Atlanta Trails is a community changing lives and perceptions of outdoor recreation in the South.

by Lisa Frank

They do it for the cause, not for big profits or applause.

After giving up successful careers, Eric Champlin and Rob Sollie followed their passion to shine a light on Georgia’s natural beauty. Their original website, Atlanta Trails, was the first in Georgia to offer in-depth knowledge on a little-known treasure – Georgia’s remarkable range of hiking, running and backpacking trails. Nine years later, the site attracts six million views a year, alongside its sister site, Asheville Trails, and a quickly growing community.

No other website provides the customized search categories and mapping tools, suggestions for trail etiquette and what gear to bring, all wrapped in stunning photography and top-notch writing. Their work has raised awareness about the captivating beauty of Georgia’s trails, waterfalls and parks, engaging a loyal community of hikers and runners that follows them enthusiastically.

The team has personally hiked each trail they highlight, many times over.

“We do a lot of in-depth research before we publish each trail review,” Eric explains. They personally measure distances with their own GPS data and elevations, double-checking it against official sources. That’s just one of many features their fans often thank them for in spirited conversations on social media with comments like,

Atlanta Trails is always spot on in accuracy.

Atlanta Trails changed my life. I had no idea Georgia was so beautiful.

Because your site is so thorough, Atlanta Trails is a large part of why I felt safe and comfortable going out on my own during those first months as a new backpacker.

Initially a labor of love, Atlanta Trails nurtures a vibrant tribe of informed hikers and runners that’s grown to nearly 200,000 followers on social media and over 1.5 million unique website visitors every year. Analytics also show tens of thousands of the same people are devoted regulars, visiting the website more than 300 times a year. Eric and Rob believe their following would be even greater if they published daredevil photos of cliff jumping, waterfall climbing, and the like – but that’s not their style. The Atlanta Trails philosophy is all about being respectful of nature and practicing good trail etiquette.

“In everything we publish, from our site to our social media communities, we encourage and educate people on respecting other hikers, ethics and proper trail use, as well as what to pack for each adventure,” Rob explains.

Since too many people experience nature from their car window, Atlanta Trails’ first priority is to inspire people to get outside. This level of education is a distinguishing feature of their work. That awareness leads to caring about the scenic places hikers are enjoying in person. “Once people care, we believe they’ll be more likely to speak up if any of these trails or natural habitats are ever threatened, and be willing to help protect them.”

Their followers love the site’s super easy search capabilities, organizing trails as beginner-friendly, family-friendly, dog-friendly, top waterfall hikes, short trails, backpacking routes, and more. Each trail feature includes original photography, a detailed trail narrative, driving directions, elevations, interactive trail maps, and information on how to support the nonprofit groups that create and maintain each trail. “We want people to know what they’re in for, and have a great experience,” Eric says.

Atlanta Trails weaves a deep reverence for nature into every aspect of their work.

For three years, they’ve proudly sponsored Leave No Trace, the national Center for Outdoor Ethics that promotes seven Leave No Trace principles and offers innovative classes and materials to teach people about responsible wilderness ethics. To lead by example, Eric and Rob cleanup trails as they hike, sharing those photos, which encourages their community to do the same.

“Hiking saved my sanity,” Eric says in retrospect.

He had the career he’d always dreamed of as a creative director at one of Atlanta’s top ad agencies, Razorfish. “But I was also stressed to the max.”

It was truly a dream job. Especially when he landed the challenge of helping to redesign the Delta Air Lines website, managing a large team of designers and copywriters across two offices in Atlanta and Austin.

Unfortunately, there were consequences. With frequent travel and 12-hour days in the office as the norm, his health started to decline. He wasn’t sleeping. He knew something was wrong. “I was becoming a mess – emotionally and physically.” Then he forced himself to make time to hike and camp on the weekends. “After a night in the woods or an exhausting day out on the trail, I felt rejuvenated and relaxed.” Reconnecting with nature, enjoying simple pleasures like building a campfire and breathing fresh air, was clearly the best way to push back the stress.

Eric realized the detailed information about Georgia trails he was looking for was lacking online. Amazing getaways in the North Georgia Mountains were definitely under-exposed. So were destinations closer to Atlanta like Sweetwater Creek State Park and Arabia Mountain. “I felt compelled to share and describe these gorgeous places,” Eric says, starting to build the website in 2009. It started as his own hiking blog, and a much-needed personal outlet for his creativity.

Then another wake-up call rattled Eric. One of Eric and Rob’s dearest friends was working for a big corporation, often traveling worldwide. Though it was his dream job, he died unexpectedly at the age of 33. “I suddenly realized this could easily happen to me,” Eric recalls. “It made me appreciate how much I valued my time in nature and how vital that time was for my health.”

Rob had the same pressures, as a landscape architect with several well-respected Atlanta firms. He was managing large crews, working all the time and living for the weekend.

Growing up in the wilderness of Montana, being outdoors was a given. Rob’s grandfather was a huge influence taking him hiking, hunting and fishing. “I was always immersed in nature as a kid.” But he yearned for big city life and moved to New York, then Atlanta. “Once I started hiking again and exploring Georgia’s forests, it was like returning home for me. Being in nature was really living.”

Eric escaped the corporate world first, cashing in much of his savings to devote himself full time to a cause he believed in. His blog evolved into the comprehensive trail resource it is today. A few years later, he convinced Rob to join him. Once Atlanta Trails was well-established, they took another leap, and moved to Asheville for two years. They soon launched a second site – Asheville Trails, filling an information gap about North Carolina’s best trails as well.

The two entrepreneurs, now based in the North Georgia mountains, think Southern outdoor culture has been the underdog for too long.

They find it rewarding to be part of a larger movement that’s celebrating the South and fighting stereotypes. With heightened national interest in Southern food, music, film and literature, the Southeast’s natural beauty deserves celebrating too. Their work gives a voice to the hundreds of volunteers and nonprofits committed to protecting and maintaining Georgia’s growing trail network from the coast to its highest peak at Brasstown Bald.

Atlanta Trails and Asheville Trails ambassadors were recently added to the mix, expanding the tribe of like-minded people. A carefully selected team of 42 volunteer trail lovers now contributes their own trail adventures to both brands’ social media platforms, further setting the tone of what it takes to be good environmental stewards. They’re a diverse crew of beginning hikers to seasoned backpackers and one ultra-inspiring ultra-marathoner, all genuinely reflecting the Atlanta Trails values and community. “Every ambassador lives the lifestyle we believe in,” Rob offers.

While Eric admits there’s still stress in running a startup, he’s found his true passion with Atlanta Trails. “I’ve changed so much,” he adds. “In my other life, time was speeding by at an insane pace. Now it’s slowed to a more livable rhythm where I can enjoy the moment. And I truly feel that Rob and I are helping lead a movement in the South that’s building awareness and respect for the outdoors and the first-class trails here. I finally feel like I’m using everything I learned in my advertising career for a worthy cause.”

Looking ahead, another rewarding outcome of the journey will be “continuing to engage the community and resources we’ve built to give back,” Eric explains. Throughout the websites, they give information on how to contact the nonprofit or friends group that champions each trail. Fans are encouraged to volunteer their time and donate money to support these hard-working, under-funded groups.

“It’s our job to motivate our community to help maintain and support the trails we all love,” Eric adds.

Atlanta Trails recently re-launched its line of adventure-ready apparel, with designs inspired by their favorite Southern landscapes and outdoor adventures. And notably, the duo has brought production of their apparel line locally to the South. The brand’s shirts and trucker hats are screen printed and stitched in Atlanta and in the mountains of Asheville, NC.

It all comes down to cherishing Georgia’s natural beauty and help others find their personal connections to it. Eric Champlin and Rob Sollie can honestly say they’ve inspired people to live healthier, simpler lifestyles. Their new calling may allow them to live to a ripe old age, knowing they made a difference.


 
Leave No Trace: Atlanta Trails, Asheville Trails and Trailful are official Leave No Trace partners

Please Remember

Always leave no trace, tell someone where you're going, pack safety and wayfinding essentials, don't rely on a mobile phone to find your way, and follow these trail etiquette tips.

Lisa Frank
Author

Lisa Frank is an Atlanta writer specializing in the environment. She was instrumental in the early days of the Georgia Trail Summit, Atlanta Beltline, MillionMile Greenway, Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area and the Atlanta Botanical Garden.