Over time the all-volunteer OHTA, almost entirely under Ernst's leadership, grew to more than 400 members in two dozen states. The group completed the trail in 1984 and, with members "adopting" two- to seven-mile segments, has continued to maintain it.
"The layout of the trail is good because hikers did it," Ernst says. "That's why I say this is a handcrafted trail. It was built by people who weren't experts when we started, but got expert in a hurry. We built the trail that we wanted, the way we wanted it. In those early days we simply went out on weekends and bushwhacked. We walked drainages, walked ridgetops. We looked around and asked ourselves, What's down there?"
At milepost 54, the Forest Service had proposed that the trail run along an old road to save construction costs and effort. Ernst and his team scouted around a bit and discovered a wonderfully picturesque holler now known as the Marinoni Scenic Area. "I told the Forest Service, ‘We have got to bring the trail through here,' " Ernst says. "They said it would be a lot more difficult to build. I said, ‘I don't care how hard it is to build. That's what we're here for, is to see places like that. It's not an interstate.' "
Hikers can easily judge for themselves if the effort was worthwhile. From the Lick Branch trailhead it's only a couple of hours' easy walking west to Marinoni. (There'll be a delay where the trail winds through an amazing maze of sandstone blocks, each the size of a small RV.) After crossing the old road that was to be the trail, the path descends into a sheltered cove under big beeches, their smooth, gray bark mercifully untouched by lovesick teens and other pocketknife-carrying woods vandals.
Then the real scenic area begins, as the trail reaches Briar Branch and passes bluffs dotted with wild hydrangea and the shrub with the wonderfully evocative folk name of "hearts a-bustin' with love." (That's Euonymus americanus to botanical types.) Down by the creek, in April, umbrella magnolias show off white flowers ten inches across. Huge sandstone boulders, shaped by eons of erosion, have the sensuously rounded shape of unfinished Henry Moore sculptures. All in all, it's not a place you'd care to miss if you happen to be in the neighborhood.