Appalachian National Scenic Trail: Hikers chasing spring

Local communities grow more comfortable with having the Appalachian Trail as a neighbor.

On a late April morning under a robin’s egg blue sky, Matthew and Amy McGroarty had just finished filling water bottles at the outdoor spigot behind the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s mid-Atlantic Regional Office in this quaint-as-it-gets hamlet locals know as “Bubbletown.”

The 27-year-old Las Vegas residents, three weeks married, were embarked on an end-to-end hike of the Appalachian Trail, a rigorous quest about as far away from the Bellagio’s dancing fountains as they could get.

“We’d been joking about hiking the AT for a while. When we decided to get married, Amy planned the wedding and I planned this,” Matt said, as they pulled on big, thru-hiker sized backpacks and buckled up, back in harness.

The McGroartys were “flip-flopping” the AT, an increasingly popular strategy for hikers who start near the trail’s mid-point, hike north to the trail’s terminus on Mount Katahdin in Maine, then return to their original starting point and hike to the southern end on Springer Mountain in Georgia. The flip-flop puts them ahead of the tidal wave of hikers who start north from Springer in March and early April, and allows them to avoid overflowing shelters, campsites and hostels, expected to be even more crowded in this, the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary year.

The newlyweds started their hike in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., just about 100 miles to the south of here, and were already carrying two “trail names” each.

Matt goes by “UberScout,” bestowed by campmates after he built a fire with wet wood, and Amy is called “Lost Giggles.” They’re also known as “Ralph” and “Alice,“ to other trail hikers, presumably older ones, who can decode the semi-obscure 1950s pop culture reference to the seminal working-class sitcom, “The Honeymooners.”

“The hike, this whole experience, it’s been great for us so far,” said Matt. “As we’ve been hiking north we’ve been chasing spring.”

Mr. McGroarty’s words unknowingly echoed the title of the classic trail book, “Walking With Spring,” the first-person account of the first thru-hike of the AT, a 124-day amble from Georgia to Maine in 1948 by Earl Shaffer — trail name “Crazy One.”

Appalachian Trail National Scenic Trail

The 2,190-mile trail from Georgia to Maine enters the state in Franklin County at Penn-Mar, which straddles the Pennsylvania-Maryland border and travels on ridges and through gaps and valleys for almost 230 miles before exiting into New Jersey at the Delaware Water Gap in Monroe County.

Official Website

  • Visitor information: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is the best source for information, at 799 Washington St., P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425-0807; 1-304-535-6331; Fax: 1-304-535-2667;
  • To get there: The general location of the AT and proximity to major roads can be found here. The AT in Pennsylvania is open year-round.
  • Admission fees: There are no NPS fees for hiking or visiting the AT, although some state parks and forests on the route of the trail charge overnight camping fees.
  • Special tips: If out for a day or longer, wear comfortable, sturdy, shoes. Carry plenty of water.
  • Accessibility: The AT has limited accessibility for those in wheelchairs or have mobility issues. The exception is the flat, quarter-mile, crushed-limestone trail along Children’s Lake in Boiling Springs, and a shorter boardwalk section south of Carlisle and the Scott Farm Appalachian Trail Work Center, both in Cumberland County.
  • If you go: Hiking on the AT is easier in the southern part of the state, especially around Boiling Springs. North of Harrisburg, the trail earns it’s hikers’ nickname: “Rocksylvania.”
  • Fun fact: The AT’s mid-point is just west of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, in Cumberland County, and end-to-end hikers celebrate that milestone at the park’s general store by eating a half-gallon of ice cream as initiation into the “Half-gallon Club.”
  • Where to eat: Long-distance hikers are always ravenous and relatively indiscriminate (how else to explain the popularity of Strawberry Frosted Pop-Tarts). But if you’re just out for a day hike south of Harrisburg and Carlisle, a good bet for much better than average hiker fare is the Boiling Springs Tavern, 1 E. First St., Boiling Springs, PA, 17007, phone: 1-717-258-3614, or Cafe 101, across the street from the tavern and Children’s Lake, at 101 Front St., phone: 1-717-254-6121.

In 1962, the York County native walked north to south, Katahdin to Springer, in 99 days, becoming the first person to do the hike in both directions, and, like the McGroartys, earning him a second trail name, “Crazy Two.” On the 50th anniversary of his original hike in 1998, Mr. Shaffer completed another northbound hike, 174 days long, at age 79.

He died in 2002, and the McGroartys have been walking, literally, in his footsteps.

Like one of its end-to-end hikers, the Appalachian Trail has come a long way since 1921 when architect and conservationist Benton MacKaye first noodled the idea to blaze a hiking trail from Georgia to Maine along the rocky spine of America’s Eastern mountain range.

His vision was to create a footpath that would serve as the backbone of a recreational trail network and provide urban residents rural refuge from the pressures of a modern, mechanized society and opportunities for rejuvenation.

The first trail mile was cut and marked with the AT’s signature white blazes in New York in 1922, and 15 years later, the trail blazing was finished. In 1968 the National Trails System Act designated the AT a National Scenic Trail and brought it under the wing of the National Park Service, which has sought to protect the trail in perpetuity by acquiring land and easements, which has sometimes required its rerouting. Today the trail stretches 2,190 miles through 14 Eastern states from northern Georgia into Maine, almost entirely on federal- and state-owned land and easements through private property.

“It’s like a 2,200-mile-long national park site,” said Matthew Graves, the park service’s AT program manager for interpretation, education and outreach. He said the NPS cooperatively manages the trail with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a federation of 31 trail clubs, 11 of those maintaining the trail’s 229 miles in Pennsylvania.

While the AT in Pennsylvania goes through multiple state parks, forests and game lands, acquisition of private property and easements for the trail was often a contentious process. That was particularly true around Boiling Springs, where Cumberland Valley farmers were worried that efforts to reroute the AT off roadways and through fields would chop up family farms and hurt property values, said Karen Lutz, the conservancy’s longtime Mid-Atlantic region director.

But the ATC worked with area granges and negotiated with more than 80 property owners between 1984 and 1993 to address those fears and acquire a more pastoral corridor through the valley.

“Agriculture is the historical character of the Cumberland Valley, and we did our best to maintain that cultural landscape in rerouting the trail,” said Ms. Lutz, who thru-hiked in 1978. “We also had some very forward thinking folks who recognized the value of green space tourism. Those who thought property values would go down have seen the exact opposite happen. I’ve seen the community’s views on the trail turn a corner.”

Building on that local acceptance is the ATC’s AT Community Program, which helps towns that promote and protect the trail establish hiker services and sustainable tourism and stage trail-related festivals and activities. Thirty-five towns have signed up for the program along the length of the trail. Boiling Springs, which is also on the National Register of Historic Places, was the first town in Pennsylvania to join the program. Others in the state are Waynesboro, Franklin County; Duncannon, Perry County; Wind Gap, Northampton County; and Delaware Water Gap, Monroe County.

“It’s been way more successful than I thought it would be,” Ms. Lutz said. “The point is to connect with the business community and promote the idea that not only are there a lot more thru-hikers now, but also a lot more section hikers and day hikers, and those guys like amenities,” she said. “They like restaurants and lodging and shopping, and they are changing the notion that all hikers are cheap.”

Public attitudes toward the trail and those who hike it may be maturing, but there’s still, based on the hiker numbers, a big need to feel boots on the ground. The trail is still the thing that draws people, as Mr. MacKaye envisioned, to get away and seek respite from society’s responsibilities and pressures, and solace in its nature and space.

It’s still the place to come to slow things down to a walk, to consider the small things in big time and give big things attention on every little step.

One of the best and most diverse trail sections to do that in Pennsylvania is on the 10 miles of trail leading into Boiling Springs from the south, a roller-coaster route that rides the northern end of the Appalachians’ Blue Ridge, which the AT has been following since Georgia, and tops Center Point Knob, the original midpoint of the AT (which has migrated south due to trail reroutings and can now be found several miles south of Pine Grove Furnace State Park in the Michaux State Forest), before dropping into the Cumberland Valley and some wide open farm field hiking.

From the southern end, the trail crosses Route 94, a busy two-lane blacktop, before dipping into a young lowlands forest. A month ago, the new spring leaves were still wispy smudges of green, high in the tree crowns, and the trail was visible for a long distance ahead winding through the gray oak, ash and maple trunks and beginning its ascent up Rocky Ridge. Along the trail at uneven intervals, splintered outcroppings of 550 million-year-old quartzite glistened white, like small piles of shoveled snow left along an uneven sidewalk.

The ridge tops out at an elevation of 1,150 feet before beginning a slow descent, then climbing again to the inappropriately named Little Rocky Ridge, which at 1,210 feet is taller. In this section the trail passes, sometimes narrowly, through automobile and appliance- sized jumbles of lichen green sandstone.

About five miles in, a blue-blazed side trail to the right leads to one of the AT’s famous three-sided hiker shelters and a composting privy. Tom Spies and Mike Marchand, two thru-hikers who didn’t know each other before stepping on the trail several weeks ago, arrived to spend the night.

As they set up sleeping pads and bags and fired up cook stoves, introductions were made.

Mr. Spies, 57, is from Lee, Mass., a former chief financial officer who is between jobs. His trail name is “Sparky,” because he knows how to quickly start a fire, and he has a bit more than a passing resemblance to George Clooney. He first hiked sections of the AT near where he grew up, in New Jersey, with his father.

“I love the AT because of my father,” he said. “And I thought I would love living outside. But what I’ve learned over the last few weeks is I really miss the creature comforts, miss home, and don’t enjoy the hiking as much as I thought I would. But I’m sticking with it. This trail is an American icon.”

Mr. Marchand, who’s 53, is a machinist by trade and lives outside of Toronto, in Courtice, Ontario. He decided to hike the AT after quitting a stressful sales job that made him travel too much and allowed him to exercise too little.

“I needed a break, and I decided that if I waited too long to hike the AT I wouldn’t do it. So I took a chance and started hiking,” he said. “I recognize that I’m searching for something, but I don’t have a clue what it is.”

Just after dark, Brian Reed, 24, and Eric Viken, 23, thru-hikers from Atlanta, appeared around the corner of the shelter, claimed floor space and announced they’d just “knocked out a 32-mile day,” their second in a row. That’s a lot of walking miles.

“I’ve always wanted to hike the AT. My family raised me camping and hiking,” said Mr. Reed, known as “Patches” on the trail. “I guess I’m one of the few kids of my generation who loves the outdoors rather than technology.”

Mr. Viken, aka “Boomerang,” got a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech and worked on an organic farm in Indiana before jumping at a chance to hike the AT. “Some of my friends hiked the AT while I sat at a screen in graduate school, and they had so much fun I just had to come do this,” he said.

Mr. Marchand, who didn’t have a trail name, got his during the course of introductions. Mr. Spies, with a bit of a New England accent, introduced Mr. Marchand as “My Canadian friend,” which got garbled in translation by the Atlantans as “Macadamia Man.” Nutty, but in the laughter that ensued, it stuck.

Don Hopey:, 412-263-1983, or on Twitter @donhopey