Meet The Chief Hiking Officer
Kristen Musselman is an avid backpacker, trail runner, adventurer, and overall nature enthusiast. Growing up nearby the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, Kristen learned to hike and camp at a young age, but it wasn’t until a trip to Big Bend National Park while studying at the University of Virginia that she became serious in her pursuits to get outside. After college and a brief sojourn to India, Kristen moved to southwest Colorado to become a wilderness therapy field guide in the Rocky Mountains and canyons of Utah. There, she led backpacking survival expeditions as a member of a therapeutic treatment team, ultimately discovering her own passion for guiding others in the belief that the wilderness changes lives.
Kristen seems to spend 99% of her free time hiking, camping, and talking about getting outside. When you see her on the trail, ask her what she’s reading, give her a tip for your area, and let her pet your beautiful dog.
The Journey Begins
I didn’t find any peaches, but I did find friendship in Hammer, Sue, Juliet, Uncle Aldo, and comfort in the camaraderie of many countless faces on the trail. Georgia is a state of beginnings, where the trail to Springer Mountain guides thousands of fresh-faced hikers along their first steps of a daunting, tremendous, 2190-mile dream. At Springer Mountain the energy is buzzing with anticipation. When I finally approached the very first white blaze of this iconic sojourn, I was surprised by my own grief that this year will not be the year to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Not yet. My journey will be circuitous, serpentine, handmade, but this year it will not be a thru-hike.
In Georgia I didn’t know what I was doing. Finding a place to sleep each night felt like the biggest feat of the whole trek. I arrived outside Savannah, for instance, after a three hour drive only to learn that tent sites would not be offered in the surrounding area due to COVID. Another night bright-eyed and bushy tailed I came to Cumberland Island National Seashore expecting to walk onto a ferry I should have booked weeks in advance. Trail magic would slip me a ticket nonetheless. Trail magic arrived again and again: a bottle of wine with strangers now friends, a late-night entry to a park when I should have been turned away, friendships where I wasn’t expecting.
I drove North to South, East, and back North, from Cloudland Canyon to Providence, to Cumberland Island and the start of the AT. Georgia taught me to plan well and expect change, to make home wherever I go. Onward to North Carolina!
Ice in the Smokies
Winter became spring in the short time I visited Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I arrived in the Smokies to snow and ice-capped peaks and left to redbuds dotting trees and black bear snoozing leisurely in the distant sight. They say the Smokies are rugged. I felt this the night I backpacked near the summit of Mount Leconte. Standing at 6,000 feet, the peak was covered in icicles from the previous night’s storm, and I trudged slowly up a trail coated in ice. I wasn’t expecting to need microspikes! When I finally reached the summit, I was rewarded with views of Clingman’s Dome far in the distance and the sweeping valley below.
Crossing the border into Virginia felt like coming home. After two months of nothing short of an adventure on the road, I was ready to ease into the comfort of land that knows me well. Growing up in Virginia, I knew that this state would hold special significance when I returned again as Chief Hiking Officer, but this time I decided to try on new hikes for size. I started my journey in Virginia at the confluence of three states—Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky—exploring historic Cumberland Gap. The area reminds me just how vast Virginia is; it’s nearly a full 8 hours from where I grew up outside DC.
Following this was backpacking the pristine highland balds of Grayson Highlands. Here ponies dot the hillsides, generally unconcerned by hikers on this well-trafficked portion of the AT. Unfortunately, Taylor was kicked by a pony after it approached us looking for food. We got caught in a snowstorm in the middle of our trek and bunkered down for shelter one evening in snow and temperatures in the 20’s. The next morning, we awoke to spectacular snow-covered views. I rounded out my time in southwest Virginia with an iconic backpacking trip, the Virginia Triple Crown, that traverses a 35-mile loop outside Roanoke and passes McAfee’s Knob, Tinker Cliffs, and Dragon’s Tooth. As McAfee’s Knob is the most photographed spot on the AT, I decided to catch the knob at both sunset and sunrise. I can’t recommend the Triple Crown enough for beginners and experienced backpackers alike; take the hike at your own pace, enjoy the views, and relish in some of the prettiest hiking in southwest Virginia.
Devils Backbone Camp
When I arrived at Devils Backbone, I was greeted by an airstream that made me never want to leave! My weeks at basecamp were a necessary respite and rest after a long bout of camping on the road. In this nomadic life of sleeping someplace new every night, I have learned that despite landing the adventure of my dreams, what I often long for most is the stillness of a place to call home. Devils Backbone gave me just that, in a gorgeous, refurbished airstream in a meadow on their property in Roseland, VA. I grilled most nights, hosted thru hikers at my campfire, and walked a short distance to beers on tap at the basecamp brewpub.