Hiker at a scenic overlook
By Tammy McCorkle
Hikers working their way up the trail From Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Appalachian Trail winds its way through woods and pastures, peaks and valleys, wilderness and towns along the backbone of the Appalachian Mountains. Known as the “AT,” the 2,168-mile footpath is enjoyed each year by thousands of strollers, day hikers, overnight backpackers and long distance hikers.

People from all over the world, of all ages, levels of experience, and walks of life come to the AT, each for unique reasons: to escape the stress of city life; to reconnect with nature; to take in a scenic view; to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the forest; to explore one’s inner self; to get physically fit; to get back to a simpler way of life.

A historical perspective
In 1921, Massachusetts planner Benton MacKaye proposed preserving the Appalachian crests as a retreat from urban and suburban life along the east coast. Hiking clubs united behind the idea, and new clubs formed to help advance the concept of an Appalachian Trail. Together they formed the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), a non-profit organization now based in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, that manages the trail’s day-to-day operations.

Under the leadership of ATC Chairman Myron Avery, federal and state agencies joined with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to open a continuous trail in the 1930s; however hurricanes, highway construction and the demands of World War II soon undermined those efforts. It was not until 1951 that all sections had been relocated, opened and blazed for hikers and nature lovers. Today the AT is continually maintained, rerouted and protected by volunteers from 34 trail clubs in 14 states. In Maryland, the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and Mountain Club of Maryland maintain the trail.

Prompted by threats of commercial development, in 1968 Congress passed the National Trails System Act to protect outdoor recreational opportunities on the AT. The Act made the AT a unit of the National Park Service (a very long and skinny park!), and the system now includes 16 national scenic or national historic trails. Along with the ATC and the National Park Service, trail partners include the U.S. Forest Service, volunteers, local communities and state agencies such as Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.

Pacing yourself
The trail signs at Washington Monument State Park point the way north and south The AT follows the Appalachian Mountain range through Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. More than 500 miles (about one-quarter of the trail) lie in Virginia, while less than 4 miles lie exclusively in West Virginia. The trail passes through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Shenandoah National Park, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, as well as several U.S. forests and numerous state and local parks. Its peak is found at an elevation of 6,643 feet at Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains.

While the majority of AT users are day hikers or short distance backpackers, there are plenty of folks ready, willing and able to take on the challenge of the entire trail. Most hikers attempting to hike the entire trail in one season, called thru-hikers, begin at Springer Mountain in early spring and hike north (more specifically called north-bounders). More than 2,000 prospective north-bounders start out each year, but only 300 to 400 hundred make it to Mount Katahdin; 20 percent drop out before the 30-mile mark. Other thru-hikers, south-bounders, start at Katahdin in June and hike south. Still others will flip-flop, hiking north for a while before hitching a ride further north, only to hike south to where they left off.

It takes most thru-hikers four to six months to hike the entire trail. Then there are those who aspire to hike the entire trail but don’t have the time or desire to do it in one season. These section hikers backpack long distances each season until they have completed the entire trail. In still another category Ñ people who simply have no desire to carry a heavy pack or sleep in the great outdoors Ñ choose to day hike, hitching rides into town for the night. Although it can take years for section hikers to complete the trail, it is incredibly satisfying for those who do. Anyone who hikes the entire trail Ñ whether in one season or over a span of 20 years Ñ earns the title 2,000-miler.

Many long distance hikers receive colorful nicknames from trail buddies, usually inspired by some personality trait that has become apparent on the trail. Walk On, No Whey, Hokey Pokey, I Forgot, Mother Goose and Caveman are just a few of the fun labels that have been heard.

Among the AT’s most notable thru-hikers is its first-ever, Earl Schaffer, who traveled northbound in 1948. He thru-hiked again in 1965, southbound, and again in 1988 (at the age of 79). “Grandma” Gatewood hiked the entire trail in sneakers in 1955 at the age of 67. Ed Garvey, who thru-hiked in 1970, went on to write Appalachian Hiker, spurring national interest in the trail and still inspiring AT hikers today.

Our neck of the woods
The Washington Monument at Washington Monument State Park Forty miles of the Appalachian Trail run through Maryland. From Harpers Ferry, the trail follows the Potomac River on three miles of the C&O Canal towpath, then climbs South Mountain at Weverton Cliff. From there the AT follows the ridgeline of South Mountain all the way to Pennsylvania, mostly through state and federal lands. Here, as elsewhere along the trail, overnight shelters for backpackers are located about one day’s walk apart. Some of these are historic, built by the CCC in the early 1940s. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club has also built two new shelters during the last few years, naming one after Ed Garvey.

The Maryland portion of the AT passes through significant historic sites comprising South Mountain Recreation Area, including: Gathland State Park, home of the War Correspondents Arch; South Mountain State Battlefield, site of the Civil War battle that took place in Crampton’s Gap, Fox’s Gap and Turner’s Gap; Washington Monument State Park, location of the first monument to George Washington; and Greenbrier State Park, which boasts a 44-acre lake. Hardy hikers find breathtaking scenic vistas at Weverton Cliff, White Rock, Washington Monument, Annapolis Rock, Black Rock and High Rock worth the climb.

Trouble on the trail
Towering above Cumberland Valley, Annapolis Rock offers a fine view of the valley and Greenbrier Lake. The cliff attracts day hikers, rock climbers, photographers, picnickers, bird watchers and seekers of solitude, as well as overnight backpackers. All this use, however, is having a noticeably harmful effect.

The constant erection of legions of tents has left every flat area near the rocks totally void of vegetation, and continues to destroy any new growth. Dead and downed trees have long been cut up for firewood, making small live saplings fair game for those looking for wood to burn. Remnants of past fires have also rendered the soil sterile in many spots. Trash litters the cliffs, the woods and old fire pits.

In short, we are loving this beautiful area to death.

A group of AT professionals and volunteers, the Maryland Appalachian Trail Management Committee (MATMC), has become very concerned about the negative impacts to this backcountry area. With recommendations from U.S. Geological Survey Recreational Impact Studies expert Dr. Jeff Marion, the MATMC has prepared a management plan to help correct the damage at Annapolis Rock, while still allowing visitors to enjoy a backcountry experience.

In October 2002, a crew will construct natural looking campsites away from the rock cliff, in an area still thickly vegetated. The vegetation will provide privacy from other campers and from day users. Two privies will be constructed to lessen the impact of waste on the soil and water.

In Spring 2003, the impacted areas surrounding the rocks will be closed off and re-vegetated. A caretaker will camp here throughout the busiest months, and will be responsible for educating visitors in Leave No Trace ethics and regulations for the campground. To lessen the impact on vegetation and soil, campfires will be prohibited (as will alcoholic beverages). Visitors beyond the 60-person capacity of the new campsites will be directed to other places along the trail.

These management practices should allow impacted areas to return to a more natural state within a few years, ensuring a backcountry experience for generations to come.

Users can help protect the trail and its inhabitants by following Leave No Trace practices: Leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories.

Voice of experience
Whether on the trail for a few hours or a few months, every visitor’s experience is unique.

Thirty-year-old thru-hiker John L. Passman discovered great personal satisfaction in the awesome challenge of the trail. “This is a hundred times harder than I ever imagined. And a thousand times more rewarding.”

Michael D. Looney, a 47-year-old thru-hiker, found the beauty of the AT nothing short of divine. “I have seen sights at the mountain tops that no man should be allowed to see till he reaches the gates of heaven.”

Anthony J. Varga, a 29-year old thru-hiker, believes trail life could be a good model for society. “I also learned that on the trail everyone is equal, meaning that you could be a doctor, teacher, or a garbage man but on the trail after seven days you all smell the same, you eat the same food, you feel the same pain and you hike the same miles. You begin to look at people the way you’re supposed to and what’s at their heart and mind and that’s all that matters. If we can bring this back to our families and communities it [the world] will be a better place to live.”

From a simpler time with a simpler viewpoint, AT Founder Benton Mackaye had this to say about his beloved trail: “The ultimate purpose? There are three things: to walk; to see; to see what you see!”

Whether your goal is scenic beauty, history, bird and wildlife watching, exercise, or just wanting to get away from it all, the AT offers all these things and much, much more.

Tammy McCorkle is a State Forest and Park Service Ranger Supervisor at South Mountain Recreation Area.

More information about the Appalacian Trail
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