Section Backpacking Through Maryland on the Appalachian Trail
Getting Started on Our Maryland AT Section Hike
Parking and Shuttling at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia
We chose Maryland for our first attempt at an AT section hike for a few reasons. The first being that it is the closest in proximity from our home; right around six hours. With little time to plan for this last-minute decision, I emailed several “locals” (whose email addresses I’d found on the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website). I found options for shuttle services to the trailhead from Harper’s Ferry National Park. You will need to pay $10 for an extended parking permit to leave your car there while you complete your hike.
We found someone willing to drive us from Harper’s Ferry, WV to the Pen-Mar border so we wouldn’t have to do an out-and-back and see the entire Maryland portion of the AT. Lee Baihly, the owner of River & Trail Outfitters, Inc. in Knoxville, MD, took us to the border and trailhead for $80.
Pen-Mar Trail Head
Day #1: 9.5 Miles
We finally got started on our hike at 3:30 pm, with a plan to hike 9-10 miles to the second shelter called “Ensign Cowell.” The trail consisted of mostly rocks and hills, making it near impossible to move faster than 2–2.5 mph. It was tough; more stringent than I'd anticipated. Within the first five minutes of the hike, we came upon the notable Mason-Dixon Line.
We hiked for seemingly an eternity, having been warned by one of the first passers-by to watch for swarms of hornets up ahead. We never saw any until almost to our campsite, when ut of the blue, my husband was stung in the back of the knee. That made the rest of the hike uncomfortable for him, but thankfully, the swelling was minimal.
We lost our daylight and had to resort to using our lighted hats and headlamps to complete this segment before arriving at our shelter/campsite. There was no “room at the inn” as the shelter was full, so we pitched our tent, which is our preference as sleeping communal doesn't seem appealing. Nor does being vulnerable and exposed to critters. We made a wise move because one of the hikers had his brand new wool socks destroyed by some rodent. (He had them stuffed inside his boots)
It was also our first experience using the “bear pole,” a sturdy metal post with hooks and a long, stout pole used to hike your food bag up high and out of reach from the wildlife.
Day #1 Photos
Day #2: 14 Miles
The second day, we lollygagged a bit too long in the morning and ended up getting a very late start (10:30). We still needed to replenish our water from the day before, and this took about a half-hour to complete. With a 14-mile day ahead of us, we knew we didn’t have much time to waste.
A few miles in, we happened upon a huge black snake lying across the trail, which of course, freaked me out. I always let Jamison lead our hikes for this reason!
After about five miles, we stopped to have lunch and met a couple of hikers named Joe and Andrew. Joe was eating a military MRE and gave us one to try later. They are heavy, so I'm sure it also helped to lighten his load by at least a pound! We chatted with some other folks who were from Ohio too, and then as we were about to head out again, we saw some Ohio people (two young couples) looking at something on the trail’s edge. That “something” turned out to be a rattlesnake! I hate snakes, but I have to admit, this picture is pretty cool. It was the second snake of the day, and I had enough of seeing them!
Campsite #2 ended up being the best! This backpacker’s camp was called “Dahlgren” and was an official campsite, complete with fire rings, flattened and segregated tent sites, picnic tables, free firewood, and showers and bathrooms. We heard this is a rare find on the AT. We got there in time to secure a site before the other hikers arrived. Some had to use the grassy areas to set up their tents.
We took showers and walked up to a quaint mid-1700’s Inn, called The Old South Mountain Inn. It is situated at the top of the hill by the campground. The staff was exceptional and allowed the hikers to dine in hiking attire, as long as we were clean! We certainly did not expect to find such a great meal (for the mere cost of $90 with tip) on the AT! We had the best French onion soup, Jamison had steak, and I had chicken Marsala and many glasses of excellent sweet tea.
With our bellies full, we headed back to our site where we again, saw Joe and Andrew and met a young school teacher from Dayton, OH, named Molly, who was out on a solo 30-day trek. She admitted that this was day #3 for her, and it was starting to get a bit lonely, which I could only imagine.
Day # 2 in Pictures
Day #3: 17.5 Miles
We were a bit more successful at getting up earlier on day #3 and were out on the trail by 8:30. With nasty blisters and nearly 18 miles ahead of us to get to Harper’s Ferry and our car, I knew it was going to be a tough day. I added a second pair of socks and padded up my toes with band-aids in hopes of not making the blisters worse than they were. We had already filled our water bladders with water from the pump at the campsite, so we were good to go.
One of our stops was at a park where we met a young fellow named Skye, who was from Canada. He had started his hike with his brother, but he was several hundred miles ahead of him by this point, so he was now alone. Along with Skye came along another young couple who had met while on the trail and had learned that they resided just an hour apart from one another. They are now a couple, finishing the thru-hike together.
We decided to break out the MRE that Joe had given us and give it a shot. It was kind of gross. It had some meat and pepper jack cheese, blueberry cobbler, a powdered chocolate drink, cheese spread, and bread. I feel bad that our military in the field have to consume these regularly because they are heavy and very salty! It was an experience, and I can say that I will not be eating those again.
Our next stop took us to the “Ed Garvey Shelter," where we ate a snack and took off our shoes for a spell. It was a two-story shelter with a back entry leading up to a second-floor loft, bear boxes (instead of the poles), a beautiful big fire ring and an actual toilet.
Our last trek took us to one of the highest points that we had seen since we started, as well as a bridge that took us over I-70. It felt a bit odd considering we are supposed to be out in the middle of nowhere! The final three-mile stretch was a welcome relief as we finally left the intense hills and rocky terrain to finish on a pea gravel bike trail with a river on one side and a canal on the other. We saw lots of people in rafts, kayaks, canoes and inner tubes enjoying the rapids on one side and green, murky water with passing trains above the canal on the other side. By this point, I was limping pretty badly from my blisters, so I completed the last few miles in my flip-flops with my boots in tote.
We had a fun weekend, full of adventure and loads of learning. We met some very friendly and interesting people along the way as well. Everyone out there has a unique story. This was a great spur-of-the-moment adventure…which generally end up being the best kind!
Day #3 Photos
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Debra Roberts