You can tell a lot about a hiking trail by its markings, and the abundance of blue splotches marking trees throughout the Alabama Pinhoti says plenty about the trail's ambitions.
Blue symbols typically mark side trails. But the Alabama Pinhoti, running about 130 miles from central Alabama to the Georgia state line, is longer than most main trails.
Until, that is, it's compared with the legendary route where it winds up: The mighty Appalachian Trail. The 2,175-mile path winds through mountains, valleys and everything in between to link Georgia with Maine.
When the Appalachian Trail was first laid out in 1925, drafts included an extension to Birmingham that was never blazed. But volunteers in Alabama and Georgia have worked for more than two decades to pound out their own path.
Some of the Pinhoti's boosters even dream of a day when the venerable Appalachian Trail might expand to the foothills of Alabama — though they're fully aware that this is not likely to happen any time soon.
"There's a lot of dreams," said Larry Madden, the president of the Georgia Pinhoti Trail Association. "Will the Pinhoti ever be accepted in the Appalachian Trail? Not in my lifetime. But anything is possible."
The head of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the legendary trail, sounded doubtful.
Conservancy president Dave Startzell said the Pinhoti could "theoretically" become an expansion of the Appalachian into Alabama, but it would require an amendment to federal law and approval from two Cabinet secretaries.
"The Pinhoti Trail has plenty to offer in its own right, whether or not it is considered part of the Appalachian Trail," he said.
But those who love the Pinhoti dream on despite the discouraging words.
"That makes us even more determined to finally succeed," said Tom Cosby of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce. "Don't discount us."
The chamber is trying to build buzz among hikers that the Appalachian Trail's eventual expansion to Alabama is inevitable.
The plan could involve giving cash incentives to hikers who start the Appalachian Trail in Alabama — what Cosby said is the "true" entirety of the trail. Then after five or 10 years, Cosby said Alabama lawmakers could start lobbying for the change in earnest.
"Why shouldn't Alabama have its shot at doing this?" asked Cosby, who said it could improve the state's appeal to young college graduates.
"Alabama has never marketed itself as an outdoors state, and to get the Appalachian Trail to come here would help," said Cosby. "To be outdoors-oriented is a real, real plus in this increasingly competitive world."
The Alabama Pinhoti was the brainchild of Mike Leonard, who said he grew up reading about hiking adventures and came up with the idea as a teenager in the 1970s.
He took a job with a Birmingham law firm after graduating from law school, and by 1982 he was devoting nights and weekends to studying property records to chart a path through Alabama.
Much of his work has borne fruit. The trail now meanders up through the hills and valleys of northeastern Alabama to the state line, and then links up with the Georgia Pinhoti Trail across northwestern Georgia and eventually finds its way to Springer Mountain, the southern terminus for the Appalachian Trail.
Leonard said he doesn't care whether the Pinhoti is ever accepted as part of the Appalachian Trail. He said he's focused on expanding the Pinhoti another 30 miles south to Flagg Mountain, a summit which some believe could mark the start of the Appalachian range.
"I realized there's this community that has developed in connection with this thing. and it creates social capital and meaning," he said. "My two greatest satisfactions is the land protected along the trail and the community that it's developed."
The Georgia side of the Pinhoti is still a work in progress. Volunteers in the 1990s started to piece together the 155-mile leg, but vast stretches of the trail still rely on local roads.
The first city it reaches on the Georgia side is Cave Spring, a cozy town just shy of 1,000 where the path runs beside a shallow creek through the middle of downtown.
Residents there are optimistic that the path could draw hikers to Cave Spring's attractions, like the Georgia-shaped pool near the town's center and charming hotels dotting the area.
"It makes sense to start developing business in the area that caters to this group — whether you have 20 hikers a week or 20 hikers a year," said Tony McIntosh, a council member.
About two dozen residents came out for a recent town meeting, listening as the mayor went over plans to beef up the town's hiking trails. After the meeting, locals gathered in the lobby, speculating that the hiking trails could give the economy a jolt.
"I'd enjoy that," said Nancy Boehm, owner of The Tumlin House, a nearby bed and breakfast. "And so would my business."