It is with quite a bit of anticipation that the fourth version of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge begins this week.
The #20WeekHikingChallenge was started by the Independent Herald in 2015, as a way to encourage area residents to embrace a healthier lifestyle while simultaneously discovering the scenic beauty that awaits discovery within our region. Since then, the hiking challenge has been renewed in 2017, 2019 and, now, in 2021.
The inaugural hiking challenge was an idea hatched in the early weeks of spring back in 2015. Every year, people start to anxiously look forward to getting out of the house and enjoying outside activities as the temperatures start to warm and the daylight hours start to lengthen in March. This is particularly true when the winter season has been unusually harsh, and Winter 2014-2015 certainly fell into that category, with a major winter storm and much-below-normal temperatures in late February.
With the turn to spring, a lot of people begin to wonder about the best places to venture onto a trail. The Independent Herald typically fields dozens of questions each spring about the best hikes and best places to enjoy the great outdoors. So, the hiking challenge was created: a 20-week exploration of the beautiful landscapes right here in our own back yard. The goal behind it was two-pronged: while any form of physical activity is good for the body and good for the soul, there is simply no substitute for getting outside. A vigorous hike releases endorphins that causes the exercise to be as good for our mind as for our heart and lungs. Secondary to that, there is no better way to market this region’s tourism opportunities than by making the people who live here advocates of the region. Many people live their entire lives in the Scott-Fentress-Morgan county region without ever truly discovering the hidden gems in the forests and river gorges out our back doors, and once they’ve discovered these hidden wonders, they want to share our little corner of the universe with the resto f the world.
So, in the spring of 2015, we introduced Sunset Overlook as the first hike of the inaugural Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. We had no idea what to expect, but anticipated a few dozen people participating on that first hike. It was a pleasant surprise to see vehicles lined up at the East Rim Trailhead and along the shoulders of the roadway near the trailhead for that first hike, as hundreds of people participated. We estimated that at least 500 people took part on the first hike to Sunset Overlook.
Each of the subsequent hiking challenges has enjoyed even greater participation on the opening weekend, with as many as 800 people participating on the hike to Angel Falls Rapid in 2017 and back to Sunset Overlook in 2019.
The hiking challenges are designed to start nice and easy, then progress in difficulty. We want novice hikers to be able to participate without fear of over-exerting themselves in the beginning. Sunset Overlook is a nice, level, two-mile stroll through the forest, while the Angel Falls Trail is an equally easy four-mile walk along the river. Additionally, both trails were located within a 15-minute drive of Oneida, making them easily accessible.
Naturally, participants who begin the challenge fall by the wayside as the temperatures grow warmer and the hikes more difficult. Only the most hardcore hikers hang in for the duration of the 20-week event, which wraps up in July. About six dozen hikers completed the first hiking challenge back in 2015, completing nearly 90 miles and more than 10,000 ft. of elevation gain. But the challenge is designed so that those who only want to complete the early hikes can do so, and those who want to jump on-board later after missing the first few hikes can do that, as well.
Each year, different businesses and organizations pitch in to donate prizes that are awarded randomly throughout the challenge. Participants tag their photos from the hikes with the #20WeekHikingChallenge hashtag on social media in order to be eligible for those prizes.
In 2016, the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area organized a similar challenge to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The BSF’s challenge has since turned into an annual event, entitlted “The Go Big Challenge.”
While the first version of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge in 2015 remained entirely in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, the second and third challenges in 2017 and 2019 branched out to incorporate more of the public lands around the region, and the 2021 edition of the hiking challenge will be a continuation of that. This spring’s hikes will visit Daniel Boone National Forest, Pogue Creek State Natural Area, Colditz Cove State Natural Area, Pickett State Park, Frozen Head State Park, Alvin C. York State Historic Park and Obed Wild & Scenic River, in addition to the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area.
The first hike will be to Split Bow Arch and Bear Creek Overlook in the Big South Fork. It’s an easy, 1.2-mile hike that begins and ends at Bear Creek Overlook. (Details, Page B5.)
This year’s challenge is all about the adventure. Hikes will incorporate scenic overlooks, massive waterfalls, photogenic rock formations, historic and cultural sites, and stream-side trails. Some of the hikes are a bit further from Oneida than challenges in years past, though none require more than an hour to reach and most are much shorter than that.
We anticipate several hundred hikers will take part for the Week 1 hike, which is timed to coincide with this weekend’s time change and the unofficial start of spring. A different hike will be introduced each week for the next 20 weeks, and the challenge will wrap up the week of July 22. Those who complete the challenge will hike approximately 75 miles, though most of the hikes will include a “make it better” option for those who want to log more miles and discover even more adventures.
The hiking challenge has also teamed up with Oneida Middle School for a t-shirt fundraiser. T-shirts to commemorate the hiking challenge are being sold by the school for a cost of $20 (plus sizes and shipping are additional). All proceeds from the shirts go to support Byrdi’s Playground, the middle school’s new playground that is being planned in memory of Houston Byrd, the son of Mark and Trina Byrd and an OMS educator who died unexpectedly in December. Orders can be placed at the school, or at the Independent Herald.