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Weekend Warrior: Thru-Hiking the Maryland AT in 36 Hours

June 27, 2016
Maryland AT
Ben Loehrke on Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0Annapolis Rock provides one of the most iconic views along the Maryland AT.

I find myself swaying slowly as I scan various guidebooks and memoirs on the Appalachian Trail, taking mental notes. I came here, to my local bookstore in Baltimore, to look for suggested day hikes on the storied trail known as the AT. Although I’ve hiked some stretches of the trail in Maryland, as well as in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maine, and New Hampshire, it hasn’t amounted to any significant mileage. Now I’m ready for a longer hike—preferably in my own backyard. As I read, I shift my weight from one foot to the next, craving the AT more and more with each page turned. It just feels right.

The storied AT was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1968—the first of its kind, along with the West Coast’s Pacific Crest Trail. As such, it falls under the umbrella of the National Park Service, although it’s largely maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other trail organizations, including AMC and, in Maryland, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. All told, the trail runs 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine, crossing 14 states, hundreds of peaks, and countless overlooks. There is no dearth of literature documenting the trail’s every twist and turn, its every up and down.

Or, at least, that’s how it seems.

But here’s the thing: There’s very little written about the AT in Maryland. The Old Line State seems to get skipped over in virtually every comprehensive AT text I browse. Just as I’m mulling this very phenomenon, it happens again: The author of the book I’m flipping through mentions Harpers Ferry, W.Va., followed by Pen Mar Park and the Mason-Dixon Line at the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, with very little description of the 40.9 miles in between.

Right then I decide: I need to see the Maryland AT for myself, firsthand. Luckily for me, Maryland is one of three states hikers can realistically conquer in a single weekend. A plan begins to form.

Following Footprints

It’s a peaceful morning, with dense fog hovering over the ground as I walk the streets of Harpers Ferry in near silence. While not the statistical halfway marker of an AT thru-hike, Harpers Ferry is often considered the trail’s psychological midpoint and holds special significance for many.

With that in mind, I can’t help but feel a little guilty that I drove here, to my starting spot, and that I’ve been grumbling about having to park a whole mile past the trailhead. One mile is a mere afterthought to a thru-hiker! It’s time to change my outlook—and fast.

I reach the AT and head northbound, crossing the iconic footbridge over the Potomac River and officially setting foot in Maryland. Looking down, I notice footprints in the morning dew that blankets the slats of the bridge. There’s no one in sight and it’s just past dawn, so these folks must have had a really early start. The persistent mist only adds to the mysterious aura: Who walked this path before me? And where were they headed? As it turns out, I’ll be asking myself these questions a lot over the next 36 hours.

The first few miles paralleling the Potomac pass faster than expected. After a short but heart-pounding ascent up Weverton Cliffs (elevation: 900 feet), one of the steepest sections I’ll navigate this weekend, I pause to take in the view. From this vantage point, I’m sitting in Maryland but looking out at West Virginia to the west and Virginia to the south—or, at least, I would be if the fog would dissipate. I make a mental note to schedule a follow-up visit on a clear fall day, when layers upon layers of foliage will hug the Potomac in a breathtaking quilt of color. Today, I don’t linger long. I’m only 4.2 miles in, with more than 13 to go on day 1 and nearly 24 miles tomorrow.

Back under tree cover, I reenter the fog. Just as it can’t possibly get any thicker, I walk into what feels like an actual wall of clouds. I keep my eyes peeled on the tree trunks for the next white blaze every few yards. Suddenly, a woman appears out of the mist. She goes by in easy strides—almost floats by, really—with the aid of her walking stick. “Have a nice walk,” she says. And just like that, she disappears southbound into the haze.

In all of my years as a hiker, no one has said precisely that to me. It can be such a trite phrase, but the words ring true. It’s exactly right, because it’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m having a nice walk—alone, as it turns out, since she’s the last person I’ll see for hours.

With History for Company

I pass the first lean-to of my route, the Ed Garvey Shelter, at mile 6.3. Soon after, around 10 a.m., the fog begins to clear and the trail uncoils almost instantly before me. As the sun emerges, the temperature begins to rise, and I’m glad I opted to pack 3 liters of water. I don’t plan on refilling until my stopping point for the night, the Dahlgren Backpack Campground at mile 17.2.

I leave the forested ridge and descend among the remains of the historic Civil War buildings of Crampton’s Gap, in Gathland State Park. The site of a battle that led to an important Union victory over Confederate forces in September 1862, the gap is mostly silent these days. It’s just me and a large stone monument dedicated to the memory of Civil War correspondents. With no one around, the immediate landscape feels like an empty stage. I walk on.

By mile 10, the sun is out in full force, which might account for a sudden, if modest, uptick in hikers. I cross a couple of pairs, two solos, and a large group—all within about a mile of trail. This will be the most populated stretch of trail I encounter, if only for a fleeting moment. After a quick lunch of homemade banana bread and beef jerky, I head up White Rocks Cliff (1,500 feet), an increasingly rocky climb that teases a couple of views through tree cover but never fully reveals the scenery below.

From this high point, I head downhill for the final 3.5 miles of the day, the trail narrowly winding through woods and the occasional clearing. When the campground’s inviting field of green appears, I gladly toss my pack to the ground. It’s barely past 3 p.m., but since I’ve stayed on pace, I’ll rest up and start on fresh legs in the morning. I pick a spot at random from Dahlgren’s wide-open pasture and get to work boiling water for my freeze-dried spaghetti. A few other tents dot the grass, but it’s a quiet night at camp.

Solitude Then Society

In order to save precious trail minutes the next morning, I down a couple of granola bars and make quick work of breaking camp. When I head out just past dawn, I don’t stop for a full water resupply. I know there’s a reliable spigot just a couple of miles ahead, near the Washington Monument in Middletown, which I visited on a day hike with my kids a few months back.

My old friend the fog again accompanies me for the first several leg-stretching miles of the day, decreasing visibility but acting as a nice, cool blanket that keeps me from heating up too fast. I weave through dense tree cover and reach Washington Monument State Park in less than an hour. The park is home to the other Washington Monument, not to be confused with the 555-foot marble obelisk in Washington, D.C. This monument is a humble 34-foot stone tower that was erected in 1827 in memory of out first president.

The monument’s solitude is a far cry from my next benchmark: the footbridge over Interstate 70, near Myersville. Thankfully, the traffic noise fades quickly as the trail crests South Mountain, leading to two of the best overlooks of the entire trip: Annapolis Rock (1,800 feet, with a spur trail at mile 24.5) and Black Rock Cliffs (1,800 feet, with a spur trail at mile 25.5). With much of my two-day journey following forested ridgelines with limited visibility, these heights serve as rare scenic views. Rocky outcrops drop off steeply to endless farmland, painted in broad strokes of subtle shades of green. The vast and serene countryside below puts me at ease, but I force myself back on two feet to continue northbound.

From Black Rock Cliffs, the white blazes lead me into rockier and rockier terrain—almost boulder hopping, at times—until I reach the Ensign Cowall Shelter, near mile 31. I endure the last road crossing of the trip, Maryland Rte 491, near the town of Edgemont, then begin ascending sharply toward Raven Rock (1,500 feet), which rivals Weverton Cliffs in steepness. I’m rewarded with the high point of my journey, the aptly named High Rock, which hovers over northern Maryland at more than 1,900 feet.

Up on High Rock, I suddenly reemerge into the world as I know it. It’s just past 2 p.m. on a Sunday, and dozens of people are scattered across the summit, accessible via an auto road. I grab a seat on a large rock near the overlook’s edge and gaze out over more farmland as my ears get used to the strange sound of people speaking. For the better part of two days now, I’ve been listening to little more than the discreet orchestra of the forest. It’s good practice for my reentry into society. My final three miles lie ahead.

A Line in the Dirt

As I approach the Mason-Dixon Line and the end of my AT journey, thoughts of the last 30-something hours flood my mind. If only I could write fast enough, I could fill the gaps in those AT guidebooks that leave all of this out: the sound of pure silence when I stop to catch a breath. The intricate patterns of light and dark as sunlight reaches through the trees to the forest floor. How the trail feels softer with every step, broken in by countless hikers before me. The whispers of historical significance that follow you for miles after passing a Civil War site. The unexpected solitude of such a well-traveled section of the AT. The understated beauty of a landscape that lacks big mountains but embraces hikers with its open arms of sprawling, endless countryside.

It dawns on me as I try to calculate how many miles I have logged (38 so far, by my count): This stretch of the AT has little to do with bagging peaks or racking up stats. There are no epic ascents, no monumental records to set—no world-class vistas, even. Not only is Maryland home to the second-shortest stretch of the AT, but these 40.9 miles are considered some of the trail’s easiest.

What there is is peacefulness. And history—a lot of it. In these two days on my own, I’ve reconnected with nature, with little distraction. I’ve walked a path that has seen magnificent change in social history, and I’ve felt that weight and scale even more intensely since I’m keeping my own company. Encountering it all has made me feel connected to the earth and to something else unspoken. It has been extraordinary to turn back the clock, even for two days, and to tread this well-worn, well-traveled path, right here and now.

As I make my way through Pen Mar, a county green space tucked into the sleepy, rural town of Cascade, the Mason-Dixon Line appears—or, rather, the sign does. There’s no physical line, so I draw one in the dirt with my trekking pole and stand still for a moment, half in the North and half in the South.

It’s 3:30 p.m., and I’ve got 30 minutes to spare until my wife and kids pick me up and shuttle me back to my car, in Harpers Ferry. I sit down near my line in the dirt and look back at the last few steps of my journey. So many have walked this trail before me, and many more will walk it after. And therein lies its beauty. I embarked just two days earlier but somehow I’m emerging feeling years wiser.

All things considered, I’d say I’ve had a nice walk.

Matt Mills is a freelance writer with Midwestern roots who fell in love with the mountains of the Pacific Northwest in the early 2000s. He now resides in Baltimore with his wife and two children.


FURTHER READING

Where to Sleep: Campsites on the Maryland AT

For a shorter day 1 and a longer day 2, camp at the Dahlgren Backpack Campground at mile 17.2 from the West Virginia border. Facilities include city water service and even a shower. Although the campground is first come, first served, there’s space for 36 tents or more, so you shouldn’t have trouble finding a spot. Dalhlgren is the rare place that’s largely off the map.

For a longer day 1 and a shorter day 2, camp at the Pine Knob Shelter, at mile 21.9 from the West Virginia border. It, too, is first come, first served, with a nearby spring as a water source. (Caution: You’ll need to treat your water; see Learn How for advice.) The shelter sleeps eight people.

 

More Weekend-Hikeable AT States

Other than West Virginia’s 4-mile stretch, the only truly weekend-hikeable AT state beside Maryland—for non-ultrarunners, that is—is Connecticut. At 51.6 miles, it’s tough for a two-day journey but is doable.

There are seven shelters on the AT in Connecticut (maintained by the AT Committee of AMC’s Connecticut Chapter), with those most useful for a two-day trip including the Stewart Hollow Brook Shelter (mile 18.5 from the New York border), the Silver Hill campsite (mile 21.7), and the Pine Swamp Brook Shelter (mile 28.5).

All designated campsites on the Connecticut AT have a water source nearby, and although you’ll need to treat water from either Stewart Hollow or Stony Brook, both usually flow strong. There’s also a well pump popular with hikers for its good-tasting water at the Ten Mile Shelter (mile 10).

New Jersey (72.2 miles) and Georgia (76.4 miles) could also work as long-weekend backpacking trips spread over three days or more. Another variation of hiking the Maryland AT is the so-called 44.9-mile Four State Challenge, in which hikers begin at the border of Virginia and West Virginia, and end at the border of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The trip consists of stretches in two states (West Virginia, Maryland) and sets foot in the other two at beginning and end. Some well-conditioned thru-hikers attempt this in one day, but an overnight trip is more manageable.


 

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