The TCT’s 6 biggest achievements of 2021 (and what they mean for your hikes next year)
Happy holidays from the TCT Team!
As we close out the year, we want to say a huge thanks to everyone who was part of the TCT in some way in 2021: all the volunteers who joined us on the trail, the crew leaders who put weeks into their training, the hikers who shared their experiences on the trail, the families who welcomed us into their homes along the way, the partner organizations who continue to improve and blaze these trails, and the TCTA members and donors who have made it all possible.
We never expected to have our biggest year yet in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, working on a shoestring budget (thanks to said pandemic).
But as we’ve relearned again and again over the past two years, time outside and human connection are essential. We’re proud to continue building infrastructure that facilitates both.
So we’re looking forward to 2022. But first, a quick look back at a remarkable year.
6. We successfully scouted critical trail connections in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan
Scouting is the dramatic-sounding, extra-cool-factor part of the trail building process that everyone loves… in theory.
Do we sometimes find ancient forest paths and wide-open plateaus that make our hearts sing? Yes. Do we spend frustrating days climbing through thick undergrowth in vain? Also yes.
So, this is our occasional reminder that a lot of our scouting work looks less like this…
And more like this:
Nevertheless, we clawed through a lot of bushes and thorns this year in search of the best thru-hiking route. And we think what we found makes the scratches, the shredded clothes, and the agonizingly slow hikes worth it.
Most notably, we’ve mapped out the routes in Georgia necessary to thru-hike the North-South route through Armenia and Georgia, including in Javakheti (Georgia’s southern high-altitude steppe), Borjomi / Nedzvi (Georgia’s deep forests in the center of the country), and Racha (one of Georgia’s most underrated destinations, ranging from thick forests to high mountains).
We’ve also finally nailed down– after 5 years!– the perfect route through Arevik National Park in southern Armenia, and we’ve put together a plan to develop it next year (pending funding).
And as for our massive scouting undertaking in Azerbaijan… well, more on that below.
5. We built and launched new trail sections in Georgia and Armenia
In Georgia, this summer we were able to return to Zeskho and Ghebi, where we’ve been working on building a new trail to replace a completely deteriorated (and, in some places, dangerous) route. It’s one of the most spectacular but most inaccessible places in Georgia.
Thanks to the hard work of our crew leaders and volunteers, we were able to fix some of the worst sections this year, including rerouting from a sketchy pass, clearing heavily overgrown sections, and improving river crossings.
The middle section of the 3-day crossing is still a very wild route rather than a fully developed trail, but it’s now in much better shape for advanced hikers next year. We can’t wait to see more hikers out appreciating this area. Thank you everyone!
In Armenia, thanks to a multi-year collaborative effort with People In Need Armenia, Ark Armenia, Trails for Change, HikeArmenia, Barev Trails, and Cartisan, we were able to launch the newest stage of the TCT through Syunik, southern Armenia (much of which overlaps with the regional Legends Trail).
This dramatic 150km stage weaves through the forests and gorges of Syunik, stretching from Goris to Shishkert via Tatev, Kapan, and the summit of the mighty Mount Khustup. You can find all the info you need to hike it here.
Without a doubt, it’s one of the country’s highlights, thanks to the spectacular vistas, geographic diversity, and rich cultural heritage. We were even able to take a first group of hikers on the trail this September on a supporters’ trek, and we were thrilled to hear they agreed. (Actually, the feedback was so great we decided to run this trek once more– so you can join us on the trail next year!)
4. We trained a new generation of local trail crew leaders
The TCT started as a simple idea to hike across the Caucasus, but it quickly became much more. And since the early days, community initiatives and environmental education have been at the forefront of our mission.
When we started mapping out trails, we quickly realized that not only was there limited hiking infrastructure in the region, there was also a lack of people with the technical skills needed to design and build sustainable trails that would last a long time, provide a great hiking experience, and require minimal maintenance.
So we started training people– first by bringing highly skilled crew leaders from overseas, then by sponsoring a few of our local crew leaders to go to the U.S. and participate in Seattle’s EarthCorps program.
In 2021, we were able to build on those smaller initiatives and take some big steps forward in terms of local training and capacity building in Georgia and Armenia, resulting in gains for the regional trail building community as a whole.
In Georgia (with the support of the U.S. Forest Service, the Caucasus Nature Fund, and MAC Georgia), we launched the Caucasus Conservation Corps to train new crew leaders. Our Georgian crew leaders who trained in the U.S., Giorgi and Vakho, were now able to help design an outdoor leadership curriculum, translate technical trail building guides from English to Georgian, and train a new cohort of crew leaders in Georgia.
Seven new crew leaders graduated from our intensive spring program in Lagodekhi National Park, and several of them went on to lead our Georgian trail crews in Racha this summer.
In Armenia, we worked with our partners (Trails For Change, the U.S. Forest Service, and HikeArmenia) to launch the Youth For Change program and the Yerevan Trail Club. Both of these initiatives provide opportunities for Armenians to get involved in hiking, trail work, and sustainable tourism development.
Getting more people involved in these types of initiatives is not only a way of building the TCT, but also ensuring its sustainability more broadly. We’re training the people who will be able to maintain the trail, who can teach others these skills, and who will support conservation efforts and sustainable tourism across the region.
Not to mention– it’s a great way to meet kind, passionate people from all over the region. It’s been a real joy working with the participants in these programs and seeing them discover more of Georgia’s and Armenia’s trails.
A big thanks to everyone who joined us and we’re looking forward to working with you next year!
3. We pieced together the first Transcaucasian Trail sections in Azerbaijan
After years of working towards our cross-border vision, 2021 was the year we finally began work in all three countries of the South Caucasus. We brought on our first team member based in Azerbaijan, and with the support of the Azerbaijan Tourism Board, we scouted routes across the country. We stitched together new routes from trails that already exist and assessed priorities for future trailwork.
We’re thrilled with the results, which we’re currently finalizing for you to enjoy next summer: the first two TCT trail sections in Azerbaijan.
The first winds through the high mountains and deep canyons of the Quba and Qusar regions.
The second takes hikers through the lush forests and fertile valleys between Sheki and Zaqatala.
We can’t wait to see more adventurous hikers out enjoying this area, and we can’t wait to hear what you think.
2. We created the first full 1,400km thru-hiking route– ready for hikers to test next year
For the past 5 years, we’ve been working in sections– mapping trails, improving them, building new connections, writing trail notes and resources, and making them publicly available on our website for people to use and enjoy– with the goal of ultimately stitching them all together.
This year, we took a big step towards that vision. With the Armenia stage fully tested this year and the Georgia stage now ready for testing next year, the North-South route of the Transcaucasian Trail is mapped, partially completed, and ready for intrepid early-stage hikers. It stretches approximately 1,400km (870 miles) from the northeast corner of Georgia on the Black Sea to the southern border of Armenia with Iran.
The thru-hiking route is still a preliminary route that may change for various reasons, including snow levels, weather, high rivers, rockfall/landslides, and other circumstances beyond our control. Hikers will need to be prepared to adjust accordingly. It is still rough in sections, particularly in Georgia. Some parts of the route are still off-trail and will require independent route-finding.
But at this early stage, hikers who come prepared for self-sufficiency, diverse terrain, and off-trail travel will be rewarded with an incredible experience traversing one of the most culturally, linguistically, and geographically diverse parts of the world– and they’ll get to be part of shaping the trail’s future going forward.
Now, we’re actively recruiting experienced hikers to test the new full trail through both countries. Due to the preliminary nature of parts of the route, we have made the Armenia section public, but we will only share the Georgia with a limited number of early-stage hikers in 2022.
We know several of you are eager to get out on the route, regardless of its status. So for hikers interested in attempting the full route, we’ve designed a support system to give you first access to the Georgia section and to help you prepare for your hike. Learn more here.
And finally, speaking of new thru-hiking routes…
1. We launched our first complete national stage: public and ready to hike!
We didn’t just hike across Armenia this summer to pressure-test the national route we’d designed (although we did, and it was even better than we imagined).
We didn’t just cheer on other intrepid hikers (although we did that too, and we think their footage speaks for itself).
We finalized the first national stage of the Transcaucasian Trail, and we released it publicly so that you can hike it, too.
The Armenian national stage of the Transcaucasian Trail is a mix of ancient trails mapped and improved by our team, Soviet 4×4 tracks, and purpose-built hiking trails designed and built along with our partner organizations and dozens of volunteers. It’s a collaboration in the truest sense.
Getting the route from a mere idea to a hikeable reality took five years. And now, with the route ready to be hiked, we’re moving onto the next phase.
Over the next five years, we’re going to focus on improving the infrastructure, creating more resources to help hikers get out on the trail, and building the community to maximize the trail’s positive impact.
Starting in 2022, we’ll be continually improving sections of the trail to make it a truly world-class trail. We’ll be supporting the first batch of hikers on the route. We’ll be working on a full-fledged guidebook to the trail, which next summer’s thru-hikers will get early access to. We’ll be encouraging more people to think about Armenia as a hiking destination. And we’ll be working with communities, businesses, and protected areas to ensure the sustainability of the trail and to maximize the TCT’s long-term benefits for the people and ecosystems we aim to support.
We’re so proud of the years of effort and collaboration that went into this route. We hope this serves as a model of what’s possible across the region going forward.
And we hope you’ll get out there and hike it!
And now… onto the new year!
Thank you once again to the donors, volunteers, and partners who have made all of this possible– we mean it when we say we couldn’t do it without you.
One last note: if you have read this far and are excited about what we’re doing, please take a minute to support our trail building efforts.
It’s the last few days of 2021 to make an end-of-year gift to the TCT, which not only directly supports trail construction and maintenance, but also creates long-term benefits for the surrounding communities and environment. Donate here today to help us make even more of an impact in 2022.
Thank you for a wonderful year– and here’s to seeing more of you on the trails in 2022!