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Hiking the Sheltowee Trace-they don't call it the hiker challenge for nothin'

Five women hiking a section of the Sheltowee Trace near Cumberland Falls
Cheri Lawson
Five women hiking a section of the Sheltowee Trace near Cumberland Falls

Since 2012, outdoor enthusiasts from 20 states and six countries have made their way to Kentucky in hopes of hiking a 343- mile trail from one end to the other.

Five women from Cincinnati are in the process of taking on the Sheltowee Trace Hiker Challenge.

It’s a steamy August night, and Monica Kohler has spent most of the day hiking up hills, over streams, and around boulders near Cumberland Falls.

The 65-year-old said, when she and four of her female friends signed up to hike 30 miles one weekend a month for a year, they really weren’t sure what to expect. In January, the women were dropped off 25 miles north of Morehead, Ky., and began the first leg of the Sheltowee Trace Hiker Challenge.

”We hiked in the sun, then it rained, then it sleeted, and by the time we got finished, literally there was six inches of snow on the ground and that was month one. I think we cried in the first two miles because we crossed a creek and went straight up a hill and we were like, oh, this is serious stuff. Like, we’re out here on these mountains,” explained Kohler.

The tall, lean, short-haired blonde said, every month, she and the other four women drive from Cincinnati to the trail in Kentucky. Each month they start the hike where they left off the previous month. Kohler says at the end of the year they will have hiked all 343 miles of the trail, as long as they continue.

“ Something happened after like maybe month three or four, where it was like, oh, we’re going to do this. Some confidence shift happened, where it was like, ok, we can do this. And it’s not like some paved crushed gravel path. I mean we were on some unbelievable terrain,” exclaimed Kohler.

On this day, the women use walking poles to propel them up the hill as they begin this month’s hike. The narrow path at Trailhead 192 is parallel to a road and leads up a steep hill in the woods. Dianna Schweitzer stops to read a wooden sign on the trail to see if it matches what her map says.

Less than 20 minutes into the hike, each hiker is dripping with sweat from the August heat and humidity. Schweitzer says at home she hikes about eight miles a week in the woods. But this...is very different. ”Like,I thought the challenge was that it was long. I didn’t realize that it was arduous, and up big hills, and down hills and you know, that it would be easy to get lost or that you’d want to quit,” reported Schweitzer.

Cincinnati hiker,Dianna Schweitzer stops to check her map and see if her group is on the right path
Cheri Lawson
Cincinnati hiker,Dianna Schweitzer stops to check her map and see if her group is on the right path

The Sheltowee Trace Hiker Challenge started in 2012 with 14 hikers. Steve Barbour, executive director for the Sheltowee Trace Association, said the man-made trail is modeled after the Appalachian Trail and runs from above Morehead, Ky., to North Central Tennessee.

“ It goes through Cave Run Lake recreational area in the north, it goes through Natural Bridge, it goes through Red River Gorge, Cumberland Falls State Park into the Big South Fork National River and recreation area,” said Barbour.

Barbour said over 900 hikers have participated since 2012, and 450 have completed the challenge. “And it’s a challenge because you have to hike on average,30 miles in a weekend. And that puts you out there on Saturday doing 13 to 14 miles and on Sunday 15 to 16 miles. It’s the second day that’s the difficulty.”

He said sixty percent of hikers in the last three years have been women with no experience.

Thirty -eight -year- old Alison Westrate said in 2019, she hiked Yosemite, so she felt experienced. She’s the one who encouraged her Cincinnati friends to hike the Sheltowee. She said one of the biggest challenges for her on this hike is self-care while being aware of the group's needs.

“And still really retaining that close bond and the friendship that we all have. But also knowing at times because we are physically exhausted and mentally challenged that we don’t always see eye-to-eye when we’re hiking,” said Westrate.

At the beginning of this year, 135 people started out doing the Hiker Challenge and now 91 are left according to the Sheltowee Trace’s Steve Barbour.

Shelly Maurer who is a friend of mine, is hiking with this group of women from Cincinnati. “I didn’t realize that I could do what we’ve done. We walked up a hill for probably 30 minutes, just never went down. I don’t know, just to carry a big backpack and be able to do that. I’m amazed by that kind of thing,” said Maurer.

Sixty-three-year-old Josie Caruso said every month before the hike, she announces that she’s afraid, but she still shows up, and these last eight months have changed her. “It’s really helped me to find my way and get through the discomfort, which is a new thing. I think a lot of times I’m always trying to get away from the discomfort. This has been a huge test. They don’t say 'challenge' for nothing,” said Caruso.

This year in December there’ll be a celebration to honor those who’ve completed the trail. It’ll be held on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.

Here is an interactive map of Sheltowee Trace


Cheri is a broadcast producer, anchor, reporter, announcer and talk show host with over 25 years of experience. For three years, she was the local host of Morning Edition on WMUB-FM at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Cheri produced and hosted local talk shows and news stories for the station for nine years. Prior to that, she produced and co-hosted a local talk show on WVXU, Cincinnati for nearly 15 years. Cheri has won numerous awards from the Public Radio News Directors Association, the Ohio and Kentucky Associated Press, and both the Cincinnati and Ohio chapters of the Society for Professional Journalists.
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