On the Appalachian Trail: Southern Maryland to Harpers Ferry
If you made a list of reasons to spend all day walking up and down the rocky footpaths of the Appalachian Trail, sitting on the boulders at White Rocks in Maryland and watching the sun begin its descent across the valley might be on it.
After a grueling day of backpacking, we made it to the White Rocks lookout at about 5 p.m. That was the good news, except, in this case, it was also the bad news. That’s because we were still about 3 miles from our destination, the Crampton Gap camp site. Even if we finished the day at a brisk 2 mph pace (and that didn’t seem likely), we were facing at least a mile in the dark. A local guy who was on the trail walking his dogs pointed across the valley and said the shelter was “just over there.”
Could we make it?
“Really, what choice do you have?” were his parting words.
Our first venture onto the Appalachian Trail was supposed to be a moderately challenging two-day hike, starting in Maryland at the intersection of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 40 and ending 22 miles later in downtown Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
But like most well-laid plans, something was bound to go wrong.
Mark aka “Arch” on the trail / Photo by Joe Newman
The plan called for us to drop my car off at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park and then drive Mark’s truck to the overnight parking area just east of the I-70 – U.S. 40 intersection. That’s where we would enter the Appalachian Trail, or AT as it’s commonly called. I was running a little late because of a stop for some last-minute provisions and then got stuck in traffic trying to get out of downtown Washington, D.C. I ended up about an hour late to our rendezvous point on Interstate 270. That lost hour would come back to haunt us.
(Overnight parking at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park costs the $10 vehicle entrance fee. After you enter the park, you have to stop by the visitors center and fill out some paperwork and let the rangers know how long you’re going to be out and where you plan to hike.)
From Harpers Ferry, it’s about a 20 to 30 minute drive to the I-70 – U.S. 40 parking area. (It’s important to note that I-70 and U.S. 40 actually cross at a few points in Maryland. The parking area is where the roads cross near Greenbrier State Park, about 10 miles southeast of Hagerstown.)
On the Saturday morning of our hike, it was sunny with temps in the 50’s — a perfect October day, which is why the small lot was crammed full by the time we arrived. Finding the trail is pretty easy: From the parking area, head out of the west end of the lot and within a few hundred yards, you’ll arrive at a T-intersection with the AT. Turn north and you’re on your way to the Pennsylvania border about 20 miles away. We were headed south, toward Harpers Ferry, which if not the precise geographical center of the AT is, undoubtedly, the spiritual center of the 2,180-mile-long trail.
For the thousands of “through hikers” who tackle the AT each year, reaching Harpers Ferry is a profound moment. If they’re heading north and they reach Harpers Ferry after July 15, it means they’ve likely arrived too late to make it through the mountains in New Hampshire and Maine before the first snowstorms.
We weren’t likely to run into many northbound through hikers during our outing since temperatures were already dropping into the 30s at night in Maryland. But we did meet a through hiker heading south.
We heard Three-Quarters before we saw him. He had shouted a couple times but I hadn’t made the connection that he was actually trying to get our attention.
When I finally turned around, I saw him hustling up the trail behind us waving my Gorillapod in his right hand. He had found it at about the spot we entered the Appalachian Trail, which means the little, flexible tripod had stayed in the side pocket of my backpack for all of 10 minutes before it fell out.
Like most through-hikers, he introduced himself by his trail name, “Three-Quarters” — a name he said he had picked up on a hike years ago when he kept telling a friend that their destination was only “three-quarters of a mile” up ahead. There was a slight awkward pause as we introduced ourselves by our real names, since neither of us had thought about a trail name.
Three-Quarters had a long, unkempt beard, the kind you would expect to see on someone who had spent the last two months on the Appalachian Trail. He was from South Carolina and had started on the AT in June at Mount Katahdin, Maine. Unfortunately, he came down with a staph infection and had to leave the trail for about a month and was now trying to make up for lost time.
All three of us were southbound toward Harpers Ferry, except that Three-Quarters was hoping to do the 22-mile stretch in a single day, not the two days we were planning.
Of the two parts of our hike, the 12 miles on the first day are by far the toughest, especially if you’re not in top shape (um, that’s me). In fact, if the first day hadn’t taken so much out of us, the second day, much of it along a flat, unpaved service road, would have been a breeze. Instead, by the second day, we both had blisters and aching muscles and, to top it off, I had jammed two of my toes.
The guidebooks will tell you that one of the disadvantages of “section hiking,” as opposed to through hiking is that it takes awhile to get into “backpacking shape.” It’s one thing to hike 10 to 20 miles in a day. It’s another thing to do that with 30 pounds strapped to your back.
We started our first day at a respectable clip, reaching the 2.7 mile mark in about an hour and a half. But a combination of fatigue and my tender toes dragged our pace down by the afternoon. My toes were actually fine going uphill but they were killing me on the rocky downhills when my feet slid into the front of my shoes.
As a result, we reached the White Rocks lookout about an hour behind schedule. Our options were either pitch a tent on the side of the trail or walk the final two miles in the dark.
Soldiering on with my headlamp, which gave us just enough light to find the trail, was the right choice. On that night, the Crampton Gap camp, with its fire rings, benches and smoothed-out areas to pitch tents was as welcoming as any five-star hotel I’ve stayed at. We set up camp in the dark and got a fire going. And while I sat in a nearly comatose state, Mark made a meal of chili, salmon and couscous that would have merited a Michelin star had there been any to give out that night.
Luxury is truly relative.
It’s amazing what a fire, warm meal and comfortable camp shoes can do for your disposition. We had just finished our first 12 miles of the Appalachian Trail and, for a brief moment, the remaining 2,168 miles didn’t seem so daunting.
Looking south on the Interstate 70 footbridge / Photo by Joe Newman
|-0.1||1,250||Overnight parking lot just on U.S. 40, just west of I-70. Follow path on the west side of the parking lot to the trail. Turn south (left) and you’ll see the footbridge across I-70.|
|2.7||1,400||Powerline: You’ll hit this open area after a decent climb. That was just a warm up for the steeper ascent you’re about to take. Resist the urge to stop and break out lunch. Power through it and you’ll be properly rewarded.|
|3.2||1,500||Washington Monument: Built in 1827, this stone monument is supposedly the nation’s first monument to the memory of George Washington. It’s a nice place to take your pack off and enjoy a break with a view. There’s a parking lot with water and a restroom nearby but we did not check it out.|
|5||1,070||Dahlgren Chapel / U.S. Alt. 40: You’ll enter a clearing as you come upon the chapel. The AT picks up across the road, where you’ll also see the Old South Mountain Inn, which gets good reviews as a hiker friendly dining establishment, in case you’ve got the time andinclination for a meal. The Dahlgren campground is about two-tenths of a mile away and offers restrooms, water, camping areas and supposedly showers (we didn’t stop to check them out).|
|6.9||970||Rocky Run Shelter: There’s signage and a fork in the road here. The path to the right goes to the shelter. The AT continues to the left. The shelter supposedly has a privy and a seasonal spring.|
|8.7||1,600||White Rocks overlook: A nice view south toward your Day 1 destination. Remember it’s going to take you 4 to 6 hours to get to this point. Plan accordingly, or you’ll end up hiking in the dark. On the bright side, the path south from here is mostly downhill and not too rocky.|
|11.8||900||Crampton Gap shelter: I’ve stayed at five star hotels that weren’t as welcome of a sight as this shelter. There are plenty of camping areas, with fire rings and benches. My guidebook listed a privy and unreliable spring. I didn’t see either but I didn’t go out of my way looking for them, either. If you’re in need of water, you can find some less than a half mile up the trail at Gathland State Park.|
|Mile (total)||Elevation (ft)||Notes|
|0 (12.2)||900||War Correspondents Memorial / Gathland State Park: After camping at the shelter, the park is a great place to prep for Day 2. There are restrooms, garbage cans and a water pump here. There’s also plenty of parking at the park. Coming out of the woods, you’ll see the War Correspondents Memorial and the restrooms just across the road. From the restrooms, head south through the parking area and look for the AT to the left.|
|1.4 (13.6)||1,100||Glenn R. Caveney Wilderness Memorial: You’re likely to pass this by unless you’re looking for it. It’s just a small stone plaque on the left side of the trail. The marker is flush to the ground. I caught it out of the corner of my eye as we passed it. I don’t know who Caveney was but, according to the marker, he was about 16 when he died in 1971.|
|5.9 (18.1)||900||16 switchbacks: From the top of the switchbacks you can hear the traffic on U.S. 340 below. I definitely am glad that we descended over the switchbacks as opposed to going up. This really marks the end of the wilderness part of the hike. It’s all downhill from here to Harpers Ferry.|
|7.1 (19.3)||—-||Keep Tryst Road: You’ll emerge from the trail onto the road and parking lot. There’s a swing gate at the back of the parking lot. Go through the gate and then cross the railroad tracks. You’ll cross over and come to a t-intersection with the C&O Canal towpath. Turn right (west). In a few tenths of a mile, you’ll come upon a clearing that gives you a great view of the Potomac River.|
|7.7 (19.9)||—-||Sandy Hook Bridge: We passed under this bridge. All I really remember is that as we approached it, we were holding out hope that it would be the bridge that took us into Harpers Ferry. Just wishful thinking.|
|8.4 (20.6)||—-||C&O Canal Lock: We actually sat down here and I pulled out our map to say that we should be near the lock. Not much to see here. It’s mostly overgrown and decayed.|
|9.8 (22)||—-||Goodloe Bryon Memorial Footbridge: The bridge leads you to the spiritual, if not quite the geographical, midpoint of the Appalachian Trail — Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There’s a sense of accomplishment crossing it after only a two-day hike; I can only imagine what it feels like if you’ve been on the trail for weeks or months. You can catch a free shuttle bus from downtown to the national park. The buses run regularly. If you’re only going on a day hike or weekend outing, you can also park at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy offices downtown.|