Appalachian Understories: Building a Web of Community

Outdoor Tourism and Heritage Merge Along our Trail Towns

The rolling hills and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains mark the landscape of southeast Ohio and offer abundant outdoor recreation opportunities including hiking, biking and climbing. Dotted with small trail towns, this heavily forested area is rich in natural resources, including coal, which brings with it a distinct and, sometimes challenging history. The convergence of outdoor recreation and distinct heritage is gaining momentum around pride of place in our region. It is drawing, and keeping, young people here.

“I really fell in love with this region through my classes like dendrology and ornithology– I was out hiking, learning the names of the trees and the birds and how our ecosystem is all related. That knowledge and sense of place I developed as a student really anchored me here,” said Madison Donohue, who moved to the area to study Ecotourism and Adventure Leadership at Hocking College.

Madison Donohue with Appalachian Understories and participants on the Symbiosis in the Winter Forest hike at the First Presbyterian Church of Nelsonville’s Farm.

Now the Tourism Specialist at Rural Action, Donohue is working with the Social Enterprise team on a new venture called Appalachian Understories. The program takes participants on natural and historical tours throughout the region and connects them with local guides, naturalists and interpreters. She said the idea first came to her while serving as an Americorps member with the Environmental Education team at Rural Action. “I saw the need and had the desire to create a tourism opportunity. I really love biking and thought it would be amazing to host a guided bike tour,” she said.

Her supervisor at the time, Joe Brehm, the Environmental Education Director at Rural Action, connected her to John Winnenberg of Ohio’s Winding Road and the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. With their help and collaboration, she was able to create a series of guided bike tours, hikes and overnight trips that felt authentic to the region, highlighting local stories and traditions and merging them with outdoor recreation. “This is really a brainchild of a lot of people who have been wanting this type of organized tourism enterprise in the region,” she remarked.

Though it may seem like Donohue has been on a steady trajectory since moving to the area, she says she didn’t always have a long-term plan or even know where she wanted to live after she graduated from Hocking College. “I was hoping to find that out in school, but I still wasn’t sure after graduation. I saw a lot of my friends and classmates leaving, moving out west and working for guiding services.”

Naturalist Joe Brehm points out lichen to Anna Hess on the Symbiosis in the Winter Forest hike.

She continued, “So, I set out with my partner on a six-month backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. During that time we got to see all these great trail towns and different communities. I was keeping these locations in mind of where I might want to settle down. Somewhere along those six months though, I felt homesick– not to my hometown where I grew up– but to this region. I felt a strong calling to come back,” she said.

Donohue says working with Rural Action has been a perfect fit to help her develop a professional skill set and fill in some of the gaps she didn’t get from her education. “I didn’t start the social enterprise for a love of business, but for a love of connecting people to the culture of Appalachia. Working with the social enterprise team has been like Business 101,” she said.

Donohue, along with fourteen other local entrepreneurs, is also currently participating in The Trail Town Business Challenge (TTBC), which she says has helped further enhance her business literacy. This five-part workshop series, which focused on business planning training is funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) through a Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) grant and led by Rural Action and the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet).

Participants pose for a portrait at the end of the Symbiosis in the Winter Forest hike. Left to right, Jon Flinn, Naturalist Joe Brehm, Miriam Intrator, Anna Hess, Mark Hamilton, Carleen Yocum, and Madison Donohue from Appalachian Understories.

Donohue’s role is currently funded by a grant which also helps to pay the guides. Her hope is that in the future Appalachian Understories can self-sustain a full time staff member and pay the guides through profits. She says she’s grateful for all the advice, support and time to figure out if her business model is viable. “With Appalachian Understories, we have two main goals, one, to connect participants to the culture and natural history of the region, and then two, generate enough revenue to pay the local historians and naturalists. It’s really a great learning opportunity,” Donohue said.

She says her favorite part of the tours is the friendship and community that’s built. “I think it’s because we’ve done something different or challenging or learned something new. That kinship that’s born is really something special. We’re supporting the community and they’re supporting us. So all those small partnerships and interactions build upon this whole web of community.”


Appalachian Understories will be planning tours and workshops year-round. For more information about Appalachian Understories, Rural Action’s Social Enterprise or the TTBC:

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