The daffodils are popping, the sun isn’t setting until well after 6 p.m., and interest in hiking is piquing.

It’s as sure a sign of impending spring as any: about this time every year, I start to receive emails and text messages asking about this trail or that trail, or suggestions for which trail would be the best trail to hike on a Saturday afternoon.

Folks have been cooped up inside all winter and they’re ready to get out and stretch their legs. What better way to do it than with a hike through the forest? We’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities to leave the concrete and pavement for more pristine surroundings, right in our own back yard. 

October is probably the prime season for hiking in the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, at least so far as tourists are concerned. But for us non-tourists who live a stone’s throw from the national park — the ones we refer to as tourists refer to us as locals — spring undoubtedly generates the highest interest in hiking. It’s a fresh start, an opportunity to greet the warmer weather months from the trail beneath a canopy of hemlocks, winding through a jungle of rhododendron. 

In a couple of weeks, the Independent Herald will launch the start of its third Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. The idea behind the challenge is to introduce those who’ve never hiked before to the simple goodness of walking in the forest, and to encourage long-time hikers to get out more, in an effort to both promote physical fitness and exploration of the natural resources we have here on the Cumberland Plateau.

The hikes start easy, then slowly progress in difficulty, allowing those who’ve never hiked to ease their way onto the trails without overdoing it and giving up on the front end.

In 2015, when we did the first hiking challenge, more than 500 people took part and hiked to Sunset Overlook the first week. It was an incredible start for a new idea, and one that far exceeded expectations. 

The second time around, in 2017, it was easy to assume that the novelty of the idea had worn off. But more than 800 people made the hike to Angel Falls that first week to kick off the challenge.

We expect hundreds to once again take part in the first week of the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge in 2019, when we welcome March by trekking to one of the region’s many scenic destinations. The first hike will be unveiled in the March 7 edition of the newspaper.

Once again this year, the Independent Herald will work with the Big South Fork NRRA to help encourage turnout and participation by giving hikers an opportunity to hike with park rangers on several of the trails. The interpretive rangers are knowledgeable about the various hikes and can point out many things along the way that hikers might not otherwise notice. 

As an added bonus, hikers will have the opportunity to earn points towards the Big South Fork’s Go Big 2019 Challenge as they complete the Twenty Week Hiking Challenge. Now in its third year, the BSF challenge encourages exploration of the park by foot, horseback, bicycle and boat, with participants collecting points along the way as they work towards earning a patch upon successfully completing the challenge. 

John Muir, whose trek across America is commemorated with the Big South Fork’s longest hiking trail bearing his namesake, once said: “Between every two pines there is a doorway to a new world.” He wasn’t wrong. Hiking is an excellent physical fitness tool. And while hitting the trail won’t cause the pounds to simply melt away — it’s not that simple unfortunately — hitting the trail can certainly cause the stress to melt away. Aside from, perhaps, a church service, there’s no better way to feel refreshed and renewed than to hit a hiking trail — especially as the long, dull winter is finally giving way to spring and warmer weather.

We will see you on the trail.