Danny Bernstein: One Hike at a Time

By: Hannah Epperson


On her Hiker to Hiker blog, a woman left a comment for Danny Bernstein after meeting her at a hiking conference: “I really enjoyed meeting you yesterday and hearing your story. You gave hope to an average person like me that I can do this.”


Danny’s story? There are more than eight hundred miles of trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Danny’s hiked all of them.


She’s also completed the entire Appalachian Trail (over two thousand miles), the Mountains to Sea trail (just short of a thousand), and the “South Beyond 6,000”—forty mountain peaks over six thousand feet in the Southern Appalachians. Then there are the trails in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.


Danny’s response? “Of course you can do it.”


That simple philosophy makes Danny a great hike leader. She’s led every kind of hike—day trips, weekend hikes, uphill, downhill, over creeks, through tunnels—for various hiking groups, including the Carolina Mountain Club and Appalachian Mountain Club. She’s recently started leading day hikes for Friends of the Smokies, a non-profit organization working to support the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


To be fair, Danny has been hiking for a while. She started hiking in her early twenties, and stayed an active hiker even during her career working as a software developer and later a computer-science professor at Kean University in New Jersey. “Hiking is available every place, even around suburban New Jersey,” Danny said. “But I punched a clock for 35 years. You don’t have to wait until you retire to hike.” Retiring shouldn’t slow you down, either. Look at Danny’s example.


Nowadays, Danny has to come up with her hiking challenges and projects. She scouts towns in North Carolina for their potential as a Mountains to Sea Trail Town, or sets out to find every historic cemetery in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Trips out of town nearly always involve “bagging” a National Park Service unit—she’s determined to visit every one in the United States.


Besides hiking up and down and all around, she’s an active trail maintenance volunteer on the Appalachian Trail, she writes articles for numerous outdoor publications (not to mention that she’s penned two hiking-guide books), and she’s coordinating outings for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s 2013 Biennial Conference. She even plans to volunteer as a Luftee Rover in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, roving the Oconaluftee River Trail, the Mountain Farm Museum, and the fields along Highway 441 providing information to visitors about littering and disturbing or approaching wildlife.


Danny just doesn’t stop, and that goes for on the trail, too. Hikers who sign up for one of Danny’s trips should be prepared to move! That said, a good hike-leader like Danny always knows the best places to take a break. Resting on the trail is permissible to point out a certain kind of fern or a particularly lovely patch of galax, or to take a quick picture of some historically-significant aspect of the trail. Danny even knows the best lunch spots on the trail—a very important part of any guided hike.


Not even the rain slows Danny down. A recent water-logged group of hikers followed Danny down a muddied Mingus Creek trail on a particularly rainy December day for a special holiday hike with Friends of the Smokies. Only a fraction of the original group of hikers dared to attend after the weather turned sour, and as they neared the trailhead the rain seemed to pour down harder and colder. Undaunted, Danny led the intrepid band of trail-lovers to various points of interest along the trail, including the Mingus Mill, a family cemetery, and a slave cemetery. Danny’s knowledge of the cultural history of the Smokies makes her hikes more than just a walk through the woods—they’re also a walk through time.


Danny’s energy and enthusiasm propelled the group up and down that puddle-full trail, turning a potentially wrecked hike into an adventure with friends. And that, in short, is Danny’s magic: the ability to turn every day into an adventure.


Hannah Epperson

Friends of the Smokies

AmeriCorps Outreach Associate


Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker