Like a moth to the flame…my cabin fever gets so bad each April that I schedule Appalachian Trail section hikes for this time of year. Unfortunately, some unexpected family and domestic issues forced me to cut my trip short and return to New England after just a few days on the trail. Unplanned, but my family needed me to be closer to home. I did finish the first 40 mile section of trail I wanted to hike on this trip to Pennsylvania from Rt 30 to Boiling Springs, but I’m going to have to head back down to hike the 130 mile section I’d hoped to finish, at a later date.
On this trip, I drove my car down south to Pennsylvania instead of taking the train or a bus, because I hoped it would give me more flexibility and make resupply easier. That the added flexibility comes with a cost, since finding safe parking in rural areas is such a hassle. While driving yourself is easier for getting to the trail than taking a plane or train, it’s not a home run.
This trip started with a 6.5 hour drive from Boston to Boiling Springs, PA. The plan was to park at the Regional HQ of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) in Boiling Springs and grab a southbound shuttle to where I’d left off in 2016, on Rt 30, outside of Fayetteville, PA. This was a short 40 mile section, but I figured it’d be a good warm-up for the second 130 mile section I hoped to complete. Pennsylvania is a nice state to hike the AT in, but I really do want to be finished with it so I can hike father south.
I called the ATC and arranged to park in the Boiling Springs municipal lot, which they issue permits for and is adjacent to the town pond. The local police patrol it and I was told it was a safe spot to leave a car for a few days. All good. I planned to arrive in the early afternoon, meet a shuttle that would take me to Rt 30, and hike into a shelter a few miles up the trail.
I called the shuttle guy from the road and he wasn’t available, so I changed my plan. I’d park in Boiling Springs and head south instead of north and grab a shuttle back to my car. Not ideal, but I wanted to get on the trail.
I got to Boiling Springs, but the town pond and the adjacent the municipal lot were mobbed by four-year olds and their parents. It was the first day of trout season and they were all fishing the stocked pond. There were no parking spaces available for miles and I didn’t want to park illegally for a few days.
I decided to flip my section and drove down to Caledonia State Park, off RT 30. They let AT hikers park long-term for free (register at the office) so I left my car there. It wasn’t a super secure lot, just off RT 30 at the front of the park, but I hoped for the best. I really had no choice.
I got started hiking around 4:00 pm and hiked a few miles in to the Quarry Gap Shelters, a pair of small two-person shelters joined by a porch. Hung my hammock. Ate dinner and socialized with the hikers there. It was Easter eve.
Slept well. Windy but I used my hammock winter sock so stayed warm. As I lay there the next morning, I listened to the turkeys gobbling just before sunrise.
Dale, another section hiker I’d met at the shelter, and I left at the same time, headed north. He’d just started a section at Pen Mar, a few days south, and hoped to get to Maine. He’d hiked from Georgia to Damascus last year, starting Feb 1, before having to get off because of foot issues.
Dale is from Indiana, recently retired, and a few years my senior. He told me he’d taken a Greyhound from his home to Harrisburg and described it as an EXPERIENCE not to be repeated. Said it was the worst trip of his life, with crazy rude people on the bus, including the driver.
We took off together and hiked about the same pace for 7.6 miles to the Birch Run shelter in intermittent rain. Gorgeous shelter. Snow was forecast for that night, 4 to 6 inches, and he wanted the option of taking a zero there if trail conditions were bad the next day. I’ll hike in the rain, but I only had trail runners, and wasn’t up for hiking in wet slushy snow.
I decided to chance the next shelter, and continued to Tom’s Run, another 6.3 miles north. It was pouring rain by then, but I was in the trees, so somewhat protected from blowing rain. Tom’s Run was an old shelter, but there was a new picnic pavilion, and I thought about hanging my hammock underneath it for the night to avoid having to carry a wet tarp the next morning.
I sat down and checked the AT Guide and saw that the Pine Grove Furnace State park was just 3.1 miles farther on. I figured it would be good to get in shuttle range if the snow was deep and I wanted to take a zero day the next morning to avoid hiking in snow. The park has camping, so I could spend the night there and make up my mind the next morning if I wanted to shuttle out for a day. I know, I know. Thru-hikers would probably suck it up and hike thorough slush, but I’m just not as motivated. This was supposed to be a vacation, after all.
There’s also a hostel at the entrance to the park called the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel which looked like it would be even better than camping. I called them but they were booked solid for a wedding that night and weren’t taking guests. It was Easter Day. I hoofed it towards the state park, passing the old AT midpoint on the way, and arrived after a brief road walk. I passed the mansion, which is at the park entrance, and walked past the park store next door, which has the famous half-gallon challenge. The store was closed this early in the season, so I guess I’ll never get a chance to try eating that much ice cream in one sitting.
I kept walking to the AT Museum, which is just next door. It was open on that Sunday so I could sit down inside and figure out what I wanted to do. Options, options. Lots of options. I thought about calling a shuttle to see if I could get back to my car. I could then move it back to the campground here or find a room at a nearby motel and sleep dry if it snowed a lot.
I decided to call a shuttle to return to my car. But I didn’t have cell phone service, so I asked to use the phone at the museum. Then one of the staff offered to drive me back to my car for free. Guy named Angry Bird. Trail Magic!
Got back to my car. Searched around with Google maps. Found a cheap motel near Boiling Springs and drove there. Figured I’d spend the night off trail. If it snowed a lot, I could decide whether I wanted to take a zero the next day and wait until most of it melted so I wouldn’t have to hike in snow. I’ve been hiking in snow all winter, but then again, I’ve been wearing insulated waterproof boots to do it. Doing it in trail runner was unappealing.
Woke up at 4:00 am and the snow was coming down heavy. Woke up at 6:00 am and there was a good 4 inches of slushy snow on my car. I decided to wait it out and take a zero. Found a supermarket and bought some oven roasting bags for my feet in case I had to hike in snow further on. Did some laundry. Hung out and booked a shuttle for the next day from Boiling Springs to Pine Grove Furnace State Park so I could resume where I left off and hike back to my car as originally planned. I doubted the Boiling Springs municipal lot would be full the next morning because heavy rain was forecast all day.
The next morning, I got picked up at 8:00am for my shuttle from Boiling Springs to Pine Grove Furnace State Park. It was raining on the drive down there, so I had the shuttle driver drop me off at a building with a front awning so I could change into my rain gear. The trail was awash in cold water and there was still plenty of snow in the trees. Still it could have been worse. I was able to avoid most of the big puddles by using the rock hopping skills I’d developed to avoid mud on the Long Trail in 2008. My shoes didn’t exactly stay dry, but I avoided full submersion and they stayed reasonably warm.
The first few miles through the park were on gravel road and I made great time. It was raining heavily and cool out so I was wearing a base layer and fleece under my rain jacket and long pants under my rain pants. I also had on a pair of rain mittens I bought last year from REI and hadn’t had a chance to use on an extended hike in the rain. They wet out quickly, but still kept my hands warm. I wondered if I’d catch up with Dale or if he was still behind me. “I have to stop scheduling section hikes at the beginning of April”, I thought to myself.
The plan for the day was to hike about 15 miles, camp out, and finish the section on the following day. Despite the rain, I was hiking at a steady 2 mile per hour pace. It was 7 miles to the first shelter, and another 8 miles to the next. I blew by both without even hiking up the spur trails to look at them. I wasn’t that tired and I still had plenty of daylight, so I kept going. I hadn’t expected to finish the section that day, but it sure looked like I could. I haven’t done a 20 mile day in a while, but it sure was shaping up that way.
I hiked past another Appalachian Trail mid-point monument before descending to open farm fields just outside of Boiling Springs. The ground was really wet in those fields and I can’t say I enjoyed hiking through them. Give me woods and rain any day, instead of rain and flat farm fields.
And just like that, I sauntered up to my car and finished the section a lot earlier than expected. I guess my winter workout schedule has kept me in better shape than I thought, because I was able to put some pretty big days in without much difficulty.
Couple of lessons learned for next time:
- While driving your own car to the trail is convenient, it can be difficult to find safe parking for it. Somebody would really make a killing if they charged section hikers a daily rate for safe parking along the Appalachian Trail. It’d certainly be a great adjunct to a pre-existing shuttle business. The next time I go south I will park at the Mohican Outdoor Center for two weeks, which does provide long-term parking north of the Delaware Water Gap. Note: The Gap Visitor Center is closed at the beginning of April.
- Stop scheduling section hikes for the first week in April (anywhere.) The weather never cooperates. Late April would be better.
- Bring a bigger hammock tarp with more door coverage.
- Trying to read the AT Guide in PDF on a phone is a pain in the ass. Get the hard copy and carry the physical pages in a plastic bag instead.
- The Days Inn in Carlisle has a good hiker rate. Just $55/night. The Middlesex Diner next door is just kick ass!
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