Volunteers recognized for work on trail shelters in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

KNOXVILLE - A Knoxville-based hiking club has finished making renovations to all backcountry trail shelters in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Knoxville News Sentinel reports the project, which stretched over 15 years, earned the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club a national award.

Almost all of the 15 shelters are between Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap along the Appalachian Trail. The Laurel Gap shelter along the Balsam Mountain Trail was the last to get updated.

According to the newspaper, donors gave more than $750,000 worth of construction materials over the course of the project, and club members worked more than 20,000 hours which had an estimated value of $500,000.

The group also provided funding through the Richard Haiman National Parks Foundation in the amount of $120,000.

"The Smoky Mountains Hiking Club has been doing extraordinary things in the park for many years," said Christine Hoyer, volunteer coordinator for the Smokies.

The group got its beginnings in 1924, about a decade before the national park was created. In cooperation with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Park Service, club members maintain all 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies and 30 miles outside the park.

The volunteer award it received is named after George B. Hartzog Jr., a former National Park Service director who created the Volunteers-In-Parks program.

The old shelters along the park's trails seemed uninviting - they were dark and crowded with chain-link bear barricades across the front.

New shelter designs were formulated by architects and engineers in the club and the strong camaraderie of members helped them get through 15 years of work to complete the project.

The renovated shelters are larger and have improved natural lighting. They were able to eliminate the need for chain-link fences by installing cable systems for suspending food.

"We had a dedicated core group that wanted to get this done, and by dang, we did it," said Phyllis Henry, volunteer coordinator for the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club.