Appalachian Trail: Fishers Gap to Lewis Mountain

Hello Shenandoah!

Now that it is early May, the foliage in Shenandoah National Park is finally starting to awaken. Birch and I were excited to get back on the trail. It has been ages since we’ve hiked in green foliage.5-7_1

The weather in the area has been wet and cold. When we arrived at Fishers Gap it was foggy and raining. Not exactly the type of weather one would choose for a 10 mile hike. Still, we donned our rain gear and started off. The birds sang to their heart’s content, clearly unfazed by a little dampness. This, and the stunning green all around me, lifted my spirits so that I hardly noticed the weather.

The first part of the hike is a pretty gentle uphill climb. We had fun meandering around Big Meadows Campground and even got to see our tent. (We often stay there while hiking in the park.) By the time we reached Milam Gap, the rain had stopped. We cross the road continued up to Hazeltop, which is at about 3,800 feet. Despite being at a high 5-7_9spot in the park, I can’t say that this is a hike with a lot of views. There are very few vistas. Instead, the real value is of this hike is taking in the beauty of the forest.

Wildflowers everywhere!

Wildflowers everywhere!

The trail in this section of the AT is remarkably smooth. It wasn’t until we got to Bearfence Mountain that things got rocky. We skipped the option of doing the rock scramble here (we’ve done that before!) and stuck to the AT. There are a series of switchbacks that takes one down the mountain before ascending once again to Lewis Mountain Campground.

Despite the weather, we completed this section feeling great. I’m so glad we didn’t let a few raindrops deter us!

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Appalachian Trail: PA Rt 309 to Lehigh River

Last year Tod and I ended our backpacking long before December. What a mistake! We are determined to stay in shape, be active, and complete the PA section of the AT. Even though the weather forecast predicted some chilly weather, we decided to do what seemed to be a pretty easy 13+ miles.

The parking lot at our starting point was full of pick up trucks. PA is still in the height of deer hunting season and we did not come prepared with our orange vests. We met a couple who was also planning to backpack overnight and we learned that they had more folks joining them. This sounded great. We would not be alone at the shelter! We took off while they waited for the rest of their party to arrive.

At first it was smooth and easy. I thought for sure we’d get into camp early. About two miles into the hike we came across our first boulder field. From here, it was rocky all the way. The highlight of the hike (if one can really call it that) was an unnerving section called “knife’s edge”. Up we went, to a pointed, jagged, mountain of rocks! This is not the best place for those who have vertigo or who need assurance of firm footing. At one point Tod said, “I can’t watch!” as I practiced my best balance beam approach to navigating the rocks.DSCN0209DSCN0211

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once at Bake Oven Knob Shelter (maintained by the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club)  we were surprised to see the couple who we had left in the parking lot. How did that happen? The group (wisely!) decided to start from another, closer, location. The family, headed by Kevin and Linda, included 3 adult couples as well as an adorable dog. What a fun group! They made an enormous fire and generously invited us to warm up.

Tod and I were well prepared. We had a very comfortable night and kept warm. When we awoke we were a little surprised to see everything (including our tent and backpacks) covered in frost! I have to admit, I was a bit proud of myself for weathering the elements so well.

My frosty pack!

My frosty pack!

We had hoped that the next day of our hike would be less rocky but it didn’t really turn out that way. We still encountered boulder fields. However, the views were stunning and well worth the effort. There are plenty of fantastic places to camp should you decide that the shelter isn’t for you.

We kept expecting to run into the PA Turnpike but we didn’t do so. It turns out that the turnpike runs underneath the mountain! (I wish the map had mentioned that.) After a rocky, careful downhill trek, we arrived at the bridge over the Lehigh River. What a great way to spend a weekend!DSCN0228

 

Appalachian Trail: Elkwallow Picnic Area to Thornton Gap

Four weeks ago, Shenandoah National Park was jam packed. Cars were parked on the side of the road, and overlooks were crammed with folks trying to get that perfect selfie with bright tree colors in the background. Tod and I arrived to Shenandoah on November 15 to a vastly different park. The leaves on the trees were long gone, and so were the people.

One of the best kept secrets to hiking is that late Fall hikes offer both solitude and beauty. Tod and I took off from Elkwallow Picnic Area (approximately mile 24 on Skyline Drive) and hiked south on the Appalachian Trail. The woods looked completely different than the last time we were here. The lack of leaves afforded us the opportunity to see through the trees to the mountains in the distance. The sound of leaves rustling under our feet gave us confidence that even if a bear was still around, she could hear us from miles away.DSCN0193

The hike took us up a hill and then leveled off for a couple of miles. We saw signs for Byrds Nest 4 and thought that it might be a nice place for lunch. Unfortunately, it is .6 miles off the trail. With a perfectly good log nearby, we enjoyed a good meal (including a tangerine) while sitting next to the trail.

From here, the trail makes a slight decline and winds around, never quite in a straight path. This is tricky! The leaves at some point were a foot thick and it wasn’t always easy to know whether we were on the trail. (Hint: Please add a few more white blazes in this area for those of us here in the Fall!)

Eventually, we crossed the road and climbed Pass Mountain. We found a perfect spot for breaking out the camp stove and Tod made us some delicious coffee. (We were careful to choose place with rock and few leaves so that we wouldn’t set the mountain on fire!) It was near here that we ran into two different families hiking with babies. The littlest was 3 months old, making him the youngest hiker I’ve encountered on the trail.

DSCN0199As we were finishing our hike and the sun was low in the sky, Tod noticed an amazing thing. The leaves on the ground seemed to shine a bright red. The ground twinkled with color! It was another great reminder for us about why we love hiking. Being in the woods is truly an special experience.

We crossed the road a couple of times before getting to Thornton Gap (near US- 211) where there is a restroom and plenty of parking. In all, we did close to 8 miles. Lots of fun on a Fall afternoon!

Appalachian Trail: Jenkins Gap to Elkwallow Picnic Area, Shenandoah NP

With only one day for hiking this weekend, Karen and I opted for our less rocky southward trip, which brought us back to Jenkins Gap in Shenandoah National Park. As we drove in, we could see right away that the autumn colors were going to be amazing.

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We got started on our 11.8 mile hike at 10:00, and—as would prove to be the case—it was a good thing that we didn’t start any later. We were able to get parking at both points of our trip without any trouble, for the traffic was still relatively light. The weather was cloudy and in the low 50s, but the persistent wind must have dropped the temperature by 10 degrees, at least. Karen and I were both wearing only a long-sleeved shirt, and despite the heat we generated, we remained cold.

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But what beautiful scenery! The peak of autumn had, apparently, already passed, but the tree tops were still in different shades, from yellow to red. The trail itself was covered in a thick blanket of freshly fallen leaves, which crunched and shuffled beneath our feet. They didn’t make hiking any easier, and sometimes they covered rocks and the gaps between rocks, thereby demanding that we remain attentive to our steps.

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We saw a number of other hikers, mostly close to lookout points. We also came across a mother black bear and her yearling cubs. The cubs weren’t at all interested in us, but the mother put herself between them and us and wouldn’t take her eyes off of us. I decided not to pause and take a photo, as I didn’t want to cause her any unnecessary stress.

When we were climbing Hogback Mountain, Karen assured me that we had hiked the trail before. I sincerely thought she was delusional, but when we got home, she found her blog of August 10, 2014, and proved that I was forgetful. Good thing we have this record!

We reached our destination at about 3:30, and found that, while we were hiking, the park had become crowded with visitors, so that not only were all the parking places taken, but people were parking on the grass. We joined the long line of cars that were exiting the park and were amazed to see the even longer line of cars still entering. We’ve never seen the park anywhere close to being this busy.

Appalachian Trail: Swatara Gap to PA 183

Trying to NOT look like deer!

Trying to NOT look like deer!

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

William Penn Shelter

William Penn Shelter

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.

Beautiful views!

Beautiful views!

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.

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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.

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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.

Appalachian Trail: PA-325 (Clark’s Creek) to Swatara Gap

Yesterday morning Karen and I crossed over beautiful Clark’s Creek, a popular fly-fishing creek in this area, and began our two-day, 15.9 mile hike to Swatara Gap. The hike up Stoney Mountain was long but gradual, never steep, and with no switchbacks. The mountain lived up to its name; it was, indeed, stoney, but required no scrambling up and over boulders. Karen and I were surprised to see so many rhododendrons growing by the trail at many places. The early autumn season was evident in the leaf-strewn path that marked our way, although the trees have only just begun their seasonal metamorphosis. The sky was overcast throughout the day, but the air was cool, and it was a fine day for a long hike through a beautiful forest.

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Our only concern on this hike was that we were walking through game lands during hunting season. We didn’t, however, hear any gun shots, except for perhaps once, in the far distance.

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Having been assured that the spring at Rausch Gap Shelter was “reliable,” I didn’t carry extra water with me. Karen and I carried only what we might need for the first day’s hike. When we arrived, we were quite disappointed to find that the spring had run dry. The trough (into which the spring empties) was still full, but as it had a layer of rodent droppings at the bottom, we elected not to attempt any water purification. We had almost made up our minds to pack up and continue our hike to Swatara Gap when we discovered that nearby Rausch Creek had a nice, clear flowing stream. We filtered water, and made our way back to the shelter, where we set up our tent for the night.

Rausch Gap Shelter

Rausch Gap Shelter

Today we climbed Second Mountain and had a pleasant five-mile hike through its scenic wilderness. Reaching Swatara Gap before noon, we felt that our day of adventure ended a little too soon. As I write, the day has not yet ended, and we are already planning our next trek.

Appalachian Trail: Duncannon to PA-325

Day 1: Duncannon to PA-225

Karen and I began our hike Saturday morning at the southern end of Duncannon, where we had completed our hike a couple of weeks ago. We walked all the way down Market Street, then crossed over the confluence of the Juniata and Susquehanna Rivers. By the time we crossed over the railroad tracks and started up the real (i.e., rustic) A.T., we had already walked over a mile.

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The climb up Peters Mountain isn’t as difficult as I had expected. The switchbacks made the ascent gradual, though not easy. There were plenty of rocks on the ascent to make the path interesting, but the real trial comes after the top of the mountain is reached. Then one has at least half a mile of scrambling over boulders. That slowed down our progress considerably.

The tree leaves prevented me from getting any great views of Duncannon from the ridge. But, after we had passed Clark’s Ferry Shelter, perhaps a mile farther, the view to the south suddenly opened us before us, and we got an excellent view of the winding Susquehanna River as it meanders its way toward Harrisburg. For the record, there is an excellent tent spot just about 20 feet from this outlook.

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When we had about three miles farther to walk, Karen and I stopped for a coffee break. We took out our little stove, heated some water, and gave ourselves time to dry off while relaxing with a cup of hot coffee. I’m afraid this new routine of ours is going to become quite addictive.

This was a great little day hike of about 7.4 miles. The sky was clear and sunny, and the temperature was in the low 80s. Tomorrow we will pick up where we left off, and Karen will continue this blog.

Day 2: PA-225 to PA-325

Tod and I woke up early, ready to go for the longer, 9.6 hike.  We arrived at the trail head by 8 am. It was a crisp and cool fall morning! The trail was blanketed by leaves. It couldn’t mask the fact, however, that this is still rocky terrain.

Since we were already on the top of the ridge, this was a day with little altitude change. In two miles we were at Table Rock Overlook. If you don’t have vertigo, you can climb to the top rock and look down (way down!) to the sea of trees that cover the valley. What a view! Just a mile down the trail is Peter’s Mountain Shelter. It is the only shelter on the trail. We were surprised to see just how close it was to the trail and happy to see that there are places to put a tent. Although the official guide books make it sound like tent spots are non-existent, there seemed to be many unofficial (perhaps illegal?) tent spots along the way.DSCN0142Hiking on a ridge is really nice. The breeze felt great and the rocks – except for a short stretch near mile 6 – were not nearly as bad as yesterday. Once again, we enjoyed a coffee break at a camping spot just off the path. After the junction for Shikelimy trail, the trail begins to descend.  It is a gentle incline with only a few very long switchbacks.

A view of the shelter from the trail.

A view of the shelter from the trail.

Overall, this was a much easier, much faster hike than yesterday, even though today’s hike was longer. It just goes to show that one can’t always judge a hike by mileage or even altitude. Sometimes, what isn’t on the map matters!

 

Appalachian Trail: Route 522 (Front Royal) to Jenkins Gap (Shenandoah National Park)

After days of moving north through Pennsylvania, Tod and I decided to hike south, into Shenandoah National Park. We began our hike where we left off, at Route 522. DSCN0116It began as a gentle ascent but soon the trail was a bit steeper and switchbacks appeared. No big deal. It was a cool day and we weren’t carrying a lot of water or gear. (Yay, day hikes!) About 3.6 miles up there was a large boulder formation where we took a break to have lunch — and coffee! Usually we would never stop so long to make a hot beverage but, boy, was it fun. We were actually a bit cold and so we changed into warmer clothes. The view was a bit obscured by trees but it was still nice. What wasn’t so nice was the fact that there were some really ominous storm clouds overhead. I can’t say we were totally prepared.

View from the overlook.

View from the overlook.

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After a long half-hour break we hit the trail again. What a difference from our last hike in Pennsylvania! We encountered smooth trails and only a few rocks. For the most part, the trail was really wide and really flat. A piece of cake! Then the rain came. Fortunately, the leaves and branches served as a nice canopy. We barely got wet. By the time we got to Compton Gap the sun was out.

Compton Gap marked the beginning of one more ascent, up to Compton Peak. We began to see a lot more hikers, all coming down. Perhaps they had just gone up to the peak? We never did see the actual overlook. (I hear that it is beautiful but we didn’t think to stop. It would have taken us off the trail.) The descent was pretty easy. There was a fire in this area in 2011 and the evidence of it still exists. Although there is a lot of new brush, dead trees stand as a reminder of what careless ash disposal can do to a forest.DSCN0127
We arrived at Jenkins Gap (mile 12 on Skyline Drive) less than four hours after we began. It was about 7.7 miles in all, including our long break for lunch. This might be a good hike for folks who are just beginning hiking or getting back into it. There are some steep ascents but most of it is easy. Most importantly, it is so peaceful and quiet. What a nice break from the craziness of city life!

As a footnote, I forgot my trekking poles at Jenkins Gap. I leaned them against the car and completely forgot about them. Within an hour of returning home I was at REI. Can’t live without my poles! The new ones are the same make and brand but they seem lighter. Yay! I wouldn’t recommend my method as a way to get new poles but it is nice to know that equipment is always evolving.DSCN0124

Appalachian Trail: From PA-74 to Duncannon

This past weekend Karen and I continued our northward trek on the A.T., walking twenty-four miles in two days. Our hike the first day was very peculiar, in that we were in the woods only on the last three miles. Most of the hike was across a semi-rural landscape cut into tiny sections by many roads and highways. As often as we were among trees, we were also in farmlands, meadows, and on the side of roadways. And, during the first three miles, we could hear the noise of an active firing range, next to which the A.T. passes.

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At about eight miles into our hike, we crossed the Bernhisel Bridge and had our lunch break at the Scott Farm Trail Work Center. There is a pump here for water, which we were entirely depending on, since we didn’t want to have to carry extra water all the way from PA-74. At first we were both perplexed and not a little disconcerted, since pumping produced no water. We had almost decided to knock on someone’s door, when we discovered that one has to lift and hold the pump in an upward position in order to get water from it. Yeah, . . . I know: “Duh!” Well, you live and learn.

About two miles north of the Farm we began our ascent up Blue Mountain. Having already walked ten miles, this last stretch before reaching Darlington Shelter was tough. But, it was worth it. Darlington Shelter is a beautiful rest stop. Although we probably already had enough water, Karen checked out the spring and found it slowly productive. I should also note that Darlington Shelter has the Taj Mahaj of privies, an impressive two-seater about as large as the shelter itself. We found a smooth and flat spot to set up our tent, cooked dinner, and made it an early night.

View south from top of Blue Mountain

View south from top of Blue Mountain

Setting up at Darlington Shelter

Setting up at Darlington Shelter

Upon rising in the morning, we found that two other hikers, Megan and her younger sister, Ann Marie, with their German shepherd, had come into the shelter during the night. They are, like us, hiking the trail a little section at a time. Megan’s boots had fallen into pieces, so Karen gave her some duct tape. What a nightmare! What could be worse on a hike than losing the use of one’s boots! Megan, however, wasn’t anywhere near despair. She taped her soles onto her socks and, without so much as a whimper, prepared herself to hike out—which, we are informed, she did successfully.

Our hike the second day was, until we got to Duncannon, almost entirely in the woods. We did cross a couple of fields between Blue and Cove Mountains. Cove Mountain, they say, is where Rocksylvania begins for north-bound hikers. The rocks weren’t worse than we’d experienced elsewhere; the problem was that there was no end to them. Karen and I took a short break at the junction to Cove Mountain Shelter and, then, pressed onward to Hawk Rock, where we had our lunch. From here, the view of the Susquehanna River and Duncannon is fantastic.

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From Hawk Rock, down we went, steeply and treacherously. The larger rocks have been placed as steps, which makes the descent much easier, but one still must be very careful. When we got near to the bottom, the A.T. suddenly veers off and upward to the right. It’s counter-intuitive, and we had to look closely at our map to make certain that we weren’t foolishly following white blazes made by a self-amusing demon. To continue going straight and downward will probably take one to a parking lot, from which one could probably find one’s way into Duncannon—but, it’s not the A.T.

Twenty-four miles is a bit longer than Karen and I are accustomed to, and our legs were a little sorer than usual, but it’s a good soreness, one that we are proud to have earned. Having finally made it to Duncannon, we can’t wait to go further.

Appalachian Trail: RT 94 to RT 74

The Appalachian Trail is addictive. The more miles one completes, the more one wants to do. Tod and I are anxious to move our way farther and farther north in Pennsylvania. We decided to do a one day, 11-mile hike from a spot near Deer Run Campground to Rt. 74, just north of Boiling Springs. DSCN0082

It is amazing how quickly we felt a sense of serenity upon hitting the trail. The first mile was definitely an ascent, but very manageable. Switch backs help! We then came to an area that provided us the opportunity to do a bit of scrambling. The trail goes straight through several rock formations and we climbed up rocks, over and around rocks, through crevices, and between boulders. It was nothing unmanageable, just enough to add some variety to the hike. Isn’t it fun to feel like you’ve accomplished something even though, in reality, your 8-year-old niece DSCN0092could do it in half the time?!?

 

The first part of this hike is a series of ascents and descents. Very gentle, but enough of a variety to make it interesting. I was going on with a sense of determination. “Let’s get this done!” Fortunately, I was with a hiking partner (Tod!) who had a better understanding of what hiking is all about. He stopped walking at one point and said, “Look at the trees! The leaves are beginning to turn colors!” Sure enough, subtle hints of the coming Fall were throughout the forest. It was a great reminder to look up from the trail and bask in the beauty of one’s surroundings.DSCN0094
After stopping near Alec Kennedy Shelter for lunch, we reached Center Point Knob, where one has a great view of the valley below. This area is maintained by the Cumberland Valley Appalachian Trail Club. From here the trail descends to farm land. The trail actually goes through a corn field. After crossing a road, we got a bit tripped up. Well…lost! We missed a cairn that directed us left and instead went straight, continuing into a corn field until we were sufficiently puzzled that we pulled out the map.

OK. Where the heck are we?

OK. Where the heck are we?

Oops! This was frustrating but also humorous enough that we can laugh at ourselves now.

A highlight of the hike is that it goes straight through Boiling Springs, a beautiful town with a river that attracts a lot of fishing. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has an office there and their store is open and staffed by volunteers on the weekend. (Thanks!)

From Boiling Springs, we had less than two miles to go to get back to the car. All in all, it was a very satisfying hike, full of variety and adventure.cropped-dscn0095.jpg