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: Snickers Gap to Harpers Ferry

Fall is such a wonderful time of the year to hike! This past weekend Tod and I experienced the West Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trail. We began at Snicker’s Gap, at a parking lot just off of Highway 7. The parking lot was packed with “birders” who were doing counts of the number of hawks, eagles, etc. We accessed the Appalachian Trail from the north end of the parking lot and traveled a short way before we crossed the road to continue the trail.

After many miles on rocky trails, this portion of the A.T. is much smoother and relatively flat. It was nice to have an easy beginning to our hike. Before long, we arrived at Crescent Rock, a beautiful overlook and a popular destination for day hikers.IMG_2868IMG_2871

It wasn’t long before we experienced what is known as the “roller coaster”. This is an area of the trail that, as you might guess, goes up and down. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds! It was near this area that I came close to stepping on a rattle snake that was right on the trail. Yikes! I screamed, more from surprise than from being scared. We later learned that the rattle snake is the official reptile of West Virginia. I would have been happy not to run into him.IMG_2876

We camped overnight at Blackburn Trail Center and hiker’s hostel. The hostel is located about 8 miles from Snickers Gap, far from the main trail, WAY down a hill!  It was a beautiful facility but it was not available to us. It turns out that the Center is rented out during the off-season. That wasn’t a problem. We still had ready access to water. We pitched our tent at one of the many tent sites. We enjoyed a delicious Mountain House dinner (a real treat) and chatted with thru-hiker Steven (trail name Maximus) as well as another couple. The comeraderie on the trail is something that I really like about the A.T.IMG_2878

A wonderful group of hikers!The next morning we were off for the long, 13 mile jaunt to Harper’s Ferry. The trail was relatively smooth but, boy, was it long! We stopped several times for snacks and water but Tod’s toes were definitely feeling the effect of the many miles.

The view of the river was a welcome site. Both Tod and I agreed that crossing into Harper’s Ferry from this point is really beautiful. Unfortunately, we were exhausted so the long detour from the trail to the Visitor’s Center seemed like it went on forever. The Visitor Center is well worth the trip. We purchased patches for completing the Maryland and West Virginia part of the A.T. as well as other memorabilia. Who knows what portion of the A.T. we’ll do next!

Finally! The Visitor Center!

Finally! The Visitor Center!

Sugarloaf-Keyser Run Fire Road – Hogback Mountain Lariat

Our final hike of the week was farther up on Skyland Drive, just off of mile 21. This hike starts on the Sugarloaf trail. The forest is newer here, with fewer trees and more bushes, such as rhodendeandrum. Although we didn’t get started until 11 am, we were clearly the first on the trail. Talk about spider webs! I must have looked like a mad women as I used my trekking poles to try to get the spider webs before they got me!

The gentle descent brought us to a T junction with the PineyBranch Trail. After going left we quickly ran into the Keyser Fire Road. This, quite frankly, was a bit boring. However, it was an easy trek back up to Skyline Drive. From here, we crossed the road to go on the A.T. The ascent to the summit of Little Hogback Mountain offered a very nice few.

We then continued on until we started zigging and zagging up to Hogback Mountain. After all our big ascents and descents, it was nice to have one more opportunity to huff and puff up a hill! Luckily, we seem to be getting better at this and we didn’t complain the entire way. It was fun to be on the A.T. in Virginia. We’re getting a real sense of the trail and I’m really enjoying it.

We completed the 4.9 mile hike in about 2 1/2 hours. Not bad! I’m happy we had a chance to do this trail and experience a different part of the Park.
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Little Bennett Regional Park

Yes, we're the hikers!

Yes, we’re the hikers!

The Washington, DC area has a wealth of great hiking trails. Tod and I are learning just how lucky we are to have so many options close to home. Today we went to Little Bennett Regional Park, in Clarksburg, Maryland. This was our first visit, even though the park is about 15-20 minutes away from home.

The park has trails that snake around one another and intersect in some areas. Tod and I decided to start out from the Browning Run Parking Area and go west along the Browning Run Trail. As we went from a wild flower area into the forest we were met by a chorus of singing birds, all vying for our attention (or maybe the attention of their fellow birds!) The woods were beautiful. The trails are very smooth and easy to navigate, except for areas of mud. (These trails are probably not the best place to hike after a few days of rain.)

Except for a couple of bikers, a pair of horses, and a group of hikers, we had the trails to ourselves. We saw very few animals, with the exception of a very tiny (one inch) frog and a few tadpoles. My favorite part, as always, was crossing a creek.

Our hike included Browning Run Trail, northwest along Western Piedmont Trail, north along Pine Grove Trail, east along Timber Ridge Trail, continuing along Tobacco Barn Trail, then to Western Piedmont trail again (going southeast) to Kingsley Trail, to Purdum Trail and back to Browning Run Trail. As you can see, this is not the place to go for an easy circuit. While some of the trail intersections were very well marked, some places were not. We came to several forks in the trail and had to take an educated guess about what to do next. (Tip: download a map of the park and take it with you!)

Hmm....which way to go?

Hmm….which way to go?

The trails range from narrow, with thick vegetation, to meadows full of flowers (and bees), to park roads. There is a bit of everything here!

Although a little complicated to navigate, we really liked this park and will definitely be back again. Its a great place for folks who want to tailor their hike to a length that best meets their needs.IMG_2538