Trail Report:

Appalachian Trail Section Hike:
PenMar to Harper's Ferry


New:  Photo Gallery

Overview:

This was the first of what hopefully will be many more section hikes to come.  Good friend Stefan Fouant and I tackled this 40 mile section over four days beginning Oct. 16th.   The hike was a southbound hike beginning at the Mason Dixon line on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border and ending at Harper's Ferry, WV.   The hike more or less follows the ridge of South Mountain across Maryland.  While there were some occasional blow downs, and some rough rocky areas, the trail is more or less well maintained and pleasant.  The trail will take you through many historical areas, notable among them is Washington Monument (the first monument to President Washington) and the War Correspondents Memorial at Gathland.

Our original Itinerary would have taken us North from Harper's Ferry to PenMar.  After much consideration and input from others we decided to reverse the direction and begin at PenMar. 

 

Itinerary:

Day 1:  PenMar to Ensign Cowell Shelter

Day 2:  Ensign Cowell to Dahlgren's Backpacker Gampground

Day 3:  Dahlgren's to Ed Garvey Memorial Shelter

Day 4:  Ed Garvey to Harper's Ferry

 

Hike Maps:

Overview Topo

This map shows the overall area of the hike along the ridge of South Mountain.

A larger version of the topographic map is available as well as a terrain profile.

Large Version (251k)
Profile (64k)

 

Day 1 Topo

This map focuses on the section from PenMar to Ensign Cowell shelter.

Section Length:  9.15 miles (9.4 by trail guide)
Elevation Gain: 2088 '
Highest Peak: + 2027 ' / -1880

Water:
  PenMar - Fountain Available - Water very bad!
  Ensign Cowell - Good spring/stream near shelter

A larger version of the topo is available as well as a terrain profile.'

Large Version (1.1 MB)
Profile (43k)

Day 2 Topo

This map focuses on the section from Ensign Cowell to Dahlgren's Backpackers Campground.

Section Length:  12.21 miles (13.8 by trail guide)
Elevation Gain: +1667 ' / - 2107
Highest Peak: 1876 '

Water:
  Ensign Cowell - Good spring / stream near shelter
  Annapolis Rock - Good spring within campground area
  Dahlgren's - Good water from sinks

A larger version of the topographic map is available as well as a terrain profile.

Large Version (251k)
Profile (64k)

 

Day 3 Topo

This map focuses on the section of Dahlgren's to Ed Garvey Memorial shelter.

Section Length:  10.27 miles (10.9 by trail guide)
Elevation Gain: +1402 ' / - 1197
Highest Peak: 1722 '

Water:
  Dahlgren's - Good water from sinks
  Gathland State Park - Good water from pump / Soda/juice/water vending
  Ed Garvey - Tough steep hike down to good spring. 
 

A larger version of the topographic map is available as well as a terrain profile.

Large Version (251k)
Profile (64k)

 

Day 4 Topo

This map details the section from Ed Garvey into Harper's Ferry.

Section Length:  5.61 miles (6.3 by trail guide)
Elevation Gain: +422 ' / - 1307
Highest Peak: 1255 '

Water:
  Ed Garvey - Tough steep hike down to good spring. 
  Harper's Ferry - Town
  Note:  Do not drink water from Potomac

A larger version of the topographic map is available as well as a terrain profile.

Large Version (251k)
Profile (64k)

 

 

 

Journal:

Day 1: PenMar to Ensign Cowell Shelter

We headed up to PenMar Thursday morning to begin our journey across the state of Maryland on the Appalachian trail. Joining us to see us off were Caroline and the kids. Caroline dropped us off on PenMar Park Road where we took a few pictures and then began the short walk to the Mason Dixon line which would mark the beginning of the MD section. Owen and Rhiannon joined us for this and continued with us to PenMar park where we once again met up with Caroline and Aidan and said our final good-byes.  (Note:  We filled up on water at PenMar ... it was absolutely dreadful!  Both Stefan and I had upset stomachs after drinking this water!)

I had been feeling a bit under the weather the prior two days, but the excitement of the trip seemed to have taken care of that. And so it was with heavy packs but eager steps that we set forth and .... immediately got lost. After leaving PenMar park the trail follows a short section of old rail bed or fire road, roughly running parallel to the B&O railroad. At some point we must have missed a blaze (mistake 1) where the trail diverged from the road because after a short while of hiking we realized we hadn't seen any blazed for a while. But we pressed on , figuring maybe they just didn't place them as frequently as we were expecting. We were wrong. Eventually we came upon a house where we stopped to ask if the owner was familiar with the trail location. Fortunately he knew just how to direct us back up a small trail on the west side of his property and we were back on track.

Climbing Quirauk Mountain that first day was really tough for me! Stefan's legs were much stronger and I was envious as I watched him push on up the mountain with little need for a break. I on the other hand thought I would die! My legs were losing steam, I was cramping up in my back, and I could barely breath. I began wondering why in the hell I was out here in the woods with 30 fucking pounds on my back! Was I insane? And I thought I wanted to do a thruhike? There was no way in hell I was going to make it just a measly 40 miles in 4 days!

Relief finally came when we reached Devil's Racecourse shelter. We rested for a while, explored the talus (not sure this is talus, per se, as there were no cliffs, but it otherwise would be comparable) and had some lunch. The rocks were awesome! I found a nicely shaped rock that made for a perfect chair through which the sounds of the stream running beneath the rocks reverberated in a soothing, peaceful, ode to meditative rejuvenation.

Onward we trudged, up the steepest incline on the MD section, across rock strewn trails (yes this is the trail), eventually reaching our destination for the night, Ensign Cowell shelter. This was an incredible sight after seeing Devil's Racecourse (DR). DR was an old 1930's-1940's era shelter that apparently attracts a lot of party goers. There was trash everywhere ... the shelter was basically a dump. But Ensign Cowell was quite nice indeed. We ran into two other hikers there, Bo and Mark. Mark was from Columbia, MD and Bo was from Georgia. They were traveling together and coincidentally following the same itinerary we had planned. They were good company and we would see them frequently for the remainder of the trip. My muscles were screaming and the dogs were barking but despite the weariness that first night would be a restless one.

Day 2:  Ensign Cowell Shelter to Dahlgren's Backpacker Campground

The morning greeted us with sore legs and tight joints.   But not unbearable.  We were looking forward to a relatively short day, headed for Pine Knob shelter.  We began with some reservations because the shelter was awfully near to I-70 and so we began thinking of alternatives.  Unfortunately, there weren't too many.  The next legal spot beyond Pine Knob was Dahlgren's, a campground just for backpackers.   However, this was another 5 miles or so beyond Pine Knob.  To push for it would turn our shortest day into our longest.

The day was shaping up to be a pretty easy day as it turned out.  A short climb early on but otherwise pretty level walking.   And so it was, despite some indications of some rain that when we reached Pogo campsite that we more or less had decided to try to push for Dahlgren's.  First we need to break for lunch though.   So we left Pogo after a very short rest and headed for Annapolis Rocks.   We stopped at Black Rock along the way ... beautiful views ... and eventually reached Annapolis Rocks with plenty of time still left in the day (but those clouds were starting to look ominous!).  

Here we met Amy, a very nice ridgerunner assigned as caretaker for the area.   Previous years of overuse and abuse my ignorant hikers has left AR in need of some tender loving care.   And so it is that Amy finds herself camping 10 out of every 14 days here as she looks after the place.  We shared a delightful lunch with Amy and her trail dog, filled our water bottles from a nice little spring and otherwise had a nice a long lunch ... this might have proved a mistake.

As we headed down towards I-70 I spooked (or so I thought) a good sized white-tailed buck.  He rather startled me as he dashed along the trail and then out of sight.  Not 20 steps later did I realize why he was actually spooked ... amidst the bush, right along side the trail was a hunter with his gun engaged.  He was clearly searching for the deer and upon hearing my footsteps he quickly spun around on me and I found myself looking straight down his overcompensating barrel!   He swayed back and forth so as to get a better view of me (thank goodness) and as I waved frantically and yelled "hiker" he withdrew his gun.  I was steaming with rage but I didn't want to mess with a guy and his gun so I just walked past.

By this time a slight drizzle had started.  Donning my rain jacket (by not my pants ... another big mistake) we trudged on.  By the time we passed over I-70 the rain was coming down good and I was beginning to realize that my legs were getting pretty wet.  On went my leggings (but still not my rain pants ... duh!) and on we went.  As we pushed up towards Washington Monument it had become very wet, very dark, and very cold.  We were clearly pushing our limits by this point ... but we had little choice but to push on to Dahlgren's.  We had passed the point of no return. 

Reaching Dahlgren's was no small feat.  For two guys without a lot of miles on our hoofs we were pretty proud of ourselves for making it.  It was really tough and when we finally arrived we were dead tired.   Which wouldn't have been too bad in and of itself ... but it was raining and some ecology corp was camped out and so there were over 30 tents filled with loud youngsters.  We set up the tent in the dark rain, realizing I wasn't terribly sure how to attach the fly, and then we climbed in.  We just lay there for a moment, promising ourselves that we would soon make dinner, get showers (one of the great benefits of this site!), and maybe even make a wet little fire.    Then Stefan broke out the Clif bars and as we lay there eating these scrumptious morsels of life we soon realized that there would be not shower tonight ... not even dinner tonight ... no, this tired pair was going to sleep!

Day 3:  Dahlgren's to Ed Garvey Memorial shelter

It's interesting to note that as we were falling asleep we heard the eco-corp leader yelling at the kids to be quiet  ... he was informing them that there were hikers who had hiked all day and were probably tired and trying to sleep.   Though he and the other adults yelling at the kids made far more noise than the kids themselves, I appreciated the sentiment.  However, at about 5:00am this jackass was again noisily barking instructions at the kids to wake up and start making breakfast.  It was evident that he was far more into having those kids mold to his schedule than he was into the consideration of the fellow hiker.

So along with the kids, we reluctantly came around and began our preparations for the day.  This began with a nice hot shower!   It felt so good to have that warm water soothe those aching bones.   I felt a little sorry for the poor soul who decided to pitch his tent right next to the bath house ... but not sorry enough to cut my shower short.   I enjoyed every minute.  I laughed at the mosquitoes trying to stealthily seek out my blood ... they could have it ... just as long as I could stay here under the warm flow of water.   The growl coming from the bottom of my empty stomach finally forced me back to the tent, where I enjoyed a nice little breakfast before packing up for the morning hike.

And what a morning it was.  The hike out was truly magical.   The air was cool and crisp and we were as enveloped in the smells of fall as we were the comforting thickness of the morning fog.   Words and pictures cannot begin to describe this.  It was during these moments that we understood why we were here.  Being connected with the immense beauty of something so simple ... an early morning, misty walk, during which Mother Nature had shared with us her breathtaking splendor.  There is certainly a beauty in the many works of man, but none of these things, from the exquisite faces of Botticelli to the graceful lines of Golden Gate Bridge, can compare to the unparalleled vision of a perfectly red leaf fluttering down through a perfect cool mist that teases your nose like peppermint candy, flanked on either side by the sinuous stretching of branches, arching over the trail as they struggle to break through the fog and reach the warmth of the sun ... and the only reminder of your purpose for being is the occasional white blaze guiding your way. 

The morning went a little slow.  The previous day had taken its toll and the trail was quite rocky.   But we still made good time in reaching Crampton Gap Shelter.  Here we met the shelter overseer and had a really good time talking with him as we just relaxed at this 1930's - 1940's era shelter that has been so well taken care of.  We took our time enjoying this shelter and stretching out on the nice deck.  When it was time to press on we took a nice little fire road down to Gathland state park were we met back up with the AT.   And what to our wondrous eyes did appear?  Alas, a vending machine with sodas was near!   It had actually been since January of this year, nearly 9 months, since I had allowed myself a soda.   But I felt like I deserved to splurge and what a sensation.  A flavor explosion soared across my tongue.  It honestly took a little getting used to all of the carbonation and the syrupy sweetness, but boy was it good nonetheless.  I still haven't had another soda since and not sure when I will indulge again, but it was nice while it lasted.

It was also nice reaching Ed Garvey shelter with still plenty of daylight left.   After lunch the trail was feeling just right.  No longer was it a chore to work the rocks and climb the hills.  Everything was falling into place and I will feel great the remainder of the trip.  Ed Garvey is another very fine shelter ... this one with a great southern view which allows the sun to gently nudge you from your slumber in the morning.   Here at the shelter we met quite a few other hikers.  Bo and Mark were there (as they had been at each of our previous night stops)  along with quite a few others.    When I arrived a thru-hiker was just signing the logbook.  This guy, Sundog, had flown by me earlier on the trail (while I was moving along at a good clip I might add) ... he was putting in a 30 mile day, having started at Ensign Cowell to finish his thruhike in Harpers Ferry (he had done a flip-flop).   He looked surprisingly good for just having hiked over 2000 miles. 

Day 4:  Ed Garvey to Harper's Ferry

The final day!  I woke up feeling great, ready to hike, ready to see the family, and somewhat not so ready for the hike to be over.  I sat and watched the sun gently rise, displaying those lovely fall colors of red and orange that slowly warmed my face.  Eventually everyone else began to wake and so we made breakfast and then headed on to Weverton. 

The views from Weverton cliffs are magnificent.  The PATC Trail Guide for Maryland and Northern Virginia suggests that Black Rocks offers the best view of the Maryland section.  I disagree.   It's Weverton.  The eastward view is good, but the westward view is truly spectacular.  You can see the notch in which Harper's Ferry is nestled and looking closely you can see the steeple of the Episcopal Church that sits in the hears of the small town.

As we descended from the cliffs I was grateful to be going down.  The trail is steep and rocky though many switchbacks eases the burden.  It takes a while to descend and the real impact of this trail can be felt ... unfortunately for Stefan it was felt a little too much as he came down with his knees feeling quite poor.

Luckily the remainder of the trail to Harper's Ferry is along the very gentle C&O canal towpath.  There are many nice views of the Potomac along the towpath and the hike goes by quickly.   Eventually Harper's Ferry is in sight and the end has come.  Across the Potomac on the footbridge and we step into West Virginia, thus completing our journey.    It has been an adventure, a nice adventure.  It has been a time to spend with a good friend, a time to enjoy the outdoors, and a time to reflect on how we fit into our roles with nature.  It has been fun and I can't wait until our next great trip on the Appalachian Trail.