Meet Billy Jones, Appalachian Trail Ridgerunner In Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Billy Jones, A.T. ridge runner - 1

Billy Jones on the trail. Both photos supplied by Friends of the Smokies

"I started my ridgerunner season this year on February 26 at Cosby Shelter," Billy Jones tells me. "It was 4 degrees."

This is Jones' third year as a ridgerunner on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

From Wednesday through Sunday, he walks from Spence Field to Davenport Gap, where the A.T. leaves the Smokies, heading north. The next week, he hikes southbound.

Fletcher Meadema, another ridgerunner, has the same route, but going the opposite way. A third ridgerunner, Carl Goodman, walks from Fontana Dam, where the A.T. enters the park from the south, to Spence Field. Carl, who's 73 years old, has been doing this for 13 years, still using an old-fashioned external frame pack.

After May 15, considered the end of the thru-hiking season in the Smokies, Jones is the only ridgerunner in the park. He works through October and has the longest season of any ridgerunner on the A.T.

"I go from shelter to shelter during the thru-hiking season, which is usually the second week in March to May 15. A.T. hikers have been starting earlier and earlier. In mid-March, I met 44 thru-hikers in the park," he says. "Then you have the college students who start on Springer Mountain in mid-May and feel they can race through the whole A.T. in three months and be back at school in September."

A Simpler, More Enjoyable Life

The 53-year-old Jones grew up in middle Georgia. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in industrial management, and had a career in medical insurance. In 2006, finding himself 'downsized,' he used this opportunity to thru-hike the A.T. In the back of his mind, he kept asking to himself, “What is a ridgerunner?"

After reaching Mount Katahdin, Maine, he went back to work for a while to make sure his two daughters would have enough money for college. Once they graduated and dropped off his payroll, Jones' thoughts returned to being a ridgerunner.

His friends said, “You’re going to do what? You’re crazy.”

But ridgerunning is his dream job.

“There are no guarantees in life. If you have the means, go and do that thru-hike now. Don’t wait until you retire," he says, explaining that a thru-hike keeps in focus what’s important.

“I had a friend with MS who gave me a bandanna for my A.T. hike," Jones says. "I carried that bandanna the whole way. When I was having a 'pity party,' looking at another uphill slog or a rainy day on the trail, I would look at the bandanna and remember how lucky I am.”

When he got home, he "downsized very deliberately."

What Does A Ridgerunner Actually Do?

"Ridgerunner." Those who wear that title are, in effect, A.T. concierges.

"I stop and talk with all hikers on the A.T., whether backpackers or day hikers. I check their backcountry shelter permits; I can give out shelter permits on the spot, if they forgot to get one in advance but I don’t handle money," explains Jones. "Hikers have 72 hours to pay for their permit after they leave the park. Basically, I'm a steward and an ambassador for the trail."

And he's also a maintenance man.

"I take out a lot of trash out of shelters. Hikers leave food and clothing in shelters, thinking someone might be able to use the stuff but it’s all trash that I have to take out," says Jones. "In the park, there’s little trash actually on the trail."

At the start of his five-day stint, Jones carries 28 pounds on his back. But his pack might grow to 35 pounds when he finishes because of all the trash he picks up. "I may be the only hiker whose pack is heavier at the end of my backpacking trip than at the beginning," he jokes.

And those outhouses you encounter along the trail? Someone has to service them.

"I also do what's called privy management," says Jones, explaining that he cleans the seat, sweeps the floor, and fills a bag with mulch, a cup or two of which is to be tossed into the privy after each use to help break the waste down.

Jones also disperses the cone of mulch, "cone deposition," as it's delicately called, that tends to build up. Each privy has a long-handled shovel used to remix the waste matter.

"Some shelters still don’t have privies and it’s disgusting. I’m on a campaign to have a privy at every shelter." When a shelter doesn't have a privy to concentrate human waste, backpackers use whatever spot they can find.

Jones also finds himself occasionally instructing hikers on how to use the 'bear cables' that have been funded by Friends of the Smokies to enable backpackers to hoist their packs out of reach of the park's black bears.

At shelters, he sometimes helps people go through their packs. Many inexperienced backpackers bring industrial-sized toiletries, huge boxes of talcum powders or family sized tubes of toothpaste. "They also like to look inside my pack to see what I carry."

Ridgerunners do their best to teach Leave No Trace principles and ethics to the hikers they meet without seeming as if they're lecturing to them. "Most hikers listen and try to comply, but it's a constant battle, which is one of the reasons we're out here," says Jones.

To handle the crowds that often show up at backcountry shelters, Jones tries to reach a shelter no later than 3 p.m. "On a nasty day, everyone wants to be in a shelter," he says. "Once I had 42 people at Tri-Corner shelter, a place meant for 12 people. The rest slept on the floor around the shelter."

Sometimes, though, personalities flare up among hikers looking for shelter. A.T. thru-hikers are given preference for the handful of spots.

"I’m not law enforcement but I do have a radio," Jones says when asked about bickering that an arise between the thru-hikers and those simply out to enjoy a few days in the Smokies. "Thru-hikers have to stay in a shelter if there’s room."

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Jones with a young friend he met in a shelter.

One major headache occurred a couple of years ago when it rained heavily. Thru-hikers wanted to stay in the shelter another night.

"When I got to the shelter, I told them that a new group of thru-hikers was coming. 'You’ll have to move along.' "

The hikers weren’t budging and gave him grief.

"I called the law enforcement ranger, who said that they had to leave. The hikers cursed me out. I told them that if a law enforcement ranger had to walk three miles in the rain to talk to them, he wasn’t going to be happy. They got the message and got back on the trail.

Leanna Joyner, trail resources manager for the Southern Regional Office of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, works with the ridgerunners.

"Billy is an amazing asset to the A.T. in the Smokies," she says. "He's exceptional at engaging with everyone he meets, freely sharing his knowledge, assisting hikers, and supporting the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club and ATC in the care and maintenance of trail and shelters."

What Do You Eat On The Trail?

"When it's cold, I don’t like to mess with a stove. Instead, I buy a huge sub sandwich, cut it up, and make a few dinners out of that. I buy single servings of fruit like mandarin oranges and a dessert, usually a granola bar," says Jones.

Jones is a real Southerner. He'll have an oatmeal cream pie like a Moon Pie and a granola bar for breakfast. He also loves Willy Wonka sweet tart jellybeans and stocks up on them after Easter for the rest of the season. When it’s warmer, he carries a stove to boil water and rehydrates a meal in a zip-lock bag.

On days off, ridgerunners can stay at the Soak Ash Creek House, close to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The house, donated by Friends of the Smokies to the park, is comfortable and has a washer and dryer. There, Jones will write his report outlining what he encountered on the trail, go through his email, clean up, and rest.

FOTS has supported the ridgerunner program since 2004, at least. The park requested $37,600 on their 2014 Needs List to support the program, which includes the long-season position, Billy's job, and the two short-season positions. The Friends group provides funding to the park that in turn, passes the money to ATC to hire the ridgerunners and pay their salaries. The ATC ridgerunner program started in the Northeast in 1970, and in the Smokies in 1992.

And yes, there are and have been women ridgerunners. Susan Powell was the long-season ridge runner in the Smokies in 2009.

Though spending so much time in the mountains hiking might seem odd for someone who had a well-paying career, Jones takes delight in his life.

"When I got my finances in order, I asked why I wanted to slave away at a desk. I eliminated clutter and do what I want to do. So many people are scared to do what they want to do."

Interested in becoming a ridgerunner next year? The application form is eight pages long and explains the details.


Hmmmm. Interesting. I always thought a ridgerunner was something like an Appalachian antelope. But then, maybe it is . . . . Thanks, Danny, for another good story.
"In the park, there’s little trash actually on the trail." And what little bit there is gets packed out by backpackers and ridgerunners, not the NPS. But they NPS will bend over backwards to tell you how much trash they carry out in the Smokies. Why? to justify the backcountry fee. This ridgerunner isn't funded by the fee. Let me know next time you see a ranger cleaning a privy or carrying out trash. BTW, those shelters were built and paid for by volunteers. Not the NPS. THe backcountry fee exists to fund a computer reservation system. And that is all they are authorized to collect the fee for.
What a great job, whether paid or volunteer. And, Backpacker, what a repetitive and whiney complaint. One note samba. I don't mind paying fees to the parks.
Great article Traveler, thanks for posting.
I finally checked Smokies NP backcountry permit and fee schedule and the park requires a permit for every overnight backpack trip and allows advance reservations. In my opinion it is very beneficial to those wanting to experience the Smokies wilderness. The $4 per night fee seems a very reasonable price for the ability to reserve a campsite and I do not understand or sympathize with Smokies Backpacker complaints and guess that somewhere along the line the park did not do what he wanted it to. Anyone interested should check out the parks website. My own personal observation would be that it can get pretty complicated getting the sites you want during the busy part of the year, but that's the way life goes in a crowded world. Try Yosemite camping reservations or a permit for day hikes around Mt. Whitney if you want to get frustrated.
I agree Roger, the demand for the available resource is increasing, restrictions are in place to try to deal with it. It can be frustrating but it is a price we pay.
THe only flaw in your uninformed argument is that the campsites never required reservations because they are empty most of the time. The average number of campers per night is 2 in campsites rates for 12 and 14. But that doesn't serve your argument. There is no need for a reservation when the sites are, and remain, empty most of the time. That is why this fee has decreased backcountry camping even more, to the tune of 30 percent. Again, more inconvenient and pesky NPS statistics to challenge your knee jerk reaction. The fee funds a reservation system only. Why do we need a reservation system for empty campsites? We don't! So an out of towner can be certain he gets a spot, which he would if he just walked up and filled out a free permit as before. People who sacrifice freedom for perceived security deserve neither. Tax Tax Tax.
How many days were you in the backcountry last year, John? 2 maybe 3 times? It's amazing how you are an all knowing, all seeing eye, with how little you go into the park. There were something like 70,000 backcountry users last year. At 4.00 a pop that is 280,000.00 that would have been made from the fee. To blatantly state that 280,000 went to pay for a reservation system that was already setup to handle other parks makes me question your claims. Do you have proof of this grandiose claim? Or is it just BS? My guess is the latter. No way does a simple reservation system like that cost that amount of money per year. Yes, the park has some relatively quiet spots, but it also has campsites and shelters that see a lot of use. Its called reality.
Smoky Mtn Man. In 2010 I spent 70 nights on the ground sleeping in the backcountry of the Smokies. I have hiked every trail twice and volunteer for the park's VIP program, but I don't really know why I'm arguing with someone that makes such ridiculous personal ad hominem attacks. I will show that the park received authorization to charge a fee to pay for a reservation system only through internal NPS documents obtained through FOIA via the Southern Forest Watch. And here is one of them. It is a list of the documented deceptions by the NPS with regard to the backcountry fee. Take a look at page 7 where it says there will be no overall increase in revenue as a result of the fee. Go to this website, click the "info" link and it will take you to a chronology of documented deceptions. Look at page 7 genius and see what is says about the monies generated from the fee.

2010 was 4 years ago. Let's talk about the present. You make claims, that you can't back up. And that site is terribly put together , and if you think that is readable, and condems the park, you are seriously deluding yourself.. I didn't see a single place to click on a document. Just mere propaganda from the smokies haters club. Nothing that ever comes from Southernforestwatch is gospel or truth. All I see from you is a lot of negativity and hateful propaganda. Like I said, no way does 280,000.00 a year go to From what I read, it goes back into the general fund for the park, which in turn helps fund the rangers.. Get a clue.

smokyman, spoken like a true NPS employee who probably had something to do with this fee implementation in the first place. Since you are obviously technologically challenged, I am posting the actual document obtrained through FOIA that says the monies go to the fee system and not back into the fund. Here on page 3, paragraph 3 it clearly says, " There will be no increase in overall annual revenue as a result of this proposed increase as this will simply be a new fee to cover the service fees."

I've highlited it for you brother. More proof that Ditmanson, Fitzgerald and the other desk jockeys at the Sugarlands lied their pants off to push this fee. It will all come out as part of discovery in the lawsuit that was deemed worthy and is moving forward.

In addition, they cajoled the the Great Smoky Mtns association out of over 10 grand for the reservation system as well. Here is that link:

I would say that the NPS is the king of triple dippers. First they tax us to use govt land with no amenities provided, force a reservation system for empty campsites and then poor mouth the GRSMA out of even more money when they are getting hundreds of thousands per year EXCLUSIVELY for the reservation system,, which they promptly abandoned after they received authorization for the fee.

And you are right about one thing. 2014 has been a slow year for me in the Smokies. That fee has driven me over to the Citico wilderness so I've only spent about 15 nights in the Smokies backcountry to date, how about yourself? Apparently this fee has decreased backcountry camping to the tune of %30. Which was what NPS folks were striving for in the first place.

Thanks for showing that I couldn't find the link to the document you were referencing on the southern forest whiners site, because it wasn't there, but on some other site. Silly me for not being a mind reader. Even that document looks like it was off some blog, or ngo site. It also doesn't show any real planning strategies, and it doesn't look like it was written by Ditmanson or any of the others you like to whine about 24/7. At best it's just a recommendation, and that's it. I can't tell, becase I don't think you even know where it's from and it's not referenced, and after doing a search on google, i've found nothing.

Regardless, since you failed to supply a real actual planning document, that villifies the people you don't like for reasons only known by you, i'll just realize that i'm not really dealing with an honest or truthful individual, but someone that's not exactly of a sound sane mind, and move on.

No, i'm not a NPS employee, and no I had nothing to do with the fee. I own property near the park, and I spend a lot of time in it. I am a firm believer that our national parks are special places where I can find a natural environment that harbors species of plants, and wildlife that is harder to find in non managed places. Even if the management requires me to pay a little to visit it then so be it. I've done it in yosemite, i've done it in zion, i've done it in yellowstone, etc. I will pay the fee, and realize it's a golden ticket to a special place. Since, i'm from the west where almost every park has a fee, I see it as a benefit because i'm paying for a service. Do you know what a service is?

The new reservation system is also a service, and a benefit because it allows me to escape the busy times in the park, by checking on sites in more less travelled areas, and go to them and still have my solitude, while cades cove, laurel falls, clingmans, and mt leconte are lined with tourists. I can do that now thanks to the wonders of technology, without calling the old volunteer at the desk that barely knew how to run a computer. I personally, don't mind being able to plot my trek, a day ahead of time, and go to a place where I know no one will be, while skipping the areas that are booked heavily. And four dollars is less than a few minutes work.

The SFW crew remind me of Cliven Bundy and his minions. You want something for nothing, at the expense of others. Taxes go back into the park. I just saw them redo the main road this year, which of course you probably access to go into the park. Good old tax dollars at work. They also keep the park protected... .by... ohh yes, those pesky rangers you hate so much.. Thank god for the NPS and the smokies, otherwise, it would be resorts, and coasters down sugarland mountain. Is that something you want? With how much you hate everything about the park, I'm not sure what your motives are, or what you want..but it's not rational or realistic whatever those motives are.

SmokyMountainMan --- thank you, thank you, thank you for a dose of rational realism amongst the endless screams of entitlement coming from somewhere deep in the Smoky Mountains.

wow, talk about a vitriolic personal attack, that one takes the cake. But I hope you feel better now having gotten that out of your system. I provided the documents but like most uneducated, ad hominem statements, it was devoid of any substance. I just refuted your lie that the monies from the fee go back into the park fund. That document clearly states that it does not, it is from a FOIA request, the entirety of which may be clearly found at this link. It is on page 5 paragraph 3.

Clearly states that the NPS lied to get authorization for the fee, then bait and switched when they received said authorization from to their own, very problemmatic software system. Those of us who are in the backcountry most weekends, like myself, understand how cumbersome and unnecessary a reservation system is for empty campsites in the first place. And the southern forest watch differs from those of you who have land adjacent to the park. They look out for the interests of ALL park users, not those who want "pesky backpackers" out of their back yards. I'll bet you are one of those Blackberry Farm types. Say Hello to Lamar for us.

Your FOIA request documents do not include the final proposal.

Your FOIA request shows, on page 16, a request by GSMNP to use a company other than because they wanted certain things that couldn't provide. This change was made because of requests during the public meetings which happened AFTER the 2011 document you reference.

The document you reference was an initial proposal. As such, it has no bearing on the final plan and the implementation of that plan. The plan evolved due to public input.

There was very little in the lawsuit that was "deemed worthy and moved forward."

"The March 24 decision upheld the motion to deny discovery and the case will be limited to the review of the administrative record. The court’s decision also denied the plaintiff’s assertion that the park does have the authority to implement the fee. Essentially, the court has said that the only portion of the case that can go forward is their challenge of the $4 fee."

"However, Eastern District of Kentucky Senior Judge Joseph Hood dismissed a portion of the lawsuit that challenges an online reservation system. According to media reports, Hood said in his ruling this week that South Forest Watch had failed to show any harm from the reservation system. However, he said the organization has the standing to challenge the fee."

Essentially, the court found that NPS can be sued over the $4 fee but that it has a right to implement a fee. All the other aspects of the suit have been dismissed: the use of the reservation system, the accusations of corruption, and the accusations of illegal activity.

You are misrepresenting the facts, Dakhota. Here is proof:

The ruling also allows for Southern Forest Watch to proceed in its challenge of the park’s decision to grant licenses and rights to “private entities and political elites” as alleged in the group’s federal lawsuit filed a year ago

SFW was only denied the ability to sue over the reservation system. Everything else moves forward and discovery remains very much in play old boy.

Saying that the they were lying from just that document is a very subjective view, and I am willing to bet you and your band of merry old clive bundy types will not win this in court. You always scream that everyone is a liar, and that everyone is out to take something from you. The park service job is to protect the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, and the habitat, and to foster it and pass it off to next generations in the same, or better conditions than it is now. That's their job. I think they are doing a good job, considering at one time, 3/4ths of the park was clearcut, and today, many of the parks backcountry looks rather healthy. They also have returned species that were killed off.The only thing in the original stipulation when they created the park was that they could not put a toll on what is currently highway 441. They never said anything about camping fees or backcountry fees. It was only about taxes collected on the road. Back then, that road was a major corridor to take goods back and forth between TN and NC. That was before highway 40 was built, which is now the major corridor for shippping.From what I read from you Johnny, you just want anarchy. You don't want rules, or laws, because they impose restrictions on you that you think is below you. Your tiring old philiosophy is exactly what the park service should, and must fight against. The National Parks are not and should never be a place for anarachists to do what they want to do them. If that happens, they truly will fall to the tragedy of the commons.

It's the weekend, why aren't you in the backcountry? I took the time to go today. Where were you? Like, I said, i'm in the backcountry a lot. Probably way more than you and your crowd of misguided anarchists.

I've used the backcountry system quite a bit, and never had any issue. Always got my permit, always printed it off, and it was always in my email box. It's pretty freaking simple to use. A freaking 2 year old could do it. You whine a lot and repeat the same thing over and over and over. Ditmanson retired. Get over your hate of him. You just sound like a little kid with a vendetta that holds onto grudges for eternity. It was funny at first, but it's just old and tiring, and very annoying to everyone on these forums. You've been banned on countless forums, because of your attacks on people. I'm on a lot of local news sites, and every time there is anything about the Smokies, there you were, whining away about the same 3 or 4 talking points. You don't like anyone to hold a different opinion, and when they do, you attack them. So, take a dose of your own medicine, killjoy.

Wow. Talk about a personality disorder. Methinks this lawsuit against the fee is striking a little close to someone's home that abuts the park..... he he he. I would be worried too when the political patronage piece comes into full view and disclosure about the homeowners and their coziness with the NPS is exposed. There is gonna be a lot of gnashing of teeth when documents come to light soon. And your angst and the rest of you folks up there on Ace Gap will be having to cover some tracks. It isn't your personal backyard playground and now we are reclaiming it. Wait till the real news about why they closed some backcountry sites in your backyard get some air time, It won't just be a former TN governor in the hot seat who owns land that was given to him by the NPS, it will be his crony Senator friend as well. Grab your popcorn folks, this lawsuit is gonna be even more fun.

YAWWNNNNNN... You're boring me Johnny boy. I'm not tied in with lamar, i'm not a NPS employee. I'm just anti-you. You're an egotist that is highly annoying. You obviously, have no clue what a National Park is. You think it should just be mere USFS wilderness. Yawnnn... you're lame.

Well, if I'm boring you so much, feel free to go away. Meanwhile the SFW lawsuit moves forward despite your false allegations that the majority of it were dismissed. Nice try by the obfuscation patrol. Have fun up there on Ace Gap. I can see why you are so aligned with the bureaucrats, you share the same set of values.

Yeah, i'm bored. Your hatred and negativity will be your downfall. You are already destined to fail, and heck, you seem seasoned at it.

Guys, by this time it doesn't matter if we agree with you or not, the splash from the bilateral bladder evacuations is hitting all of us.

Any bets on who will win this pissing contest? Rick B. has it right.

Time to move on down the road....shutting this one down.