In my late teens, when my body could subsist on little more than coffee and a few hours of sleep, I would often throw together a bag of gear and drive through the night seeking my weekend fix backpacking the Appalachian Trail. I had little money, second-rate equipment, and more energy than common sense.
But the allure of one day hiking all 2,190 miles of the fabled trail was far too great to resist. So I walked…a lot. Following white blazes through the rain and in the cold, up steep ascents and down muddy slopes, to stunning vistas and along rushing streams, I relished every moment. My very personhood was being shaped by the mile, oftentimes without me even realizing it.
But as the demands of life made it increasingly more difficult to pick up and go, I began to temper my expectations of ever completing the journey from Georgia to Maine. High school gave way to college, and college led to a full-time job. But unlike my availability, the compulsion to get on the trail never subsided. I would catch myself staring through the car window bemoaning my elevation-challenged home state of Indiana while carefully devising excuses to trade my responsibilities for hiking boots. Because that’s being a conscientious adult, right? Then as luck (or love) would have it, I married a woman who would rescue me from the corn- filled doldrums of the Midwest. A native of Frederick County, my wife had a pretty easy sell on her hands. Better job opportunities, restaurants open past 9:00 p.m. and nearby access to the Appalachian Trail—where do I sign up?
As a resident of Frederick County, Maryland for almost ten years, I have plodded along Maryland’s forty-one mile share of the Appalachian Trail more times than I can count. That’s right: we lay claim to a mere forty-one miles of the historic 2,190-mile long trail. But its brevity by no means diminishes its grandeur. Stretching the ridge of South Mountain from the Mason-Dixon Line down to the Potomac, the Maryland section affords travelers an abundance of stunning views, unique history, and noteworthy points of interest. Read on for some tips on how to maximize your Maryland Appalachian Trail experience:
Planning the Trip
Of course you want to select the best routes and see the most fascinating sights along the AT, but the abundance of internet resources on these topics can be overwhelming. A great place to start is the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which is the organization charged with the care and preservation of the trail. You can visit their website for helpful planning information or visit the friendly staff at their headquarters (also on the AT) in nearby Harpers Ferry, WV.
Accessing the Trail
One of the most notable features of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland is its accessibility. Trail heads with parking along US 40, Alternate 40, and US 340 (to name a few) allow access with relative ease from anywhere in the greater Frederick County area. The trail also passes through three different Maryland State Parks: Greenbrier State Park, Washington Monument State Park, and Gathland State Park. These all serve as great starting points for an AT day hike.
Whenever I am asked to give a recommendation on the best Maryland AT views, my reply is always, “Are you a morning person?” For my fellow morning people, you can catch gorgeous sunrises from Weverton Cliffs off U.S. 340 or from Jefferson Rock in Harpers Ferry. Both offer a hard-to-beat view as the first light of day catches the Potomac River. For those who prefer to sleep in, take the roughly two and a half mile stretch of trail from US 40 to Annapolis Rock for a stunning sunset that will make you question all of your evening Netflix binges. Of course, the entire forty-one mile stretch of trail is beautiful with its old-growth forests and groves of dense ferns, but from mid-September to mid-October, you will see some of the most picturesque foliage in the entire Mid-Atlantic region.
Do you want to stand at Jefferson Rock where the site’s namesake, Thomas Jefferson, gushed about the scenic Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers? Did you know Marylanders built the first completed Washington Monument to the memory of George Washington almost sixty years before those copycats in D.C.? Ever tour the charming town of Harpers Ferry with its wealth of Civil War stories? If you geek out over history, you will be happy to know these and many more historical sites are accessible via the Appalachian Trail. Go for a walk with the family and learn something while you’re at it.
By Appalachian Trail standards, the Maryland section is arguably the easiest of the fourteen states, which means people with varying physical abilities can more readily enjoy this section. But don’t let the minor elevation gains fool you. There are periodically some challenging climbs, so wear the right shoes, bring enough water, and rest when needed. Hey, it’s not a race!
So, what’s the appeal of the Appalachian Trail? The answer likely rests somewhere within each person’s motivation for taking that first step on the iconic pathway. On the summit of Springer Mountain, the southernmost terminus of the Appalachian Trail, there is an unassuming plaque affixed at the peak. The inscription reads,“ A footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness.” To you, the reader and prospective AT hiker, I encourage you to adapt this philosophy in a way which resonates with you. It can be “a footpath for those who seek…” solitude, community, healing, adventure, growth, and so much more. Every mile of this venerated trail has something to offer. Forty-one of those miles are waiting in your own backyard.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 print issue of Sass Magazine.