Part 1- Pen Mar Park to Ensign Cowell Shelter
About 10 miles hiking
The Appalachian Trail, or AT, is a 2,181 mile hiking trail that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way to Katahdin in Maine. Some people hike the trail in its entirety over several months. This is called a thru hike and is something I yearn to do someday. Others walk the trail for shorter periods using it for day hikes or short treks. We’ve done this in various spots including Smoky Mountains National Park and have always enjoyed our time on the trail. In April of 2012 my family did a section hike on the AT over Spring Break. This is when you hike a portion of the trail over several days. There are actually many people who hike the entire trail this way over years, one section at a time.
I started planning our backpack trip with the help of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s website. This is a great place to start as it is filled with all sorts of useful information. I also purchased a current Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers’ Companion. Published each year, this guide has a detailed account of each section including camping spots, shelter locations, water and food availability. It also shows the mileage between landmarks and tells you a little bit about the section you are hiking. It is a great resource if you are planning an AT hike. Another great resource which serves a similar purpose is the The A.t. Guide: A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail. We have both to plan section hikes on the AT and I find them equally useful.
After reading through the Conservancy’s website, we decided to hike the 41 mile Maryland section starting at Pen Mar Park on the Pennsylvania/Maryland border and ending in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. The problem remained of how we would get to our car after we were finished. More internet research led to a solution. In Harpers Ferry, the Teahorse Hostel is run by a friendly lady named Laurel who agreed to drive us in our car to Pen Mar Park and drop us off. She would then park our car back at the hostel and we would hike back to it. Problem solved!
Teahorse Hostel Harpers Ferry
Departure day came and we left mid morning to drive the 450 miles to Harper’s Ferry arriving just after dinner. We were staying at the Teahorse Hostel before our hike began the next morning. This was my family’s first experience at a hostel so we all were wondering what it would be like. The hostel’s owner, Laurel, was there to greet us as she checked in other guests. She was very friendly and welcoming as we went over the details of the next morning’s shuttle. She also had a nice selection of hiker foods and such for sale. We bought a hat for Dave since he had forgotten to bring one and then went up to the guest rooms. There are two bunk rooms at the hostel and our family was occupying one of them. We set about getting our bunks ready.
One of the best things about a hostel is the chance to interact with other people who are taking part in their own adventures. In the common room we met a hiker who had done the southern portion of the AT the year before and was now beginning his hike north. It was a great experience to talk with him and we all enjoyed his stories. We also met a few people who were biking on the C & O Canal bike trails. Chance meetings like this is one of the reasons I love the AT. People from all walks of life end up together to learn from each other. We played some monopoly and visited with the other guests and then decided to get to bed since we had planned an early start for the morning!
We woke up to the sounds of Laurel preparing a delicious breakfast of homemade waffles, fruit, coffee and juice. We all filled up on the great food.
After breakfast we packed up the car, bundled up and headed off with Laurel to the trail head in Pen Mar Park on the Pennsylvania border. It started to drizzle as she dropped us off but we hoped for the best and it did clear up in just a little bit. Forecasts at this point were for lows in the high 40s and highs in the 70s. Sounded good to us! We were very excited to get on the trail.
The park is on the Pennsylvania border and just north of this park is the Mason Dixon Line. We stopped for a few pictures and were on our way. Our destination for the night was the Ensign Cowell shelter about 9.4 miles away. The trail was definitely hilly so we warmed up pretty quick.
We stopped for lunch at the newly built Devil’s Racecourse Shelter which was clean and airy and would be a great place to spend the night. The metal roof would sound awesome in the rain!
Back on the trail, we hiked the rest of the day in the cool sun. The first day on the trail is always a little difficult. Packs are heavy with food and muscles aren’t used to the strain of hiking with all your possessions on your back. There’s always a fair amount of complaining from the kids on the first day too. No doubt, we heard our fair share of complaints that day. Just stick it through though because your body quickly adjusts and it is such a rewarding way to explore. Our kids have NEVER ended a trip saying this, but many trips have started this way for sure.
This section of the trail has varied terrain with rocky footing, steep climbs in a few areas, and rolling meadows interspersed. Overall, it was a wonderful day of hiking and the views after the harder climbs were rewarding.
After a long day, we were happy to see our destination for the night- the Ensign Cowell Shelter, where we would set up our tents. The shelter itself was nice and would be a great place to sleep if the weather was bad. We were the first ones here but decided to set up our tents in the flat tent area to the side of the shelter.
Here things took a downhill turn. Temperatures were dropping as the sun went down and we rushed around trying to set up our tents. Then, I clumsily dropped the entire pot of noodles when cooking dinner. Tired, hungry and cold, the kids wouldn’t wait for another pot of noodles (and honestly I was worried about having enough food for the rest of the trip!) so they picked off the dirt the best they could and ate in anyway. It’s true that when you are hungry enough you’ll eat anything! And we were STARVING after a long day of hiking. After our (dirty!) dinner we made a fire in the shelter pit and warmed up a bit.
At the shelter we visited with a northbound thru hiker and a boy scout troop that had hiked in. We were a little worried when the boy scout leader told us that the forecast had changed and the lows would be in the 20s since we had made the mistake of packing for more temperate weather. Later, we also discovered that our oldest daughter Sophie had made some odd choices when packing her things (among other things a hard cover Hunger Games, a purse(!!) and an extra pair of boots!) and yet no hiking pants and only a pair of cotton sweatpants. At 14 and having done several backpacking trips, we let her pack her own backpack. I learned on this hike to check EVERYONE’s pack before departure. She learned the importance of not over packing too. Anyway, Sophie’s pack was pretty heavy and explained some of struggle she had had with the day of hiking. Nothing to be done about it now, we went to bed and snuggled in to our warm sleeping bags to get ready for day 2 of our section hike. We really enjoyed the Pen Mar to Ensign Cowell section!