Hiking the Appalachian

May 01, 2001

Hiking the Appalachian


Winding its way south from Michaux State Forest in Pennsylvania to Harpers Ferry, W.Va., a segment of walking path inspires beginners and challenges experienced hikers.


The Appalachian National Scenic Trail covers about 2,168 miles. It crosses 14 states from Maine to Georgia and goes through more than 60 federal, state and local parks and forests.

While there are no easy hiking spots along the trail, some are less difficult than others, said Angie Olah, area manager at South Mountain Recreation Area in Hagerstown, which monitors the portion of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail that goes through Maryland.


One relatively easy portion that offers some beautiful scenery can be accessed off U.S. 40 in Washington County near the Frederick County line, said Al Preston, assistant manager at South Mountain Recreation Area. The area from Gathland State Park to Weverton, which covers more than 6 miles, is also less challenging than other parts of the Appalachian Trail but offers worthwhile views, he said.

Beware, though, as you near Weverton Cliffs, where Olah said hikers face "the killer hill."

The terrain on the Appalachian varies from flat paths in wooded areas to almost vertical rocks, but those who set foot on the trail for the first time need not be intimidated. Not every hike has to be a marathon that pits man's hardiness against that of nature.

"If they want to walk 2 miles, that's OK," Olah said.

Miles to go

The Appalachian Trail covers 40 miles in Maryland and only 2.4 miles in West Virginia. The Pennsylvania portion covers a little more than 229 miles.

What ties the massive footpath together over its expansive range is a series of white, painted rectangles - called "blazes" - on trees, posts and rocks. They are 2 inches wide and 6 inches high, according to "Step by Step, An Introduction to Walking the Appalachian Trail."

Posts and rock piles called cairns are used to mark the route above the treeline and in places where snow or fog may obscure paint marks. Two blazes placed one above the other signify a turn, route change, incoming side trail or other situation that requires hikers to be alert, according to the pamphlet.

Side trails and intersecting trails are denoted with blazes of blue or other colors.

The responsibility of maintaining the 240 miles of the trail from Pine Grove Furnace, Pa., to the southern end of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia falls on the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. It also cares for another 700 miles of trails in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.

The Appalachian Trail Conference, a private, nonprofit organization, handles trail and land management activities and allocates duties to trail-maintaining clubs, according to the trail club.

Be ready

To make sure your experience on the trail is a pleasant one, preparation is essential.

"Plan in advance," Olah said. "It's going to make their trip a lot easier."

For starters, she suggested reading about the trail. Then prepare physically by getting in shape and dressing appropriately.

Another strategy, recommended by Preston, is to park cars at both ends of a planned hiking route. Doing so prevents hikers from backtracking and also is a safety net for beginners who may go out too far and realize they don't have enough stamina to get back.

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