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Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail through Maryland

The bridge from Harper's Ferry, WV to the C&O canal in Maryland
The bridge from Harper’s Ferry, WV to the C & O canal in Maryland

I left the TeaHorse Hostel at 8:00 am after eating their signature waffle breakfast and walked through the town, crossing the railroad bridge to get to the C & O Canal in Maryland. The Maryland section or the AT is only 40 miles long, and I was planning on resupplying again in Waynesboro, PA in a few days.

Once you cross the Potomac, the AT follows the C & O Canal Bike and Foot Path for several miles before climbing back up the Appalachian Ridgeline at Weverton Cliffs. It’s only about a 500 foot ascent and an easy climb. It’s also a popular area for day hiking and I saw a lot of families and small groups out for hikes. That was the original intent behind the founding Appalachian Trail, to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for people on a local and regional basis, and not as a long distance trail for thru-hiking. (see Benton Mackaye’s Appalachian Trail Proposal.)

The Edward Garvey Shelter
The Edward Garvey Shelter

I soon came to the Ed Garvey Shelter, a two-story shelter with a loft. I stopped briefly to check it out. The loft has a separate entrance around back, which is pretty unique.

The Rear Loft Entrance to the Edward Garvey Shelter
The Rear Loft Entrance to the Edward Garvey Shelter

Shortly after leaving, I came across two young, college-aged women who had spent the night in the loft. They were on their first backpacking trip ever and were having a great time. Who knew? Spring Break comes to the Appalachian Trail.

After talking to them for a while, I headed out, passing through Gathland State Park, where I got more water at a frost-free pump rear the park restrooms. The park is the site of several historic memorials, including an arch dedicated to War Correspondents, a reminder that the AT runs past many Civil War battlefields and notable places as it threads its way through Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Campsite at Rocky Run Shelter
Campsite at Rocky Run Shelter

I arrived at the Rocky Run Shelters by mid-afternoon and set up my hammock for the night. I was joined by two other section hikers at dusk, Rayland and May, whose trail names are Wait Up and Catch Up. From Florida. They’ve been hiking the AT for a few years and were out to do Harper’s Ferry to the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania.

There are two shelters at Rocky Run, a very old one, which has been largely abandoned, and a spanking new shelter which still has varnish on its floor.

The new Rocky Run Shelter
The new Rocky Run Shelter

Rayland and May stayed in the shelter because they had it to themselves and I slept in my hammock. It was quite windy that night and it got quite cold, but I was snug as a bug sandwiched between my down top quilt and underquilt.

Cold Morning at Rocky Run Shelter
Cold Morning at Rocky Run Shelter

It was still freezing the next morning however and I bundled up when I broke camp. The best way to get warm is to get walking.

My goal for the day was to get to the Ensign Cowall Shelter, just outside Waynesboro, PA so I could get to town early the next day, resupply, and get cleaned up at a hostel without having to spend two nights in town.

The walking was pretty easy again, past more historic parks including the (George) Washington Monument with a nice climb up to a viewpoint called Annapolis Rocks. I decided to check out the view there and get some water at a nearby spring, when I met Eric Prince and his family at the viewpoint. We had a nice conversation and after about 30 minutes, he realized that he knew me from my blog. It took a week on the trail, but I’d been recognized. I relish my anonymity on the trail, which is why I’m fairly secretive about when I take my section hikes, but it was nice to meet Eric in person since we’ve corresponded in the past. Small world.

Erik and Philip at Annapolis Rocks
Erik and Philip at Annapolis Rocks

Five miles further on, I arrived at the Ensign Cowall Shelter which turned out to be a real dump, sited near the road which an adjacent parking lot. The shelter had been taken over by a multi-generation family group and they weren’t very welcoming.

No worries. I rambled off and pitched my hammock out of earshot (and up wind from their fire) and settled in for the evening. I was thankful that I had the hammock, because the tent sites around this shelter were just plain awful. Hammocks aren’t perfect, but they really are a better camping shelter for this section of the AT than a tent. I’ve convinced of that.

The Maryland AT ends at the Mason Dixon Line at the border with Pennsylvania
The Maryland AT ends at the Mason Dixon Line on the border with Pennsylvania

Lying in my hammock that evening, I made plan for my resupply and Nero (near zero day) in Waynesboro, PA. One of the nice things about my hike so far, was the constant availability of cell phone access along the trail (since my phone is on the Verizon network.) Cell phone and internet access is a two-edged sword, no doubt, but it really makes hostel and shuttle reservations a lot easier to arrange from the trail.

I arranged to stay at a B&B in town that provided free shuttles to and from the trail and hiked into town the next morning to wash up and feed my hiking hunger.

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20 comments

  1. Thanks for the Information I just spent over an hour googling that section via Satellite and you answered my questions most notable that 500 foot cliff climb which does not show up on the Satellite photos…….. Latest trend down here is the GET which almost takes me back to my City of Birth… that is the Great Eastern Trail which ties in with the Pinhoti and the Ocala…..

  2. Every morning when I walk to my mailbox I can see Crampton’s Gap (Gathland) off in the distance. Hope you enjoyed your stroll through our state. Some people find it short and boring, but it’s one of the best maintained sections on the whole trail. Plus you get the Civil war Correspondents Arch, the original Washington Monument, Annapolis Rocks, and High Rock to break up the miles. BTW – that old shelter at Rocky Run was one of the first shelters I stayed at. It looks like a cave compare to the new one.

    • I really enjoyed hiking the Maryland AT for all the reasons you note. It’s very well maintained and the history along the trail is interesting to learn about. I also saw many many day hikers on the trail, which was really meaningful for me because demonstrated the influence that the AT has had on outdoor recreation. If you read Benton Mackaye’s original proposal for the AT, it was intended to provide a recreational outlet for workers and families away from city life. While all of Mackaye’s vision(s) were not achieved, the AT has achieved that one gloriously.

  3. When I lived in Northern Virginia, I would regularly frequent the Marlyand section of the AT. In my experience, it is a really pleasurable section of the AT. A lot of thru-hikers breeze through it, trying to do the 40 mile challenge, but they’re really missing out. The shelter areas are great and are well maintained.

    Gathland State Park to Washington Monument State Park is one of my favorite sections on the trail. I really enjoyed this write up. Thanks!

  4. One of many “how about that?” moments on the trail, Philip — did you see the sign marking the location of the old trolley line and Jim’s Popcorn Stand? Sure would have been happy to buy some ice cream there when I went by in April, but it looked like I was about a century too late.

    Another note. There have been two unnecessary deaths recently on this section of the AT. One backpacker was caught standing under a falling tree (aka “widowmaker”, and it did) at Ed Garvey Shelter, and one day hiker stepped backward off of Annapolis Rocks trying to get a photograph. Staying aware is essential, even in these relatively civilized parts.

  5. Just got done this section with my 12 year old son. We started at Pen Mar and finished in Harpers Ferry three days later. It was a fantastic trip and plenty challenging for a 12 year old boy. Great shelters, plenty of water sources and good views. I had the same experience with annoying campers at the Ensign Cowell shelter. People are using it as a “free” family campground and drinking alcohol and staying up partying.

  6. Thanks for the trip report. When did you do this section? I’m planning on doing it north to south this coming March, around the equinox, and was wondering if you had any thoughts on what the weather/trail conditions might be like then. I know, late March in Maryland…who knows?! Also, I was going to make it an easy 4-day trip, and not bring my hammock and tarp to cut down on weight, just using the shelters. Is the Ensign Cowall Shelter that bad? Mid-week in March probably be empty? Should I just skip it and do three days, with 18 miles the first day all the way to Pine Knob?

    Thanks again. I get so much great information from your site. It’s one of my most important resources for me as I prepare to thru hike the Long Trail summer 2018!

    Alex

    • Last March (2016). I’d put it off until April when you will have warmer weather. Can’t remember ensign Cowall, sorry. I’d be floored though if you met many people on the trail. I didn’t.

      • You specifically mentioned Ensign Cowall in this report as a place with an entire family taking the shelter over and not giving you friendly looks.

  7. Any way to easily hang the hammock in shelters? Any issues with rodents? I heard they can get pretty bad in some of the heavily used Maryland shelters. Fairly easy to get water even in below freezing temperatures? I’d like to do this over a long weekend, possibly in February to avoid the crowds and enjoy some winter camping.

    • Hanging in a shelter is considered rude to do if it has other people in it. You’ll have to check a weather forecast or weather history to answer your other questions. I doubt rodents will be a problem in Feb though.

  8. Hi I am planning of hiking the Maryland section in May. Can I park my car in Penn Mar for four days and get a shuttle back to my car? Planing a thru in 2020, just getting my feet wet here.

  9. I guess I’ll find my answer there. Sorry to have bothered you.

    • Don’t feel bad TC – I too find it very difficult to get information. There are so many books, and who knows which to get? So many of the guides look official, and are not. So many of them have little English – just elevations and GPS coordinates and symbols. I got one that supposedly has an”elevation profile” picture at every shelter description. Now, I know how to read a topo map, but I find these “elevation profiles” a complete mystery. Many so-called guides are so indecipherable to me it is really hard to get simple questions like “can I get a shuttle from here to there” answered.

      I was wondering the same thing as you, except not about the car. Apparently, according to this report, there is a shuttle from Waynesboro to the trail if you stay at an unnamed B and B which runs such a shuttle. And you can make the arrangements online if you know where to look. But no hints as to where to look, or links. And no info on PennMar, as that is not where the author ended.

      I want to know if there is a shuttle from Pen Mar to HF, and how to find out when it runs, so if I take the train to HF and go NOBO, can I get back to HF from PenMar via shuttle to take the train home again. Seems simple enough, eh? But such a simple question, even with Uncle Google, and several books, and reading multiple websites, and watching multiple youtube videos, seems almost impossible to get answered.

      So you are not alone in having difficulty finding into that is understandable. The reports on this site are usually very helpful, so it was perfectly reasonable for you to try and get the info here, IMHO. I am now going to look in the stack of guidebooks I have, and see if the “AT Guide” is one of them, which I think it is, at least a little version going from VA-PA, and if I have it, see if it says one thing in English about how to catch a shuttle from PenMar to HF, or if it is all symbols and GPS coordinates and elevation profiles as well. I hope you had a good hike.

  10. I just did the AT from Pen-Mar to Harpers Ferry with my son. Parked at the HF National Park and got a very nice shuttle to Pen-Mar.

    We camped at one of the tent sites next to Ensign Cowall and had to put up with a half-dozen 20-something idiots who arrived with their sleeping bags around dusk and partied loudly until 3:00 a.m.

    The Scouts at Dahlgren Campground on the second night were pleasant by comparison, knocking it off at lights-out. Completed the last 17 miles in one go on the third day, since it wasn’t worth overnighting at Ed Garvey in order to hike the last 6 miles to HF.

    Gearwise, we had no problems thanks to the great advice from Philip! Really appreciated all the bear-bag poles at the shelters/campsites. I laughed when the Scout troop hung their extra pizza (yes!) in its boxes by twine from the bear pole.

    • I am planning to do your trip in reverse (HF-PM). Did you hire a shuttle service or have someone you know do the driving? Can you share what your daily mileage was? Do you think two relatively in shape middle age guys can do it in three days? Did the scouts share pizza

  11. RE Rocky Run shelter

    I used this shelter when it was fairly new and just found out about its condition.
    My son and I first visited when he was 3 years old, c1965.
    It is still my favorite place on the trail in the Md., PA. area.
    I quit going there when I crossed path with a Baltimore City troop complete with huge boombox.
    That was very disappointing, but read on…..

    I hope to have my ashes scattered here in a few years.

    Retired to Florida and really missing the AT in Maryland.

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