HARPERS FERRY – Hard-core hikers associate Harpers Ferry not with abolitionist John Brown’s doomed 1859 raid, but as a key stop along the Appalachian Trail.
Since the 1970s, Harpers Ferry has been home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the nonprofit organization devoted to the famed wilderness footpath that extends more than 2,000 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Maine’s Mount Katahdin.
For thru-hikers (those making the entire trek in a single trip), the moment they arrive in Harpers Ferry brings more than just the chance to stay overnight indoors and to get a shower and a hot meal – the town also serves as the much-anticipated psychological halfway point for the journey.
For Panhandle residents, Harpers Ferry offers the chance to get out for the day as a section hiker. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, more than 3 million people will hike at least part of the AT every year.
A look at some of what makes the trail so special:
• In 1921, Connecticut-born forester Benton MacKaye proposed a trail to help city residents connect with nature. A story in the New York Evening Post a year later pitched the idea this way: “A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia!”
• The 2,184-mile trail passes through the states of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
• West Virginia has fewer miles of trail than any other state the Appalachian Trail passes through – just four miles. Neighboring Virginia has the most, some 550 miles.
• An AT icon is Earl V. Shaffer, who died in 2002 at age 83. In 1948, the York, Pa., man became the trail’s first documented thru-hiker. He later completed the path in the opposite direction, starting in Maine. And in 1998, he hiked the whole AT again – becoming the oldest person ever to do so.
• More than 11,000 people have reported hiking the entire trail, either all at once or over time in sections. Either way, each earns the distinction, “2000 Miler.”
• It’s much more common for thru-hikers to start the AT in Georgia and head north. It’s typical to set off in March or April and finish late in the summer or in the fall.
• Thru-hikers aim to travel light, typically carrying just enough grub to get by during the four or five days’ walk between trail towns. They resupply in town or pick up supplies mailed by loved ones (or packages they mailed to themselves before setting off).
• Hikers get a leg up thanks to trail maintenance and other work performed by volunteers from dozens of trail clubs, partnerships, the National Park Service and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. To learn more about how to help or to find out about hiking the trail yourself, go to www.appalachiantrail.org.
• Hikers happily report episodes of “trail magic,” where a stranger surprises them along the way with a snack, a cold soda, bandages, socks and other gifts. A “trail angel” might pop up to deliver a dose of encouragement through a ride from a trail into town or, in the middle of the woods, a handful of candy and a home-baked cookie.
• Ultra-hardcore hikers aim for the Triple Crown – to hike not only the Appalachian Trail, but also the Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles from the border with Mexico to Washington State).
– Christine Miller Ford