Day 50: Harper’s Ferry to Pine Knob Shelter – 24.1mi
I woke up at the Quality Inn feeling rested, and after laying around for a while and talking to Veronica, I went down to destroy their breakfast buffet. Half an hour and a couple thousand calories later, I went back upstairs to pack my stuff. I took my time, and thus didn’t check out until about 930.
My first stop was the post office, where I mailed home a few of my winter clothing items and a couple other things I no longer needed. No sense in carrying that stuff all the way to Maine if I don’t need it!
My next stop, just down the street, was the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters. The ATC operates in all states that the trail runs through, but the office in Harper’s Ferry is where the sausage is made, so to speak. A tradition they have is that they take a photo of every passing thru-hiker in front of their sign and put it into a photobook. They print out the picture and let you put your name and contact information on it as well. It keeps a great log of all the hikers from year to year and lets you see who of your acquaintances have already come through. After posing for my picture and purchasing some postcard prints of it (for $2 each), I sat in their ‘hiker lounge’ for a few minutes where I drank a soda and perused the book.
I found out that I’m the 177th northbound hiker to come through so far out of the more than 5,000 who registered in Georgia. Pretty cool! I hung out there for about a half hour before finally shouldering my pack to begin the day’s hike. It was almost 11am by this time, so I needed to get moving.
The trail runs right through the heart of the old village in Harper’s Ferry, which is like a time capsule of its original self from the 1800s. Although most buildings have been restore, it feels like you’re walking back in time when wandering along the old streets. There were lots of families and kids running around and it was a popular place to be on this sunny Saturday morning.
After passing through the village, the AT crosses the Shenandoah River again and connects to the C&O Canal trail, which is primarily used by bicyclists. The canal path is wide, flat, and graveled which was a nice change of pace. The AT follows it for a couple of miles before splitting off back in to the woods.
After a steep incline that really got my heart pumping (or maybe it was the 90 degree temperature?), the trail evened out to another nice cruiser section. This area is known to be a bit rocky, and those rocks did indeed show themselves soon enough. It wasn’t any worse than the rock sections I’ve experienced in the past, or maybe I didn’t mind as much because I was in such a good mood. Either way, it wasn’t really a problem.
As the day went on and the sun blazed overhead, I tried to figure out where I would end up that night. Because I started so late I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in my regular 28mi without a couple hours of night hiking, but I zoned in on a campsite that was about 26mi out and thought I’d try to get there. The terrain got progressively harder and I was getting worn out, but I figured I’d still make it until I noticed that the air was shifting and that it was getting pretty windy – indicative of an oncoming storm. I had checked the forecast before I left that day and saw no rain, but by now I was 20mi from there so it could have changed. Sure enough, when I rechecked it said I was about to get slammed. So instead of trying to make it to a campsite where I’d be exposed and likely wake up wet, I decided to stop a couple miles short at a shelter.
I arrived at the shelter at about 8:15pm and there was just one tight spot available. It’s a 4 person shelter but we were able to squeeze in 6, thankfully. It was sprinkling when I arrived, but within half an hour of setting up it began to pour. In this instance, screw the mileage! I can make it up another day when it’s nicer.
Day 51: Pine Knob Shelter to Tumbling Run Shelter – 26.3mi
Boy am I glad I was in the shelter last night! The thunderstorms and pouring rain lasted most of the evening and even though I was wearing earplugs I was still woken up by it several times. It was pretty intense for a while and had I been outside in my tent there’s no doubt I would have been completely soaked or maybe had my poles collapse again like in the Smokies.
I packed up and was on the trail at 6:45. The rain had stopped, for the time being, so I didn’t wear my poncho at first. The air was foggy and humid, and more rain was on the way. I got about an hour of freedom before the showers started and then it rained hard for another hour before dying down. It did this a couple of times throughout the morning and it felted like Mother Nature was laughing at me trying to clumsily put my poncho on over and over again. In that situation, all you can do is laugh right along with her and keep pressing on. Embrace the suck.
The terrain was very nice in some parts and ridiculously rocky in others. Each rock was as slick as ice thanks to the precipitation so I had to be very careful about here I placed each step. I had plenty of slips, but no falls.
In the afternoon the rain cleared up and I didn’t need my poncho for the rest of the day. I passed the Mason Dixon line and entered Pennsylvania, my fourth state in two days (Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania).
Checking the forecast, I could see that more rain was on the way in the evening, so I figured I should stay in a shelter again. I arrived at Tumbling Run shelter at about 6:30pm and there were only two others there, unlike the full shelter I encountered last night. They actually have two shelters side-by-side here, which is something I’ve only seen on this part of the trail. Hilariously, one is labeled “snoring” and the other “non-snoring”. If only all shelters had this kind of separation!
Tomorrow the weather is supposed to clear up a bit and I don’t think rain is expected in the evening. I have a hotel booked in Carlisle in two days and I need to cover 56mi to get there, so if the weather’s good tomorrow I’ll try to push for 29mi or so.
Day 52: Tumbling Run Shelter to Toms Run Shelter – 25.8mi
I thanked my lucky stars again for being in a shelter last night, as the thunderstorm tore through as expected and soaked everything in its path.
Hoot, the only other guy in the shelter (there was a woman by herself in the second shelter) was up around the same time as me and we left within 15 minutes of each other with me getting on the trail at 6:35. The day started with a good-sized climb, and the humidity had me sweating immediately. At the top, the trail leveled out into a nicely flowing brown ribbon, and I caught up with Hoot half an hour later.
We both decided we’d check out Timber’s Restaurant, a greasy spoon diner in Fayetteville, PA and just a half mile walk from where the trail passes Rt 30. The town wasn’t for another 9mi, so Hoot and I hiked together. He’s a fascinating guy and quite an athlete. Having recently retired from the Air Force after 34 years, he’s hiking the AT seemingly because that’s all remains for him to do. Throughout the course of our conversation I discovered that he’s climbed hundreds of mountains all over the world, including over 100 peaks in Colorado plus Denali, Mt. Hood, and just about everything else you can think of. He’s also an avid runner and has completed dozens of ultramarathons. I can only hope to have his level of energy and stamina at that age!
We made it to Timber’s at about 1030 and could immediately see why this place came so highly recommended. In fact, the comment on Guthook’s app that convinced us read, “If you don’t stop at Timber’s you’re an absolute kook”. Sold. This place is super hiker-friendly and not only welcomes us dirtbags, but also provides a power strip for charging electronics, wifi, and a hiker box to take/leave items (like they have in hostels). The wait staff was happy to see us and were extremely courteous. We really felt welcome instead of getting sideways looks as if we’re going to shoplift like at most places.
After browsing the menu of fairly standard dinner fare like eggs and pancakes, I focused in on the “Trail Mix” option: 2 eggs, ham, bacon, sausage, and homefries all covered in gravy. In bold letters underneath it read, “Hiker special: double portion $10.50”. Umm, yes. Both Hoot and I ordered the double with a side of toast and coffee. I soaked up the wifi and downed a couple cups of coffee before the meal came, and when it arrived I couldn’t wait to dig in. It was magical. We tried to take our time so as not to throw it all up immediately, but it was hard to keep from going at it. The woods can make you do some crazy things.
When we we polished off our plates, I decided to have some desert so I put in an order for a hot fudge sundae. That really hit the spot. We then scooped up our belongings, paid our tabs (mine was $19 – a great deal for what I’d gone through!) and signed their “hiker wall” before waddling back to the trail. What a great place!
Back on the AT, we faced a rather large climb that lasted for a mile or so. At the top, it once again evened out and was quite nice. There were interspersed rocks and some slightly technical terrain, but overall it was great. So far the skies had been cloudy, but for a while it parted and was sunny and hot. We got a couple hours of that before the thunder started in again, and before long we had put on our rain gear. The rain didn’t last more than a half hour, so soon after we were back in t-shirts.
It started raining again as we were about a mile from the shelter, but not enough to warrant a stop so we pushed on. It picked up for a bit later on, but we made it to the shelter before that, thankfully. We arrived at about 6pm, nice and early. It’s only a 4 person shelter, so they say, and there were already 3 others there but we convinced them to let us squeezed in. We’ve put 7 in a shelter this size so it’s doable. The rain stopped as we were cooking dinner, but I believe it’s supposed to continue off and on throughout the night as it has been. Not only that, but this weather is apparently going to persist for the rest of the week. I’ve been lucky that we’ve had so much rain these last there days and I’ve managed to stay completely dry.
The downside to shelter hopping is that your mileage is a bit constrained. I was hoping to do closer to 30mi today to make for a shorter day into Carlisle tomorrow, but since there was no shelter near the 30mi mark I had to come here or risk getting soaked. As such, I’ll have to push 31mi tomorrow to make it. Its doable, but I’m not psyched about it. I plan to get up a bit earlier tomorrow to try and get some miles done in the morning and avoid getting to the hotel super late.
Day 53: Toms Run Shelter to Carlisle, PA – 31.4mi
I set my alarm for 430am but snoozed it a couple times before actually getting up. It took me a while to get my stuff together but I was able to start hiking at 530 as I’d planned. Although it rained when Hoot and I arrived last night, I don’t think it rained much overnight as it was supposed to. Fine with me! Hoots is meeting up with his wife in a couple of days and not pushing the same mileage as me, so it was back to going solo.
Just a few minutes after leaving the shelter, I finally came across the actual halfway point of the trail. Because the trail gets extended almost every year due to the addition of switchbacks and rerouting, the midpoint changes. This year, it is 4mi further than it was last year meaning that the trail was extended by 8mi! I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter.
A couple miles later, the trail goes through Pine Furnace State Park and by the famous Pine Furnace General Store, which is home to a trail tradition known as the “half gallon challenge”. To complete the challenge, you must eat a full half gallon of ice cream in one sitting, and it’s a way for hikers to celebrate their achievement of hiking half the trail. I’m completely confident that I could crush that challenge, but unfortunately (and inexplicably), the general store is closed during the week until the end of May. I guess they’ll get a majority of the hikers in “the bubble” coming through next month, but there’s plenty of disappointment among the early birds! Maybe I’ll just buy a half gallon elsewhere and destroy it just because.
The trail was exceptionally good for almost the entire day, which was a real treat. There was a series of three climbs which were a bit of a pain, especially as the rain was replaced with sun and a temperature of 85 degrees, so I was huffing pretty hard.
The major stop of the day was Boiling Springs (not to be confused with Hot Springs back in NC), which is a super small town 21mi from where I started and which happens to have a post office, outfitter, and gas station with some resupply options. I had planned to pick up a few snacks as I won’t get a new box of supplies for another 3 days. The selection in the gas station wasn’t great and was quite expensive (double the price of a grocery store), but I was able to get what I needed. I sat outside on their picnic table for a while to rest my feet and chow down. The sun was still blazing as it was about 3:45pm, and I had another 8mi to reach my destination for the day. As I was preparing to depart, I looked up at the sky toward the west and saw huge dark clouds approaching. Ah, crap. A check of the forecast confirmed that “severe thunderstorms” were on their way. I made my way back to the trail and prematurely put on my poncho, knowing that I would need it soon. Just then, I got an alert on my phone the likes of which I’ve never seen – it was a pop-up that was warning of a tornado advisory in that area for the next 30 minutes. I thought it was odd that the time frame was so short and decided to press on. About 5 minutes later, the thunder cracked overhead and the rain started. It was coming down in buckets – the worst I’ve experienced – and my shoes were instantly waterlogged. The trail turned to a river in some places and a complete mud puddle everywhere else. I was sliding around and splashing everywhere, which was actually fun for a minute. Everything was so wet that it didn’t matter anymore so I didn’t bother trying to avoid the puddles. Then, like clockwork, the rain stopped at exactly the time that was indicated on the tornado warning. The skies cleared back up and if it weren’t for the pools of water on the trail you’d never know what happened!
By then my feet were starting to ache something fierce, so the last three miles were a struggle. I had a reservation at the Super 8, which is about a half mile off the trail and I wasn’t pleased about having to do the extra mileage. There’s a Sheetz next door (a Mid-Atlantic chain of truck stops), conveniently, so I stopped in there for some dinner before checking in and collapsing on the bed.
Tomorrow I’ll sleep in a little but still try to get about 25mi in for the day. My next hostel stay and resupply is about 75mi away and I need to be there in 3 days. Totally doable.
Day 54: Carlisle, PA to Clarks Ferry Shelter – 22.5mi
Despite my best efforts to sleep in, I was awake at 6 though still tired. I laid in bed for a bit before heading down to see what the Super 8 had for breakfast. Answer: not much. Their entire spread consisted of cornflakes, bread, packaged honeybuns, and mini muffins that still had the sticker of the grocery store where they were purchased on the box. You get what you pay for, I guess. There was a diner across the street, but I was too lazy to go there so I just grabbed a couple of honeybuns and some coffee.
I’d heard thunderstorms raging overhead mostly of the night, and now it was steadily raining outside. I was having a lot of trouble finding the motivation to get back out there knowing how quickly I’d be soaked. I was hoping to go 26mi or so and camp out, but after checking the forecast and seeing that rain is here to stay for at least the net there days, I knew I’d better continued the shelter hop. Since I need to get to Rock N Sole Hostel in three days (and its 76mi from Carlisle), I need to average about 25mi miles per day. Of course the shelters aren’t laid out to my exact needs (how inconsiderate!), I’ll have to change the plan slightly. The shelter closest to my goal was 22mi away, so I settled on that. I packed up my gear and headed down to the lobby to check out. As I did so, I noticed it was raining even harder outside. Pouring, in fact. Whatever motivation I had deflated, and instead of running out with my poncho on I sat on the couch in the lobby and sipped coffee while I watched the storm outside. I checked weather.com to see the radar, and sure enough the cloud was right overhead. Oddly, though, it indicted that by 9am my location would only be “cloudy” instead of “heavy rain” as it was currently experiencing. It was almost 845, so I decided to wait until 9 and see what happens. To my surprise and delight, the rain let up almost exactly at 9. I couldn’t believe it. The downpour slowed to a heavy drizzle and I figure that was my chance, so I went for it.
I made my way back to the trail along Rt 11 and was once again in the green tunnel, which provided lot of cover from what little rain was falling. The trail was quite easy and flat for a couple of miles, much like yesterday. Also like yesterday, there were sections through grass fields and pastures. Although it wasn’t raining too hard, walking through fields shook all the water from the grass blades directly into my shoes and they were waterlogged almost immediately. I might as well have been walking with fishbowls on my feet.
There were no views or interesting things to see for most of the day. There were a couple of sizable climbs, the difficulty of which were exacerbated by the brown slop that coated the trail. There were also a couple of rocky sections that required a bit of scrambling which, again, is much more difficult and slow when everything is soaked.
The first, and only, event of the day worth mentioning was passing through the town of Duncannon, PA. This is another place that the AT goes right through, so you have no choice but to see it. Just before reaching the “downtown” area, I stopped into a gas station where I bought and subsequently crushed two polish sausages and two king size Snickers bars. I then continued walking through town, passing by the famous Doyle Hotel. The Doyle is a dump (and a guy died there a few years back), but it’s well known and liked by hikers for some reason. It’s been in business for nearly 100 years and has a bar on the ground floor, which probably has something to do with its popularity (although there are plenty more in town!). I had originally planned to stay there but in the end I wanted to do a few more miles so I opted to push on.
The trail literally goes the entire length of the town and doesn’t reconnect to dirt for about a mile and a half. I like walking through neighborhoods like this, looking at all the houses (many of which were abandoned or should be) and wondering what it is that brought them to this place. They probably think the same about me as my trekking poles clink down their cracked sidewalks.
The blazes finally indicated that it was time to go black to the mountains, and I spent the last three miles climbing and traversing extremely rocky ridgelines. The rain was off and on all day, but was starting to pick up so I was eagerly to get to the shelter (as were my feet). It’s funny how no matter what distance I’m going for the day, the last few miles are always a slog. Whether it’s a 31mi day like yesterday or 22 like today, I feel pretty much the same by the end. I’ve experienced this in running as well and it must have something to do with your mind and body settling on the distance, whatever it is, and giving up just before you get there. If that’s not mental sabotage, I don’t know what is!
I managed to get to the shelter at about 6:30pm, joining 5 others. It felt so good to take my shoes and socks off as they had been stewing for over 10 hours. I was afraid I might reveal a bad case of trench foot, but luckily that wasn’t the I just had some pruning.
Tomorrow I’ll head to a shelter that’s about 25mi from here. Not looking forward to another day of hiking in wet shoes and socks, but very glad to be dry overnight!
Day 55: Clarks Ferry Shelter to Campsite at mm1181- 28.3mi
The shelter was nice and drying last night, and when I woke up at 6 it was only drizzling outside. I retrieved my food bag from the bear box and cooked some grits for breakfast. As I have mentioned before, I almost never cook in the morning and instead just mix oatmeal, protein powder, instant coffee, water, and some olive oil in my pot and drink it. It saves a ton of time this way while still providing an ideal macronutrient meal. When I was originally packing my resupply boxes I also included some grits as a way to break the monotony of everyday oatmeal. However, I tried the no-cook method with grits one day and they didn’t absorb any of the water so it was like drinking a cup of ball bearings. Since then, I’ve been tossing out my packets of grits and not eating them except for today when it’s all I had left. As such, I had to cook them which took forever so I didn’t get on the trail until a little after 7.
I knew the rain was sticking around, so I wrung out my socks (which of course didn’t dry at all overnight), put on my wet shoes, and strapped on the poncho. I hiked on my own for a bit before catching up to a guy from the shelter who left just a few minutes before me. I can’t recall his name, but we ended up hiking together for a couple hours which helped pass the time and take our minds off the rain. He is just doing a 140 mi section and works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, so he had some good stories. Eventually he stopped for a break and I pressed on.
The trail started off a bit rocky but after maybe 8mi it smoothed out nicely atop a ridgeline. If it wasn’t for all the rain and the sopping trail below, it would have been an incredibly easy day. Even with the poor weather, it was quite nice. The rain did eventually clear up in the afternoon, and I was able to remove the poncho around 3pm.
My destination was the Rausch Gap Shelter, about 25mi from where I stayed last night. I made it there in pretty good time, arriving just after 5pm. Having seen no other hikers all day I thought I might have the shelter to myself! Although I hate when shelters are far from the trail (this one was a third of a mile off trail), I figured staying dry is worth it. To my dismay, when I reached the leanto it was completely fully. Damn! I didn’t bother sticking around and instead about-faced and headed back to the trail. I checked the weather forecast and it said that there’s little chance the rain will pick back up until the morning, so I decided I’d push a couple more miles to a tent site and then try to be up and on my way by the time the rain starts up again in the morning. Even if my stuff is wet tomorrow, I’ll be at a hostel in the evening and can dry everything out.
Hiking the extra miles also puts me a little closer to the hostel. Instead of needing to hike 27mi, it’ll only be 23 so that’s helpful. The terrain tomorrow is supposed to be similar to today’s, so hopefully I can breeze through and stay dry.
Day 56: Campsite at mm1181 to PA Rt.183 (Rock N Sole Hostel) – 23.1mi
I woke up early this morning and was hiking at 5:30am. The forecast was correct, thankfully, and it didn’t rain overnight. Nothing dried either, so although I was cozy inside the tent I still had to put on wet socks and shoes. Since the weather was decent I decided to start poncho-less and see what happens.
The first part of the day was really nice trail, but my feet were barking immediately. I guess the combination of a long day yesterday plus being wet for several days caused my tailor’s bunions to swell a bit more than usual and they were very painful. I usually try not to take any ibuprofen first thing in the morning just out of principle, but today I made an exception since I has having trouble even walking on flat ground. Once it kicked in, I was able to get moving at my regular pace – just in time to face the rocks.
Pennsylvania is known by hikers as “Rocksylvania”, because the section of the AT that runs through it is supposedly the rockiest of the entire trail. I hear it’s mostly concentrated in the last quarter or so of the state, but I’ve definitely been experiencing part of it already. After about 12mi of some of the nicest trail ever, the rocks came hard. It was as if someone had a giant Yahtzee cup filled with football-sizes stones and tossed them down the trail. After tens of thousands of people have stepped on and over the rocks, they’ve been pounded in to the soil so that only the jagged points are poking out and it’s like walking over razorblades. My shoes, though practically new, are already falling apart. Another colloquialism about Pennsylvania is that it’s where “boots go to die”. The rocks destroy everything and when there are so many on the trail it’s impossible not to step on any.
Luckily the rocks were only present during the later sections of the day (although that will change quickly), but that section was also completely flooded. Because of the torrential rain over the past week, the trail is completely saturates in some places to the point where a system of side trails (which have also been flooded) have been carved out to avoid the huge puddles. This is not only a huge inconvenience but also extremely detrimental to the trail itself as it prematurely erodes these otherwise unmolested areas. If the water doesn’t drain soon, that whole section will be a disaster (moreso than it is already!).
I eventually reached the intersection with Route 183, which was my destination for the day, at about 4pm. Somehow, I avoided getting rained on all day – very thankful for that! I am staying at Rock N Sole Hostel and called them for a ride. Their son picked me up about 10min later and we we made the short drive to their place. The hostel is more or less a garage with bunks next to their house. It’s a nice and relatively new setup (this is their third year in business) which is well suited for hikers. As part of their $40/nt fee, they provide dinner and breakfast each night which is a great benefit since there’s nothing nearby. They (Craig and Jody, the owners) provide lots of shuttles, for a fee, and do a great job of managing everything.
As I was getting settled, I got talking to a guy named Trout. As it turns out, we both started in Georgia on the same day and are only now meeting up after over 1,100 miles. He started a couple of hours before me at Springer and he arrived at the hostel about two hours before me as well, so we’ve essentially kept the same pace for two months. Pretty wild! He’s in his 50s but is a much more experienced hiker, having done many of the long trails in the US already. When he finishes the AT he’s planning to pick up where he left off on the Continental Divide Trail and finish that this year as well, completing his Triple Crown. Very impressive dude.
We made a run to a nearby Dollar General store to pick up some snacks and some beers next door. Back at the hostel we got looking at the weather report and after some deliberation I decided to take tomorrow off and zero here. The rain I had missed today is coming full force overnight and supposed to continue all day. The temperature is going to drop as well, which is even more concerning. I have a zero day planned about 90mi from here, so I think I’ll just cancel that one and use it here instead.
For dinner we had chicken sandwiches with a side of green beans and pasta with a cookie pie and ice cream for dessert. It really hit the spot! After that I laid down in my bunk, chatted with the others for a while, and drifted off to sleep.
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Brandon Chase is a writer, endurance athlete, and guide based in Maine. He is a former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State and spent nearly a decade overseas serving at embassies in Egypt, Cyprus, and Pakistan.
Along with a 98-day thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, he has summited Mt. Kilimanjaro, hiked the West Highland Way, fastpacked in the Himalayas, and trekked around New Zealand and South Africa. He also regularly competes in ultramarathons at the 50k, 50-mile, and 100-mile distances. He is a Lead Guide for Andrew Skurka Adventures and the New England Outdoor Center.