Day One: Swatara Gap to PA 501.
Early Saturday morning Tod and I left home for the two and a half hour trip to Swatara Gap. The route is very familiar to us now. We know Route 15 like the back of our hand.
We arrived and dropped our second car off at 501 and arrived at Swatara Gap by 9:15 am. The good news? One parking spot left! The bad news? Hunters had gutted a deer and left the carcus right at the front of this spot. The stench was horrible! We tried to get our gear ready and be on the trail in 30 seconds — without breathing. It had to be a record!
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy website states “The A.T. passes through game lands managed for hunting, so fall is not the best time to go.”
Did we let the fact that hunters might confuse us for a deer bother us? Of course not! Off we went into the woods. In the two weeks since we were here, the leaves have really turned in color. The crisp fall day was perfect for a hike. As usual, we ascended onto a ridge, this time onto Blue Mountain. The ridge was very narrow and we were able to look down on both sides of the mountain. Very cool!
What wasn’t so cool was the rocky path before us. It is hard to follow white blazes when you have to constantly look down to watch your feet. At one point I marched us right off the trail. Thankfully, Tod was able to figure out how to get us back on track.
Eventually, the narrow ridge widens. The noise of the highway traffic ebbs, and the serenity
of the woods rules. We arrived at William Penn Shelter. It is a really amazing structure with a neat loft that is perfect for a stormy night. Tod turned on our stove to make “coffee” and I soon learned he had a surprise for me. Pumpkin spiced latte! Really?!?! How awesome!
As new hikers arrived they all marveled at the incredible smell of our drink. “Butter” and his son and others were there to stay the night but we pressed on. Oh, the joy! From here, the trail was REALLY easy. About a mile before 501 is a really nice camping spot with nice views. From there, it becomes rocky again. We encountered several families out for the day to take in the incredible views. 501 has quite a bit of parking but it fills up quickly and the place was quite busy when we arrived at our destination.
Day Two: PA 501 to PA 183.
Sunday morning, after a pleasant evening in our comfortable motel room, Karen and I set out to drop off our destination car at the Game Lands Commission gravel parking lot near the ridge on PA 183. Here, we found lots of room for parking. Then, we headed toward our starting point on PA 501, a gravel lot just off the road.
This autumn day was beautiful, the sky was deep blue, and the morning air was crisp. We were about a mile and a half into our hike when we met a southbound couple. They introduced themselves to us as “Chief” (a retired chief of police) and “Toad,” and told us that, at PA 501, they would be completing their flip-flop, thru hike of six months. I hardly knew what to say, other than “Congratulations!” How does one rightly acknowledge and participate in such a momentous occasion? Anyway, they seemed like a very nice couple, and we wish them many more happy trails.
According to the KTA map, we would reach the ominous sounding “Boulder Field” just before the Hartlein campsite. Karen and I tried to psychologically prepare ourselves for this challenge. Already the trail was extremely rocky, and before long it demanded carefully stepping from one huge rock to another. Our ankles certainly were getting a workout. What in the world, we wondered, would “Boulder Field” be like? Well, eventually the trail began to become more manageable, and then we suddenly found ourselves at the Hartlein campsite, where a sign notified us that we were leaving “Boulder Field.” It was only then that we realized that we had already put the notorious section behind us. Contrary to the map, “Boulder Field” is not just south of the campsite, but is about halfway between the campsite and PA 501.
We rested at the Hartlein campsite, on a log before a fire pit, under the shade of tall trees, with a bubbling brook to our right and a meandering creek to our left. Here we had our lunch and coffee break, during which we had the good fortune to meet “El Sol,” a hiker from New Jersey not far into his journey to reach family in Georgia. “El Sol” had pledged himself to bring warmth and light to everyone he encounters on his way, and so we were pleased to make his acquaintance.
The Hartlein campsite was both the high point and the turning point on our day’s journey. Before it, one could hardly find a few inches of flat earth to rest one’s foot upon, so covered it was with rocks. After it, it wasn’t unusual to find small stretches upon which one could take a half dozen consecutive steps on flat earth. In other words, the journey to our destination became much easier north of the campsite.
Karen and I felt that we had reached our destination when we came upon PA 183, but we still had another half mile to go, since we were headed toward the gravel road that would connect us to the Game Lands Commission parking lot. The extra half mile was worth the security of having our car further off the road.