rules by openly using drugs and drinking alcohol, camping where they aren't supposed to, and trying to pass their pets off as service dogs. Hundreds of miles away, misbehaving hikers contributed to a small Pennsylvania community's recent decision to shutter sleeping quarters it had offered for decades. With last year's release of the movie "Wild," about a woman's journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, the number of people on the Appalachian Trail has exploded. But many hikers say the concerns are being overblown. "There is always a bad apple or two, but these are people that spend four to six months for a year on the trail," says an ultramarathoner from Colorado. "I can't imagine them wanting to do things that would violate the wilderness."