Appalachian Trail Section Hike: Maryland

Me at White Rock Cliff

Due to a series of unfortunate events, Deb and I found that we were to have the weekend of July 10-July 12 free. We decided to visit the Appalachian Trail (AT hereafter) for the first time and do a 3 day / 2 night hike. A little investigation showed that Harper’s Ferry was the closest point to us (6 hours), and that the Maryland section was known to be “easy” relative to the AT, as well as being the shortest section by state.

Seemed like a no brainer place to start our AT experience. The only catch was figuring out a way to do a point-to-point hike without having to drive separately and placing cars at both ends. Deb came through for us, and found a taxi service willing to take us on a one way trip from Harper’s Ferry National Park to Pen-Mar, which is a park on the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The Plan

The primary resources we used for planning the hike were:
Appalachian Trail Conservancy Description of Maryland
and
Whiteblaze.net data and elevations by state.

Both showed that the section was about 40 miles long. Our plan going in was to do daily miles around 10-20-10 since we were driving in on day one and driving home on day three.

To make this happen, we wanted to be driving by 6am Friday, arriving in Harper’s Ferry by 1pm. The shuttle we hired was supposed to meet us there at that time, then drive about 40 minutes to the border. We figured we’d be hiking by 2pm.

Day 1: Reality

Things did not get off to a great start. Firstly, we didn’t start packing for the trip until Thursday night. It ended up being near midnight before we were ready for bed.

My stuff, before packing.

My stuff, before packing.

The second issue was when the alarm went off at 5:30am. I didn’t want to hear it, so I changed for 6am. Even then, I had trouble getting up and was slow to get going. I don’t think we started driving until 6:45a, already 45 minutes off schedule.

I wasn’t too worried though, as we had built in an hour of buffer time for lunch and gas. We’d just have to cut those a little short, drive a little faster, and we’d be golden.

Things were going according to that plan pretty well until we got to Hancock, MD. We were traveling on route 68 east when I somehow got confused, and even with GPS I ended up going on 522 south instead of continuing onto 70E. The GPS rerouted us, and still estimated that we’d get there at 1pm.

I decided to just follow the GPS directions instead of turning around. That was a bad idea. As we drove, the estimated time kept creeping up. 1:05. 1:10. 1:18. 1:27.

We finally arrived at the park by 1:35 or so. In the meantime, Deb had called the shuttle service and let them know we’d be late. They said call when we got there, they were just around the corner and would be there fast.

It wasn’t exactly fast as it turned out. It was well after 2pm by time we were picked up. The fellow was nice however, and the shuttle drive went without issue, albeit slowly. He definitely drove the speed limit and nothing more!

We were dropped off inside of Pennsylvania, at the intersection of PA Route 550 and the Appalachian Trail. This was to ensure that we hiked every step of the trail in Maryland. We took a picture with the sign, and started hiking just after 3:30pm.

At the intersection of PA Route 550 and the AT.

At the intersection of PA Route 550 and the AT.

Just a few minutes after we started (maybe less!) we passed the Mason-Dixon line. We were now in Maryland.

Deb at the Mason-Dixon line.  Maryland awaits.

Deb at the Mason-Dixon line. Maryland awaits.

A few minutes after that we entered Pen-Mar park whereupon we saw our first north bound through hiker. We didn’t stop to sight see and kept rolling. Shortly thereafter we hit rocks. We were told by several that the terrain was “rocky” in Maryland. They weren’t lying, it was very rocky.

Rocky trails.

Rocky trails.

In fact the it would not be an exaggeration to say that there are miles and miles of this sort of rocky terrain. It’s interesting at first, a nice distraction. Then it gets old. Then you get blisters if you’re Deb. It’s slow going to say the least. The hike for the next couple hours was non-eventful after that. We were about 7 miles in, and trying to pick up the pace so we could hit the Ensign Cowell shelter before night. I was cresting a pile of rocks when all of a sudden I felt a very sharp stab behind my left knee. A hornet or wasp had stung me out of no where. I worried for a little bit that my leg might swell and make it hard to hike, but thankfully the worst it got was some redness and itching for days.

Hours into our hike we came across a little bit of fresh cool water falling from the rocks. Until this point, I had seen precious little in the way of water, so I decided to fill our extra water bottles and to also keep a full “bag” of water just in case. This was the first time we had used our water filtration system. We went with the Sawyer Squeeze, good for a million gallons they say.

I am water man.

I am water man.

About 5 hours after we started we made it to the shelter. Dusk was upon us, and the terrain was rocky and on the side of a hill. We tried our best to find a good place to put a tent, and due to the impending darkness, I picked a spot that wasn’t so great. We boiled water with our new JetBoil Zip and had some re-hydrated food for dinner. We both stunk really bad, and tried to clean up with wet-wipes but with little success.

Our tent with the Ensign Cowell shelter in the background.

Our tent with the Ensign Cowell shelter in the background. Joe is in the background on the right. We’ll talk about him later.

We turned in for the night and proceeded to have the worst night of “sleep” we’ve yet had on the trail. The angle of the tent made staying in place difficult. This time we tried sleeping with feet pointed down hill instead of sleeping horizontally on the hill. Neither of us were in the mood to get out and try to find another spot to move things too, so we slept fitfully all night.

Day 2

We woke up rather late. As is usually the case, a bad night’s sleep usually ends in a good morning’s sleep. In theory this was supposed to be a 20 mile day, however I knew in the back of my mind that the previous day was harder than we had bargained for, and that hitting 16 miles might be a better plan. We slowly packed, then went to the picnic table at the shelter and had breakfast. We talked with a lady and her man friend, then talked to Joe and Andrew very briefly. As we ate, everyone else had left and hit the trail.

We didn’t start hiking until 10:30 am. About an hour in we finally saw a snake. A nice long black snake. Deb hates snakes, so it was good that I saw it first and was able to warn her. I tapped the ground with my hiking pole near the snake, and it dutifully slithered off into the weeds.

That's a black snake.

That’s a black snake.

After 5 miles or so we came to a placed marked Pogo Memorial Campsite. At this site we met Joe and Andrew again, along with two couples in their 20s. We all talked while we ate lunch. Joe mentioned that about 8 more miles would take us to a place called Dahlgren Campsite and they had free showers. Now that was certainly interesting. The issue was that it would put us between 13 and 14 miles for the day, short of the 16 I thought we had to do, and way short of the 20 we meant to do. The call of the showers was strong though. Our plan at that point was to take a quick shower then keep going.

As we were finishing our lunch, the young couples were on the trail pointing and taking pictures of something. I walked over and asked what was up. One of them pointed and said rattle-snake! Cool! I thought. I’ve always wanted to see a viper in the wild. It sure looked like one to me. Yellowish with dark diamonds on it’s back, and what appeared to be a 4 or 5 segment rattler. I managed to get a shot of it’s head as it slithered along a stump.

Rattlesnake?

Rattlesnake?

We set off, leaving Joe and Andrew behind. The next several hours went by in a blur. Sometimes rocks, sometimes easy trails, sometimes going up and sometimes going down. Deb was suffering from blisters and the bottom of my feet were getting very sore with pressure points. We were sweating like crazy and obviously not eating enough. We were both starting to crash hardcore when we came upon a road, and on that road was an inn called Old South Mountain Inn. This is what we were looking for. We had previously met a “trail ranger” who mentioned Dahlgren Campsite had an inn nearby. Within minutes were were at the campsite and showering.

Deb in pink at Dahlgren Campsite.  Showers in the distance in the yellow building.

Deb in pink at Dahlgren Campsite. Showers in the distance in the yellow building.

After leaving the shower we had a quick little meeting. We could either get the packs on and push another 2 miles and change to get to the next shelter (and the 16 mile mark for the day), or we could go have dinner and camp there. We settled for the latter. Deb and I grabbed our packs and got the last perfectly flat spot that had it’s own picnic table and fire pit! After setting camp up quickly, we put on our dry but totally low class clothes and went to the inn for dinner.

We had a great dinner and ended up spending $90 for it. I had New York Strip, garlic mashed potatos, french onion soup, and a salad. Deb had the same, except she had chicken Marsala instead of the steak.

After we left the inn, we saw a very tired looking Joe and Andrew crossing the road. We greeted them and took them to our site. They set up near us, and we chatted for a bit before they took off for the inn for dinner. By now darkness was falling, so we got in the tent and had a decent night’s sleep. We knew that we would have somewhere between 16 and 18 miles to do the next day.

Day 3

We woke up sometime in the 7 o’clock hour, and got to work packing and making our breakfast. Joe and Andrew eventually got up and talked for a bit. They had 2 days yet to get back to Harper’s Ferry while we had just 1. We said our goodbyes and got to hiking around 8:15 if I recall.

Thankfully the hiking gods were on our side, as the trail started off pretty easy and slightly downhill. We made great time and got to the next shelter (2.2 miles) in less than 40 minutes. We continued at this pace until we got to the big hill of the day. Mercifully, it wasn’t too bad. It was steep and had switch backs, but the rocky terrain had subsided some. After that, we had several miles of rather easy terrain and we were making great time in spite of Deb’s blisters.

About 5 miles in we had a quick snack break, then we got to it again. We were very pressed for time and didn’t really take any pictures for hours. We made it to the Ed Garvey shelter in what seemed like a blink of an eye. I think that was at the 12 mile mark. It was here that we started to feel the effects of pushing it for the last 5 hours, so we took about a 30 minute break.

Me at the Ed Garvey shelter.

Me at the Ed Garvey shelter.

I knew from looking at the map that this would be the last shelter before Harper’s Ferry. I reckoned that it was about 5 more miles to go. Maybe 6. One mistake I made was not getting a really good map. It slipped my mind and we only had a basic cue sheet printed on a printer that was out of ink.

We pushed on and a few miles later came to a nice rock overlook. This was the last picture we would take.

Me at White Rock Cliff

Me at White Rock Cliff

After this, the terrain started to get rocky, and went steeply downhill for what seemed liked forever. There were a lot of switch backs too. I didn’t find it too hard to get down, but Deb and her blisters had a terrible time.

The miles ticked by very slowly, but eventually we made it to the C&O canal path. I knew that we had less than 3 very flat miles to Harper’s Ferry. Yet in spite of that, our pace on this section was about the slowest we had hiked during the last 3 days. We both totally hit the wall and our feet were killing us. We did eventually make it after an eon, too exhausted to grab the phone for a celebratory picture.

We luckily caught the National park bus and got a 5 minute ride back to our car.

The trip was a success.

Closing Thoughts

We ended up hiking roughly 9.5 miles the first day, 14 miles the second, and 16.5 miles the final day. It really does appear to be around 40 miles exactly for this section.

If I was to do it again, I think that the first day was just fine. It’s the toughest terrain as far as rocks go, and 10 miles is plenty there, especially if you’re not experienced. For Day 2, I think the 2.2 miles between Dahlgren Campsite and the Rocky Run Shelter is very easy. Because of that, I would say stop for a shower at Dahlgren at mile 14, but push on another 40 minutes and get to Rocky Run if you can do without eating at the inn. That would give you a bit more than 16 miles day 2, and a shorter day 3.

For day 3, after the first big hill, which comes very early in the day, the terrain does work in your favor. There are some rocky parts, but for the most part you can make some great time on these sections. The last downhill is a bit of a pain though.

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