Kristen Musselman

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.

Georgia

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!

North Carolina

Sleepless in 'Carolina

The day I entered North Carolina, sheets of rain and dense fog greeted me in Franklin, leaving me chilled and wondering what the views might look like from my perch atop Wayah Bald. I gave trail magic, or good deeds, to thru hikers passing by while I waited for the sun to peak through the clouds into in the valley below. North Carolina favors the patient; if you’re willing to endure the storm, there is always a brilliant sunset on the other side.

I did, however, have a few days and nights of particularly bad weather. One evening I slept atop the famed Grassy Ridge Bald in the Roan Highlands, one of many treeless balds known for its sweeping views, hoping to catch a sunset from the barren peak. The lack of tree coverage, low temps, and high winds had me shaking in my tent most of the night, and I hardly got a wink of sleep. Another night I slept in my car high on the Blue Ridge Parkway during a record-setting thunderstorm. A mouse found its way into my car that night. I didn’t know what to be more frightened by—the storm or the mouse!

All in all, the vistas and views were incredible as western North Carolina opened the gates to the Great Smoky Mountains. Among my favorite hikes were Sam’s Knob, Hawksbill Mountain, Black Balsam Knob, and of course, the 30-mile Art Loeb trail.

Making my way toward Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I had my first taste of Tennessee’s ruggedness straddling the state line at Clingmans Dome. Towering high above the Smokies, Clingmans Dome is the 200-mile mark from Springer Mountain for northbound thru hikers. My 15-mile day paled in comparison!

Looking forward to Tennessee!

Tennessee

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.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most popular national park in the country, and I found great joy escaping the crowds on beautiful spring days. Backpacking portions of the 70-mile stretch of Appalachian Trail, I met plenty of thru hikers, many who told me the Smokies were by far the most rugged and challenging section of their hike so far. The park is huge, though there are only a few roads, meaning the trails are vast for those willing to venture a little way from the car. I saw black bear, turkey, and elk from these quieter hikes, and backcountry camping permits afforded crisp nights and sweeping views of the stars. If you’re heading to the Smokies, catch a sunrise from Clingman’s Dome or Look Rock, hike to Chimney Tops, or pack a picnic at Cades Cove. The grandeur of these mountains will take your breath away!