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Section Backpacking Through Maryland on the Appalachian Trail

I love to review and share our adventures, which include running/racing, backpacking, camping, road trips, traveling, especially cruising.


Hitting the (Maryland) Appalachian Trail

We chose Maryland for our first attempt at an AT section hike for a few reasons. The first is that it's the closest to 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'll 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 could 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

Pen-Mar Trail Head

Day 1: 9.5 Miles

We started our hike at 3:30 pm, planning to hike 9-10 miles to the second shelter called “Ensign Cowell.” The trail consisted primarily of 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 didn't encounter any nearing our campsite when 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 used 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)

Using the "bear pole" was a first for us. If you've never seen one, it's a sturdy metal post with hooks and a long extension pole that hangs your food bag out of reach from wildlife.

Day 1 Photos

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. This is what the majority of the trail consists of in MD

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. This is what the majority of the trail consists of in MD

 Ensin Cowell Shelter

Ensin Cowell Shelter

Day 2: 14 Miles

On the second day, we lollygagged a bit too long in the morning and got a very late start (10:30 a.m.). 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 giant black snake lying across the trail, which 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 lighten his load by at least a pound! We chatted with some other folks 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 arrived just 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 to a quaint mid-1700s Inn, "The Old South Mountain Inn." It's 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 didn't expect to find such a great meal in the middle of nowhere. (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

Huge black snake of some sort laying on the trail

Huge black snake of some sort laying on the trail

Dahlgren Campground the second night.

Dahlgren Campground the second night.

The Old South Mountain Inn welcomed us for an unexpected (and pricey) dinner!

The Old South Mountain Inn welcomed us for an unexpected (and pricey) dinner!

Day 3: 17.5 Miles

We were more successful at getting up earlier on day #3 and were 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 would be a tough day. I added a second pair of socks and padded up my toes with band-aids to not worsen the blisters. We'd already filled our water bladders with water from the pump at the campsite, so we were good to go.

One of our stops was a park where we met a young fellow named Skye from Canada. He'd started his hike with his brother, but he was several hundred miles ahead of him by this point and now alone. Along with Skye came another young couple who'd met one another on the trail. They learned they resided an hour apart and opted to finish the thru-hike together.

We broke out the MRE Joe had given us and gave 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 our military in the field consumes these regularly because they are heavy and salty! It was an experience, and I'll not eat those again.

Our next stop took us to the “Ed Garvey Shelter," where we ate a snack and removed 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 since we started and a bridge that took us over I-70. It felt odd, considering we're 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. I was limping badly from my blisters by this point, so I completed the last few miles in my flip-flops with my boots in tow.

We had a fun weekend, full of adventure and loads of learning. We met some very friendly and interesting people along the way, and everyone had a unique story. This hike was a tremendous spur-of-the-moment adventure, which always ends up being the best kind!

Day 3 Photos

Ed Garvey Shelter

Ed Garvey Shelter

Ed Garvey Shelter

Ed Garvey Shelter

Hiking over the interstate

Hiking over the interstate

End result of 3 days with a crooked toe (from a prior surgery). I need to figure out a way to tape and pad this for future long hikes. The rocky terrain and constant twisting to navigate the mostly rock and boulder trails caused this.

End result of 3 days with a crooked toe (from a prior surgery). I need to figure out a way to tape and pad this for future long hikes. The rocky terrain and constant twisting to navigate the mostly rock and boulder trails caused this.

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


Trish Veltman on May 08, 2019:

Sounds like a tough hike - but such a feeling of achievement to complete it. Not sure I'd be too keen on meeting the snakes though!

sharon w on April 19, 2019:

ooo my bf was raised in maryland! i will have to ask him about this hike to see if he's done it before. looks gorgeous. next time we visit his hometown, i'd love to do this hike!

Carol on April 18, 2019:

Loved hearing about the people you met while on the trail and what a treasure to find the Inn. How amazing to be able to do this!

Thuy on April 18, 2019:

When I get in better shape I want to do this trail with my boyfriend

Tracy @ Cleland Clan on April 18, 2019:

My mom and dad have hiked this part of the Appalachian Trail. While the scenery is beautiful, the snakes would keep me away!

Snehal on April 18, 2019:

Maryland looks like one of the best places for hikers amd campers. Would definitely like to set a camp there someday. Btw how is your toe now?

blair villanueva on April 18, 2019:

That is such a long hours of walking! You could use those rubber tapes that most ballerinas use for their toes. That way, your toes would be so hurt.

Kara on April 17, 2019:

This looks a challenging hike but so rewarding when you're finished!

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on April 17, 2019:

That is the point! It's tough, but man is it fun and a great challenge!

Subhashish Roy on April 17, 2019:

Wonderful journey. Beautiful photographs. Would love to do this trail sometime myself. You are motivating me

Nicole L Anderson on April 16, 2019:

What a great experience to have for the most part. While I love being out in nature, I can't stand snakes either and I feel for your blisters. Nevertheless, I'm sure you enjoyed the time as a whole and as someone who hasn't yet been on that route, I really found what you have shared to be really interesting.

KeshiaRichmond on April 16, 2019:

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwest VA but never hiked a trail. This is so intriguing and your account shows the reality of it.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on December 06, 2018:

The fact that you are not far from a town makes this a great section for first timers on the AT! (I'm from Ohio too!)

Alyssa from Ohio on December 04, 2018:

Oh what a fun experience! I would love to do this with my husband and son.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on November 29, 2018:

Thanks Liz! I have a few more to bring over from my personal blog. It's amazing how much nicer my writing has become here with all the good tips and editor help. I don't even want my musings on my personal blog anymore!

Liz Westwood from UK on November 29, 2018:

This is an interesting and well-illustrated account of your hike. I look forward to reading about your next one.