- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Washingtonians live amid natural parks, close-by mountain ranges and spots for streamside rambles, and most think that’s enough. But for those who love the heart-pounding exhilaration of climbing mountain peaks, enjoying panoramic vistas or camping out under the stars — even as winter approaches — the Appalachian Trail beckons just a short 90-minute drive from the Beltway.

“There’s no place like it on Earth, for hikers,” says Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., that protects and preserves the entire trail, known affectionately as the AT.

“Hikers have such a variety of choices along the way. They can climb bald mountains with rocky peaks and pretty meadows, or trek through small towns steeped in history.”

The 2,175-mile AT, which starts at Springer Mountain in Georgia, skims mountain ridges and climbs up and down a series of ranges all the way to Mount Katahdinin Maine. Along the way it winds through Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry.

A few have traversed its entire length, but many more just want to follow the trail for a day hike, or go for the occasional weekend backpacking trip in Shenandoah National Park.

Here is a brief guide to getting started. Included is some information on the hardy “thru-hikers” and section hikers who aim to go the entire distance, local area hiking clubs that put together group hikes of the AT and other nearby walks, and how to equip yourself for hiking.

• • •

“Thru-hikers” are a breed apart, a hardy strain of determined foot soldiers whose idea of fun is taking five or six months out of their lives to live in two changes of high-tech, sweat-wicking clothing that gets washed about every 10 days.

They scramble along dirt and rock tracks with elevation changes ranging from 100 feet to 5,000 feet, and eat peanut butter, oatmeal, crackers and desiccated meat sticks.

At the end of the day, they sleep in wide open shelters or wafer-thin tents exposed to wind, rain, fellow smelly hikers and various pests like mosquitoes, mice and bears.

But that makes for good stories, to be relished for years.

“I remember one night up on Bear Mountain in New York,” says Todd Byrd, a 52-year-old Annapolis resident who completed a large chunk of the trail — from Roanoke to Connecticut — when he was 26.

“I was sharing a shelter with two Puerto Rican couples from Queens who had never been camping in their lives. It was raining hard and the shelter was leaking like a sieve. … We kept trying to keep the rain out and stay dry. By morning, we were sleeping in a stream, and hauling around my sleeping bag that day was like hauling around a bag of cement.”

If some nights on the trail are tough, some days bring rich rewards. In the mountain ranges of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New England, hikers are exposed to panoramic views, out-of-the-way waterfalls, botanical wonders, unusual rock formations and wildlife that the day hiker within a two-hour walk of his car can totally miss.

“Section hikers” are those who want to piece together parts of the trail, going either section by section over a series of years, or by starting at the middle, doing a section south, and then driving north and hiking another section in Pennsylvania and New York, or through New England. Some people plan their trip with the seasons, and their own fitness in mind.

For example, Ms. Potteiger says, many people begin their hike in Georgia in March, thinking it will be warm there because it’s in the South. But in truth, the 5,000- and 6,000-foot elevations in the Georgia mountains “don’t let you forget it’s still the middle of winter,” she says.

Maryland and Northern Virginia have a reputation for being the gentlest sections of the trail, so many thru-hikers begin their trek there, getting their legs accustomed to the tougher climbs in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Maine. Pennsylvania is known as the “rockiest” part of the AT, with sharp stones and rocks that can destroy the soles of even the best-made hiking boots.

Then there are “slack packers” who walk some sections in full hiking regalia, pack fully loaded, and later hike other sections with a lighter pack, stopping in towns along the way to spend the night in local hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.

Many hikers do a combination of these things, roughing it for a week or 10 days at the three-sided shelters they’ll find at intervals along the way, “tenting out” for the night not far from the trail. But when a hungry and dirty hiker has spent 10 days out in the woods, he or she will gratefully check in for the night at a hotel for a soft bed and shower where the AT crosses a small town, or lies within hitchhiking distance.

• • •

Why do people do the whole trail, or even great sections of it, and how do they get the time and money to manage the trip?

“It seems to be mostly people in transition,” says Ms. Potteiger. “We see a lot of retirees who are well-funded, experienced hikers for whom completing the entire trail has been a lifelong dream, or kids in their early 20s, just out of college, who haven’t settled into their careers yet.”

Mr. Byrd financed his AT trek by working a part-time job for a couple of months in addition to his full-time employment as a proofreader, and was able to save enough money to keep going for almost three months. He started near the end of June, and stopped when his money ran out in mid-September. His companion along the way was a dog, a setter mix.

“I saw some odd people out on the trail,” Mr. Byrd says. “There were some who were trying to find themselves, or to kick some addiction. Others seemed to have strange notions about what to bring on the hike, and would have pots and pans hanging off their packs, or wear sandals or flat-bottom tennis shoes.”

• • •

The moral of the story is: Get in shape.

Rick Francke, executive director of the Potomac Heritage Trail Association, says novices can start by walking around their neighborhoods, or doing some local “flat” trails — such as the C&0 Canal towpath, the trails at Rock Creek Park, or the circuit around Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Very detailed Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC) maps for all these areas are available at local hiking stores, or at the PATC’s headquarters in Vienna.

Other “easy” trails for beginners include the Seneca Greenway, a linear trail with a few ups and downs that runs from Seneca Lake near Clopper Road in Gaithersburg all the way to the Potomac River; the trails at Scotts Run Preserve in McLean; the North Tract at Patuxent Research Refuge near Laurel; or Little Bennett Regional Park in Clarksburg.

Beginners who are ready for some elevation, says Claudia Seelig, membership director of the Capital Hiking Club, might start walking five miles or less on weekends, keeping the elevation changes to less than 1,000 feet.

Mr. Francke says a good pace for hilly trails is 2 mph, which of course slows as a hiker climbs — and the steeper the climb, the slower the pace.

Other ways to get muscles accustomed to hiking elevations is to work out on stair-stepping machines at the local gym, or to climb stairs or bleachers in outdoor stadiums.

• • •

For hikers who can comfortably walk five miles at a good pace, it’s time for some tougher terrain. Good climbs can be found nearby at the 1,282-foot-high Sugarloaf Mountain, just over the Frederick County line and very close to Route 270 north. Tom Johnson, president of the PATC, recommends the Northern Peaks Trail at Sugarloaf, which runs for five to six miles with 800 feet of elevation change.

Ambitious intermediates might attempt the length of the Potomac Heritage Trail, which runs along the Potomac River in Virginia from Theodore Roosevelt Island up to the American Legion Bridge, where Route 495 crosses the Potomac.

Hikers looking for a real challenge that’s not too far from town can try the Billy Goat Trail, Section A, which begins at the side of the C&O; Canal towpath at Great Falls Tavern in Potomac. Section A is a surprisingly tough rock scramble with great scenic vistas of the Potomac River’s Mather Gorge.

Sections B and C of the Billy Goat Trail provide good warm-ups for Section A. But hikers shouldn’t try Section A until they are in fairly good shape, says Bill Justice, chief of interpretation for the C&O; Canal, National Park Service.

The Billy Goat Trail demands hiking boots or proper footwear with good ankle support, Mr. Justice says. He recommends that hikers bring plenty of water and be sure they are up to the trail’s demands.

“Don’t be like the woman I saw one day who started out on the trail in high heels,” he says.

• • •

Good local hikes on the Appalachian Trail itself include the 3,296-foot-high Robertson Mountain in Virginia, in addition to the better-known hikes on Old Rag Mountain (3,291 feet), White Oak Canyon Trail, and Devil’s Stairs in Shenandoah, Ms. Seelig says.

Ms. Potteiger recommends the climbs on the AT at Annapolis Rocks and Weaverton Cliffs at South Mountain (1,850 feet) in Maryland (as well as a side trip onto Maryland Heights, which affords a great view of Harpers Ferry). A good “roller coaster hike” that includes one of the nicest hostels along the trail, Bear’s Den Hostel, is the part of the trail that runs just south of Harpers Ferry through Virginia, she says.

Ms. Seelig recommends that hikers travel in a group when they are starting out, partly for social reasons, partly because the clubs can charter buses or provide rides for city dwellers without cars.

“A surprising number of people who hike with the Capital Hiking Club are Europeans or other foreigners who don’t own cars, yet love hiking. They tell us that Americans don’t hike as much as they do back home in Europe, or elsewhere,” Ms. Seelig says.

• • •

What to wear? Novices might think the best clothes to wear on a hike would be a favorite pair of worn-out jeans, a cotton sweatshirt and some sneakers.

They would be wrong.

“You never want to wear cotton, because it absorbs moisture and stays wet,” Ms. Seelig says. She recommends polyester mixes instead, such as those found at hiking stores or military surplus outlets. Synthetics are also less heavy to carry.

Most hiking authorities these days recommend layering on clothes made of synthetic fabrics, particularly those that wick moisture away from the body. Wool (wool sweaters, wool socks) can be added on cold days to keep in body heat.

Proper footwear is all important. That means hiking boots. The newer hiking boot-running shoe hybrids, which combine leather and synthetic materials, are lighter in weight than traditional all-leather hiking boots, and are more flexible.

Whichever type of boot a hiker chooses, it should be well-broken in, says Mr. Byrd, since the tiniest blister can bring down even the fittest hiker on a long trail.

Also needed: a small daypack or fanny pack, with two or three quarts of water for a day’s outing; lunch (it should not have to be heated up, or consist of heavy cans); insect repellent during the summer; a first aid kit; and a hat in winter (since the body loses most of its heat through the head).

Don’t bring snake bite kits or bear repellents. Hikers may see the occasional bear or snake, but they’re easy to avoid, the experts say.

• • •

Anyone going on an overnighter or longer-distance backpacking trip will carry a much heavier pack, of course.

Up to the mid-1990s, most hikers hauled around external frame backpacks to carry their sleeping bag, tent, food and clothes, Mr. Byrd says. Today most AT hikers use internal frame packs — which fit the body a little more smoothly — and carry a very lightweight sleeping bag and a small stove.

In many cases they dispense with the tent, Mr. Francke and Ms. Potteiger say, because they can use the shelters. In Maryland and Virginia, those are six to eight miles apart.

However, almost all backpackers carry at least a tarp and some twine or synthetic line, Mr. Francke says. Tarps can be rigged up to a tree to afford protection from wind and rain if the shelters are full of other hikers for the night, or if a hiker has to stop on the trail before reaching one.

• • •

Whatever hikers wear when climbing the AT, most are aware that the Appalachian Trail is a resource in need of protection. Many, such as volunteers for the PATC, donate their time to repair the trail as needed. Others donate to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to buy property that can serve as a buffer against development.

“The Appalachian Trail is not only a trail, but also a national park that we must protect and preserve to keep the wilderness area unspoiled for hikers,” Ms. Potteiger says.

“There are over 500 entrances to the trail, and we have so much pressure from people who want to gain access and develop it for uses other than hiking. Every year, we’re fighting ATVers [all-terrain vehicle users], airports and real estate developers who want to use the land.

“It’s a constant battle to protect these primitive spaces, so that all can enjoy it.”

Areas to hike, clubs to join

Ready to try a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail? Don’t tackle it cold: Start easy with any of the beginner or intermediate trails so abundant in this area.

And if you want companionship or feel you need some training in basic hiking and camping skills, seek out a club. Many of them organize hikes to parts of the trail and regularly trek other prime hiking spots within 100 miles of the District. Some provide charter buses or other transportation to hiking destinations.

Here’s a guide:

Hiking areas

m C&O; Canal National Historic Park, Great Falls Tavern: 11710 MacArthur Blvd., Potomac. The Billy Goat Trail here is open during daylight, year-round. Find it via the canal towpath at the Tavern area (small fee for parking). To avoid a parking fee, use the parking lot across MacArthur Boulevard from Old Angler’s Inn in Potomac, cross the canal on the footbridge, turn right (north) and walk about 1/4 mile to the start of the trail. 301/767-3714 or www.nps.gov/choh.

• Little Bennett Regional Park: 23701 Frederick Road, Clarksburg. More than 14 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. 301/972-6581 or www.mc-mncppc.org/parks.

• Patuxent Research Refuge, North Tract: Route 198 and Bald Eagle Drive, Maryland City. Almost 20 miles of hiking trails in a fish and wildlife sanctuary run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Prospective hikers must sign a waiver at the Visitor Contact Station. Trails open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sundays during hunting season (September-December), at other times from January to August. 301/776-3090 or www.fws. gov/northeast/patuxent/ntintro.html.

• Potomac Heritage Trail: The trail head for this 10-mile section of the longer Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail begins at the parking lot for Theodore Roosevelt Island below the spot where Key Bridge crosses over the George Washington Parkway. Access to Roosevelt Island is only from the northbound lanes of the parkway. Metro access: Rosslyn. Open during daylight, year-round. See www.nps.gov/pohe.

• Rock Creek Park: The park that runs through the District is laced with hiking trails and bridle paths. Open daily. Metro: Woodley Park/Zoo, with a walk through the zoo to reach the hiker-biker path along Beach Drive. Or walk downhill from Calvert Street along the Shoreham Drive exit ramp to reach the park alongside Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway. Call the National Park Service at 202/895-6000 or see www.nps.gov/rocr.

• Sugarloaf Mountain: 7901 Comus Road, Dickerson. A 1,282-foot peak that features hiking trails and driving roads, owned and operated by Stronghold Inc., a private, non-profit organization. Open dawn to dusk most days of the year. Motorcycles and scooters not permitted on the driving roads to the peak. 301/869-7846 or www.sugarloaf md.com.

• Theodore Roosevelt Island: This national memorial park, across the Potomac River from Georgetown Harbor, includes a huge statue of President Theodore Roosevelt, and provides hiking on a perimeter trail around the island. Access to Roosevelt Island is only from the northbound lanes of the parkway. Metro access: Rosslyn. Open daily during daylight hours. www.nps.gov/this.

• Shenandoah National Park: The closest national park containing the Appalachian Trail. Skyline Drive is a popular starting point for Washington hikers and backpackers. Run by the National Park Service, it’s open year-round during daylight unless snow closes parts of Skyline Drive. The Dickey Ridge and Harry F. Byrd Sr. visitor centers are open from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. October to March. See www.nps.gov/shen.

Hiking clubs

• Appalachian Trail Conservancy: P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Formerly known as the Appalachian Trail Conference, this group works with local partners to preserve the AT, buys land to protect it and builds and maintains its shelters. ATC also sells trail maps and guidebooks. At ATC headquarters, thru-hikers and section hikers are encouraged to register and to provide details about their planned hikes on the AT. 304/535-6331 ext. 119 or www.appalachiantrail.org.

• Capital Hiking Club: Group day hikes every Saturday at both easy and challenging hiking trails at parks in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. For most hikes, provides chartered buses that bring members to the hike’s starting point. See www.capital hikingclub .org.

• Potomac Appalachian Trail Club: 118 Park St. SE, Vienna. PATC runs hikes and trips, organizes volunteers who help maintain the AT, and produces and sells detailed topographic maps of popular hiking trails in the District, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The club also provides training classes in trail maintenance and backpacking. 703/242-0693 or www.patc.net.

• Wanderbirds: This volunteer club takes groups from the city by chartered bus to Sunday hikes in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. 301/460-3064 or see https://home.comcas t.net/~wanderbirds/wbirds.htm.

• Washington Women Outdoors: 19450 Caravan Drive, Germantown. This non-profit volunteer group offers both easy and challenging hikes and backpacking trips to women seeking adventures in the outdoors. 301/864-3070 or www.washington womenoutdoors.org

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