The Appalachian Trail was conceived in the 1920s as a getaway that would allow East Coast city dwellers to flee to the trail, and trailside communities, to recover from their stressed lives.
Nearly a century later, it appears that’s needed more than ever. Between 2 million to 3 million people hike a portion of the 2,180-mile dirt path each year. There, they can explore forests, watch wildlife and scan mountain vistas — often within a couple of hours from urban centers such as Richmond, the District of Columbia and Baltimore.
About midway between the trail’s endpoints, Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, hikers — and anyone else — can learn how the iconic path became a reality at the Appalachian Trail Museum.
“It’s the only hiker-centric museum in the country,” said Joe Harold, manager of the museum at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, located in a narrow forest valley about 20 miles north of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania’s Michaux State Forest.
The park has long been known as the trail’s approximate halfway point and thru-hikers — those who attempt an end-to-end hike in a single year — traditionally stop at its general store to eat a half-gallon of ice cream.
Opened in 2010, the volunteer-run museum is just a few dozen yards from the store, in the park’s Old Mill. It occupies one floor, telling the trail’s history, but plans call for it to expand to the other two floors and highlight those who protect and maintain the trail today, as well as present a hands-on section for “future hikers” — today’s children.
Visitors learn the story of those who made the trail a reality. Benton MacKaye, a New Englander, first envisioned the trail and tirelessly promoted it in the early 1920s as a route that would link a series of “recreational communities” for stressed East Coast city dwellers. Myron Avery, another New Englander, made the trail’s actual construction his life’s work, and the museum displays the measuring wheel Avery used when mapping the original route in the 1930s.
(The two men eventually became enemies over the planned construction of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, with MacKaye wanting to fight the road as an intrusion on the trail’s wilderness experience, while Avery favored a compromise that would relocate parts of the trail. MacKaye, who lost the dispute, left the trail’s leadership and went on to found the Wilderness Society.)
The museum also tells the stories of early hikers, such as Earl V. Shaffer, of York County, PA, who became the first person to hike it end-to-end in 1948 — and did so again in 1965 and 1998 (at the age of 79). He wrote a book about his first trip, “Walking with Spring,” that helped popularize the trail. The museum displays some of his gear, as well as one of six lean-to shelters he helped construct along the trail.
There’s also Emma R. “Grandma” Gatewood, of Ohio, a mother of 11, who hiked the trail wearing high-topped sneakers at age 67 in 1955, taking off from Mt. Oglethorpe (the original southern end of the trail) with a homemade denim satchel strung over her shoulder. She didn’t clue her family into her trip until she was a third of the way through. She hiked it twice more, in 1957 and 1964.
MacKaye originally discouraged thru-hikers, considering it little more than a stunt. But over the years, an increasing number of people saw completing the trail as a challenge. The number of hikers who have covered 2,000 miles of the trail in a single year (but not necessarily thru-hikers) has grown from five during the 1930s to 5,872 during the 2000s. The number continues to accelerate.
The museum attracts a fair number of Appalachian Trail hikers, and visitors can sometimes hear their adventures firsthand. “They’re here for the ice cream, mainly,”
Harold said. “But we like for them to come in here and share their story.”
In early June, Chris Davis, and his fiancé, Sara Galuska, both of New Jersey, stopped by. They had long planned to hike the trail — and to get married. This year, they combined the two.
“We decided we would hike home, get married, and finish the hike for our honeymoon,” Davis said.
They started from Springer Mountain, planned to get married in New Jersey in June, then go north to Mount Katahdin and finish the trail by hiking south from there.
To truly appreciate the trail, visitors need only step outside the museum to walk a portion of it. The trail runs 37 miles through the surrounding park and state forest, much of it along ridges offering spectacular views from rock outcrops.
For those looking for a shorter hike, the Pole Steeple Trail — its trail head is in the park a few miles north of the museum — is a good choice. The popular three-quarter mile hike includes a steep climb, but rewards hikers with a spectacular view of the park’s Laurel Lake from large rock outcrops that overlook the valley.
By continuing a short way farther, the trail that leads to the rocks intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which can be used to create a circuit hike back to the parking area. Trails are well-marked, and also found on the park brochure.
For those looking for more than hiking, Pine Grove boasts two small lakes which offer swimming, kayaking and canoeing. A biking and hiking trail connects its two lakes. It also has a popular campground (with showers). The park also contains the remnants of an old iron furnace, from which it gets its name, and visitors can tour the Ironmaster’s Mansion.
Michaux State Forest offers 60 miles of additional hiking trails, as well as mountain biking and horseback riding. One can hunt and fish here, or picnic and camp. The forest is also home to two other state parks: Caledonia and Mount Alto.
- The Appalachian Trail Museum. It takes about an hour to tour the museum, which is open noon to 4 p.m. every day July 7 to Aug. 3, and Wednesday through Sunday Aug. 6 to Nov. 2. The museum is operated by the nonprofit Appalachian Trail Museum Society. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. For details, visit www.atmuseum.org, or call717 486-8126
- Pine Grove Furnace State Park. For information, call 717-486-7174 or visit the Pennsylvania State Park websitewww.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/.
- Michaux State Forest. For learn about the forest, visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/stateforests/michaux/
Upcoming events at the Appalachian Trail Museum include:
- Virginia is For…Ever: 1 p.m. July 20. Lorrie Preston will present pictures and stories of day-hiking the entire distance of the trail in Virginia.
- Wilson & Jolin Family Concert: 2 p.m. July 13. Mark Wilson and Tom Jolin team up for an up-tempo performance of traditional music and clogging. Mark keeps the foot percussion going with clogging while Tom plays lively dance music on hammered dulcimer, banjo or button accordion.
Find an Appalachian Trail Hike
The Appalachian Trail offers many opportunities for people to explore the outdoors, either for a few hours, or a few days. To find a hike, visit the website of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which created the trail and continues to oversee its maintenance, at www.appalachiantrail.org/hiking/find-a-hike.