AT on the Rocks: Route 77 to Pen Mar County Park

This is just off of Rt. 77.  It looks so innocent--a flat dirt field..

This is just off of Rt. 77. It looks so innocent–a flat dirt field..

We’ve had our share of ups-and-downs on our local stretch of the Appalachian Trail, but by most accounts, the 63 miles between Rt. 7 in Virginia and the Pennsylvania line are considered among the easiest on the entire trail.  My personal experience tells me that “among the easiest” isn’t always synonymous with “easy” when speaking of the AT.  Apparently, it’s all pretty difficult.

Once again, the AT is pulling the wool over our eyes.  This looks like the trail in the county park near our hometown.  Yeah, right!

Once again, the AT is pulling the wool over our eyes. This looks like the trail in the county park near our hometown. Yeah, right!

Our series of day hikes has taken us to a couple of places that have garnered some notoriety in thru-hiker narratives.  A while back, we hiked Virginia’s “Roller Coaster” without much difficulty, but the rocky mile heading off the mountain toward Pen Mar was a bit more ominous.  In David Miller’s AWOL on the Appalachian Trail, the author describes a misstep on these rocks that sidelined him for five days. In fact, he wore an air-cast on his ankle from Pen Mar Park all the way to Maine.

We trail bypassed these rocks about halfway up our big climb.

The trail bypassed these rocks about halfway up our big climb

The day started simply enough, as we traversed a smooth field heading into the woods.  From there, we continued with two relatively easy wooded miles before a moderate descent.  On the Appalachian Trail, what comes down must go up, and the reward for our downhill jaunt was an intimidating climb heading up a very steep mountain.  When Candee is in a dire situation on the trail, she asks her trail god (lower case g) Frank for help, and this time he delivered with a series of switchbacks all the way to the top.  However, this is the AT, and the sunshine and roses seem to always be short lived.

This is a power line a ways beyond our big climb.  The pictures don't quite jibe with the narrative, so bear with me!

This is a power line a ways beyond our big climb. The pictures don’t quite jibe with the narrative, so bear with me, please.

Actually, in spite of Frank delivering the switchbacks, our ascent was wrought with surprises.  For starters, Candee’s brown prescription sunglasses fell into an equally brown glob of dead leaves.  The trail goblins gave the glasses a kick and sent them several feet from where they dropped, and it took a full fifteen minutes to find them.  We pressed on, and further up the mountain we ran into a day hiker who was heading to our starting spot, much like we were bound for his.

I stopped to talk and described our uphill battle as “a bit of a climb,” but he assured us that this was nothing compared to the heart-breaker coming up from the other side.  I was puzzled because the trail profile for this hike showed us going in the tougher direction, but sometimes elevation gain isn’t everything.  The hiker described his boulder scramble as both difficult and depressing, and I suddenly remembered the AWOL story.  Oh, well, we were still three miles away from all of that…

High Rock Overlook

High Rock Overlook

Along the way, we encountered a welcome surprise (thanks, Frank).  For the second straight week, we met a pair of southbound thru-hikers on their way to Georgia.  We forgot to ask them their trail names, but they were familiar with Rooster and Alice from our Old South Mountain Inn hike.  A quick look at the local ten-day forecast shows a series of “highs in the forties and lows in the twenties” in the near future.  Thru-hikers are a tough lot, but I’m still cringing at the thought of the cold nights these people will have to endure.

There is a sign just before climbing up on the overlook asking people not to use spray paint on the rock.  That didn't turn out too well!

There is a sign just before climbing up on the overlook asking people not to use spray paint on the rock. That didn’t turn out too well!

Before the dreaded downhill, we took a side trail to the High Rock Overlook (see above).  There’s a sign that reads something like, “Please don’t spray paint on the rock.”  Naturally, the overlook is covered with graffiti.  I’m not a big fan of the stuff, but the view itself opens up into an amazing one-hundred eighty degree panorama that makes for a postcard view in any direction.  Like Roger Daltrey, one can literally see for miles and miles.

The trail was hell, but near the top Frank gave us something that sort of looked like steps, but he was no match for the rest of the boulder garden

The trail was hell for the next couple of miles, but near the top Frank gave us something that sort of looked like steps.  However,  he was no match for the rest of the boulder garden

When we reached the boulder-strewn descent, our pace fell off to about a mile-an-hour.  Some of the rocks loomed large, and the fallen leaves hid many smaller ones that pivoted sharply as we stepped on them.  Our slow, careful trudge wasn’t a HORRIBLE (more like horrible!)  experience, even though this stretch and our late start made a close call of getting out of the woods before dark.

More rocks!  This IS the trail. I can't make this stuff up!

More rocks! This IS the trail. I can’t make this stuff up!

This nine mile hike finished off our 2014 goal of day hiking our local AT, and the experience made better hikers out of all three of us (Jane, good job!).  We didn’t see quite as much history and wildlife as we do on the C&O Canal, and the AT is a bit more crowded than either Green Ridge or the Tuscarora Trail.  Nevertheless, our hiking appetites have been whetted enough to ponder the possibility of a thru-hike of our own.  That’s a few years away, but hiking the many nearby trails has been an great experience, and the enthusiasm won’t wane anytime soon.

I need a parting picture, but what...  Oh, yeah, more of those blasted rocks!

I need a parting picture, but what… Oh, yeah, more of those blasted rocks!

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jamie on November 13, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    On my journeys to and from the C&O, I have crossed the AT on MD 77 numerous times. You’re right — it does look quite innocent at that point — clearly a wolf in sheep’s clothing! Anyway, congratulations on achieving your goal — and more power to you as you encounter further rocks upon your trails!

    Reply

    • Posted by LevelWalker on November 13, 2014 at 11:59 pm

      Jamie,

      The AT is a good challenge, but in I haven’t seen any wildlife during the last several hikes. We were hoping to have a bear encounter, but I think the odds are actually better on the canal. So much of our local AT runs along ridge tops, and there’s nothing up there but rocks. It’s cool, but the C&O sounds really good right about now.

      Reply

  2. No matter where you hike there is always something to seen and learned, even if it’s the wind or overlook of miles and miles of panoramic views. Loved thisl

    Reply

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