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Section Hiking the Southern Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail

Another State Border: The Mason Dixon Line
Another State Border: The Mason Dixon Line

The first thing I did when I got to the Maryland – Pennsylvania border was to cross the Mason Dixon Line. The second thing was going to China King Buffet, an all-you-can east Chinese Food joint in Waynesboro proper. Feeling protein deprived after a week on the AT, I chowed down on several platefuls of Honey Chicken. Then I attacked their ice cream bar which has 10 barrels of flavors. Imagine a hiker buffet with all the ice cream you can eat! I left stuffed.

All You Can Eat - Waynesboro, PA
All You Can Eat – Waynesboro, PA

When I planned this section hike, I hadn’t planned on going into Waynesboro, PA proper, but to the Walmart, which is 2 miles from the trail on the outskirts of town. But I decided to pamper myself after a week on the trail and take a longer Nero with a stay at a local inn called the Burgundy Lane B&B. They offer free shuttles to and from the trail, shuttles to stores and restaurants in town, they do your laundry for you, plus cook you a big breakfast. It cost just under $100 bucks for the night, but it was worth it.

David and Margaret, the innkeepers, are great people and the inn is conveniently right in the middle of town.David knows the local trail system and road crossings quite well and can shuttle you wherever you want to go. The inn is also footsteps from The Waynesburger, a killer hamburger joint and site of my second lunch, a few hours later.

Burgundy Lane B&B - Waynesboro, PA
Burgundy Lane B&B – Waynesboro, PA

The next morning, David drove me to the trailhead, exactly where he’d picked me up the previous day, and I was on my way north by 8:00 am. I resumed my blistering pace, wondering the whole while why the call they Pennsylvania AT “the place where boots go to die.” The trail didn’t seem that hard to me.

The Deer Lick Shelters
The Deer Lick Shelters

I quickly passed the Deer Lick Shelters, the Antietam Shelter, and the Tumbling Run Shelters. Curiously, there are two separate lean-tos at the Deer Lick and Tumbling Run sites, something I’d see later in the day when I stayed at the Rocky Mountain Shelters. I guess they like to build a little redundancy into the shelter system in Pennsylvania.

It was still quite early when I arrived at the Tumbling Run Shelters, but I was very tempted to stop and spend the day there because it was so nice. The two shelters are brand new, there are fire pits distributed around the site, and good trees to hang hammocks. One of the shelters has a sign that says “Snoring” and the other says “Non-snoring”, and there are clothes lines complete with wooden clothespins behind each. But the most amusing thing there was the doorbell on the privy!

The Tumbling Run Shelters
The Tumbling Run Shelters

I kept going instead, eager to resume my 15 mile per day pace and make the most of the day. When I arrived at the Rocky Mountain Shelters at around 3:30 pm, I was the only person there. I fetched some water from the stream, which was predictably at the bottom of the hill, and found the best spot to pitch my hammock for the night. A few more hikers arrived near dusk, and I socialized before hitting the hay.

I was checking my email the next morning before dawn – my entire route up to this point had excellent cell phone access – and I saw that 55 mph winds were predicted for that evening. A major storm system was blowing in from Canada that was expected to plunge temperatures by 20 degrees for a week or more. Yikes!

Hammock tarps and high winds don’t go well together, but I was actually more concerned about blow downs and widow-makers, since the weather forecast was calling for damaging winds for the next several days. (I had no idea how significant and long-lived this storm system would be. It would force me off the trail a few days later.)

I decided to get off the trail for 1 or 2 nights and called up the local shuttle guy, Mike’s Shuttles, to drive me up to Carlisle, PA. This would mean skipping a few days of trail, but I still wanted to get to the Delaware Water Gap (my intended destination), and leap-frogging ahead was the only way I could finish the section within my allocated vacation window.

I’m not a purist and don’t feel the need to hike every single mile of the AT if circumstances prevent it. But the decision to skip ahead left me unsettled since I’ve never skipped any other sections of trail without returning to hike them. I think I’ll probably go back and hike them next time I head to PA. They say there’s good fishing in Boiling Springs.

High Wind Warning
High Wind Warning from the National Weather Service

Mike drove me to the the Days Inn, North in Carlisle (the hiker’s rate is just $55/night), which is just 0.5 miles from the trail, making it easy for me to get back on when I thought it was safe to continue. I got there about noon, and the only thing to do to kill the time was to eat and sleep.

Lucky for me, the Middlesex Diner was next door and it is a great place to eat. Fast and inexpensive. I had a big breakfast and then took a nap and returned a few hours later to eat an even larger salmon dinner and a giant ice cream sundae.The total bill including tip was under $20.

Middlesex Diner
Middlesex Diner

The forecast the next morning still called for high winds, but tapering down to safer 30 mph at night, which is still not that safe. Temperatures were expected to remain close to 20 degrees, which is the rating of my hammock underquilt, but I hoped to pitch my hammock in a shelter to get out of the wind.

I set off after my free motel buffet breakfast at 7:00 am and had to quickly layer up with my rain gear to fend off the wind. I entered the woods near the hotel and started getting hit by small pieces of dead wood that were breaking off the surrounding trees. But the worse was yet to come.

Leaving Carlisle, the AT runs through open corn fields without any wind cover
Leaving Carlisle, the AT runs through open corn fields without any wind protection

After days of walking in forest, I had to walk across several miles of open cornfields without any protection from the wind. It was blowing so hard, that I could barely stand. It was also damn cold with frost on the ground.

Bundled up against the wind - frost on the ground
Bundled up against the wind – frost on the ground

It was a relief when I got back into the woods and started climbing, but there were numerous blowdowns and broken branches along the trail. It had obviously been a wild night outside and I was glad I’d gone to town rather than brave the night in a hammock. That had been a good call.

As I hiked, I passed several Maryland Appalachian Trail Club Crews who were out surveying the damage. One group had a chainsaw with them to cut up blowdowns. I asked them why the Maryland Appalachian Trail Club was working in Pennsylvania. “We get asked that a lot,” was their reply. Apparently PATC (Potomac Appalachian Trail Club) had already claimed all the Maryland miles of the trail when the Maryland Club arrived on the scene, so they were given miles in Pennsylvania to maintain. Go figure.

Porcupine Notice
Porcupine Notice

The crew had just, that very morning, installed a new bear box at the Cove Mountain Shelter where I planned to stay that night and I met them later on, again at the shelter. It was cold but sunny when I arrived, around 3:30 pm, and I was indulged myself by eating Nutella from the jar with my spoon. Nutella is a great trail food packed with fat. I never get sick of eating it and it helps keep my fire stoked on cold nights.

A very cold lunch at Cove Mountain Shelter
A very cold lunch at Cove Mountain Shelter

The crew warned me to watch out for porcupines at Cove Mountain although I didn’t see any. I did receive another visitor that evening, a homeless guy named Tim, who arrived shortly before dark. He’s been living on the road for the past 3 years after going bankrupt and losing his house. Since then, he’s been “seeing the country” by walking along the sides of roads at night, eating out of dumpsters, and sleeping during the day.

Tim slept the entire night on one of the wooden bunk in the shelter inside a black plastic garbage bag without a sleeping pad or sleeping bag. It was really cold and I was shivering the next morning, even though I was all layered up in my down top quilt and underquilt. Sleeping out of the wind hadn’t made much of a difference, it seems.

God only knows how Tim managed to survive the night without any extra insulation except the clothes he was wearing on his back. He shivered as he had a smoke and ate something from a Pop Tart box.

Hanging inside the Cove Mountain Shelter, trying to get out of the wind
Hanging inside the Cove Mountain Shelter, trying to get out of the wind

The Cove Mountain Shelter is about 3 miles south of Duncannon, PA, home of the infamous hotel and bar called The Doyle. I didn’t plan on staying at The Doyle, but I did plan on resupplying in town in order to get to Hamburg, PA, a 4-5 days walk to the north. I planned to hit Duncannon the next morning.

Tim took off before me, also headed to Duncannon, but I soon overtook him. It was raining lightly when I got off the ridge and entered the outskirts of town. I’d hope to resupply at a grocery store listed in the AT Guide called Mutzabaughs and started walking uphill on Rt 274 towards it. But there were no sidewalks on the road and passing cars came dangerously close to me on the wet pavement. (I later learned that Mutzabaughs will send an employee to fetch hikers if they call the store and ask for a lift). I soon turned around and resupplied at a nearby Sunoco market, even though they had a pretty crappy selection of food. I needed to get through town quickly to make it to Peters Mountain Shelter that night and couldn’t afford to get delayed too long.

I loaded up on snickers bars, trail mix, nuts, grabbed a loaf of wheat bread, a big bag of Chex, a couple of packs of gas station pound cake, a pack of Ramen noodles, and packs of Oreo cookies. Not great food, but it was enough to get me through a few more days of hiking.

Entering Scenic Duncannon, PA in the Rain
Entering Scenic Duncannon, PA in the Rain

The Appalachian Trail runs through the heart of Duncannon. The south part of town is pretty rough until you pass The Doyle, but the homes and apartments get more affluent on the north side. After walking through town, the trail crosses two rivers over highway bridges, before climbing back up to Peters Mountain overlooking the Susquehanna River. I was happy to get those highway bridges behind me and climb back up into the woods.

I soon passed Clarks Ferry Shelter, where I stopped to get out of the freezing rain and to resupply my water from its spring. This shelter is old and unappealing, so I kept heading north to the new Peters Mountain Shelter. I really wanted to try hanging inside a shelter again, outside of the wind, to stay warm.

The problem with the wind was that it sucked all of the heat out of my underquilt at night. I’d neglected to consider high winds over 20 mph as a factor when packing for this trip (since the leaves we’re on the trees), and I was paying for it. I really needed a underquilt protector or a full winter sock to keep the warm air in place. Instead, I’d assumed gradually warming temperatures in April which would have been consistent with the historical weather pattern. It never crossed my mind that a cold air mass from Canada would hover over Southern Pennsylvania and the entire Northeast for 3 weeks.

I had thought about bringing an insulated sleeping pad on this trip, but hadn’t in order to save on gear weight – a stupid light decision – which prevented me from sleeping on a shelter floor instead of a hammock at night. I couldn’t get an insulated sleeping pad because I was in the middle of rural Pennsylvania and didn’t want to burn a few days trying to get to an outfitter who could sell me one or wait for Amazon Prime to ship one to me at a motel. Unless the weather changed and the wind mellowed out, I knew I was running out of options and might have to quit my hike and come back some other time to finish the section.

A polar air mass descended on the east coast and was forecast to persist for several weeks
A polar air mass descended on the east coast and was forecast to persist for several weeks

There was a thru-hiker at the Peters Mountain Shelter when I arrived, who’d just started a flip flop in Harper’s Ferry. Her trail name was Ears and she’s from Australia. She was up in the shelter loft, hunkered down in her 5 degree sleeping bag, trying to stay warm when I popped into the shelter.

I set up my hammock on the first floor, more or less out of the wind, and set about cooking up some food. This shelter has a big front window, but it was covered with a heavy canvas tarp weighted down by a pipe, presumably put there by the shelter maintainer or a trail crew. That was good, because the wind was blowing briskly from the Susquehanna River Valley up onto the ridge and into the front of the shelter.

As we were cooking, a huge wall of fog rushed up the mountain side and shrouded the shelter and mountain top. It was very sudden and very startling, since the weather forecast for that evening had called for diminishing winds (down to 20 mph) after 5:00 pm. The wind never did die down though.

Once again, I went to sleep warm at sunset, only to wake up at 3:30 freezing my ass off and shivering. This had to stop. I checked the weather forecast and the temperature had dropped below 10 degrees that night. There was no end in sight for this weather pattern and I decided to pull the plug and go home. I’d ceased having fun.

I called Mike up again at 5:30 am (he wakes up real early) and arranged for a shuttle to the train station. I took the train home and was back in Boston that night. Late that night.

Peters Mountai Shelter
Peters Mountain Shelter

Hiking the AT in early spring is always a crapshoot and it pained me that I had to withdraw after only 140 miles on this trip. Still, the benefit of being a Section Hiker is that you can come back to where you left off some other time.

Despite my difficulties with the wind and temperatures on this trip, I am still convinced that a hammock is the optimal shelter choice for hiking the Appalachian Trail, at least south of the Delaware Water Gap. Next time, I’ll probably arrive in Pennsylvania a little later in April when the leaves are out, instead of at the end of March when winter weather can linger. 1400 miles down. About 850 miles left to go.

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  1. Phillip , you should have stopped at the Doyle they have great food and some good beers !

  2. The Wifey won’t let me hike alone any more…she says she wants witnesses to any event that could happen to me either by natural causes or by nature……just make clearing up the estate easier lol..
    Good on you though.
    She watched “a walk in the woods” with me…I don’t think she understands.
    Question…..how many geo cache things do you run across? An on line local search brings up lots of them.

  3. Sorry to hear that the weather was so challenging! I’m looking forward to hiking that section of the trail, perhaps starting somewhere in Maryland, sometime soon :)

  4. You should have tried calling Dutch for one of his winter socks. Lancaster is not terribly far (by vehicle) from where you were. With the help of some hammockforum members, may have been able to get it to you within a day or so.

    • You’re absolutely right. I really wish I’d thought of that.

      • Steve McAllister

        I definitely recommend a hammock sock and I am especially fond of the Warbonnet sock because of it versatility, especially dealing with weather changes throughout the night.

        I have slept in conditions like what you describe, in the area you hiked with a 20 deg top and bottom quilt and never had a problem with the cold except for some minor bottom quilt adjustments, getting up to pee and breaking camp in the morning.

        A good sock adds at least 20 deg of warmth in windy, wet environments, when zipped almost closed. It can also be zipped open when the weather passes.

  5. Interesting article. Sounds like the weather played you a trick on some part of the trip.

  6. Hey, who is Mike. Does he offer shuttles in the Pa area?

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