June 20, 2018 / Comments (1)

Week #16—The Calm Before the Rock Storm

6/4 – Duncannon to stealth campsite
6/5 – Campsite to swatara gap campsite
6/6 – Swatara gap to Rock n Sole hostel
6/7 – Hostel to Port Clinton/Hamburg
6/8 – Port Clinton to Eckville Shelter
6/9 – Eckville to The Summit B&B
6/10 – Zero at B&B

As early as my departure from Harper’s Ferry, I have been anxious about hiking through Pennsylvania because of the stories I have read and the remarks I have heard about the rocks. I knew generally that the southern half of the state was not bad and that the rocks showed up in earnest in the northern or eastern half of the Keystone State. But I couldn’t pinpoint precisely when the difficult/challenging/monotonous/boot destroying rocks really begin. Some have said, “after the 501 shelter, or “after the William Penn shelter,” “after Duncannon,” or “after Lehigh Gap,” and others. One hiker told me, “after Delaware Water Gap,” which I knew was ludicrous since the AT in Pennsylvania ends at DWG. My buddy Scars, with whom I hiked much of the first 900 miles, is 5 days north of me now and he texted that the worst rocks were “Wind Gap to Water Gap,” but that doesn’t say when they start. (Scars was quick to add that the rocks certainly continue into New Jersey for a ways.)

Rocks come in two or three varieties. The rocks that seem to be universally hated are smallish rocks (golf ball,baseball, football sized) that cover the entire path like a mine field with the rocks being very angular, set at very possible position with little or no space to fit a foot in between. These rocks bruise the sides and bottoms of hikers’ feet – and those using light running shoes and trail runners often have significant bruises on the bottom of their feet due to the lack of a sift, protective sole or inner sole.

A variation on this first type of rocks is the same type or kind of rocks, but where each rock is about three times as large as the “smallish” rocks. These “medium sized rocks laid out in a minefield across every conceivable inch of the trail are the most problematic because the height and size of these makes both walking on them or maneuvering around them extremely difficult. Even those hikers willing to accept the sole bruising jabs through the smallish rocks have to pick their way more carefully and slowly through these “medium” rocks.

The “other” version of troublesome rocks are large boulders set about in boulder piles and/or boulder fields. The hiker’s task is to maneuver over/around/through these obstacles. Sometimes Pennsylvania will throw in some descent or climb through these piles or fields, which substantially increases the difficulty and danger. A 12 year-old boy would absolutely love the challenge of hopping down through these large rocks. For many of us today that are no longer in our youth, when we can summons the perfect mental attitude about the task at hand, can slip back into that childlike exuberance and see great fun in scrambling and hopping our way through boulder fields. But, sometimes, when you have 30 pounds or so on your back and you’ve already hiked 12 miles that day and/or the rocks are slippery and/or you’re not particularly comfortable because you’ve seen your third copperhead or timber rattler AND almost any material misstep or fall will likely bring serious injury, it’s hard to adjust your mental approach to the problem at hand.

All that said, most of these challenges are just that – a difficult task or predicament that needs to be conquered or solved. Thru-hikers on the trail northbound from Springer Mountain have had more than a few (in many varieties) of these “challenges.” The primary problem – I believe – is when these rock scrambling and similar tasks go on and on for hours and miles. The intermittent rock obstacle is one thing – and a “thing” that can usually be put in that boyhood challenge category – it’s a full day of such tasks and a number of days in a row with nothing but such “challenges” that has the potential, at a minimum, to set you back emotionally and make you reconsider whether this journey is worth all the sacrifices, or, at worst, to create such discomfort/frustration/anger that you attempt to move too quickly through the challenge and have a serious fall and injury.

Most of this I learned from watching YouTube videos, reading memoirs, reviewing blogs, and talking with former thru-hikers. I have experienced personally most of these situations, but typically only for 10 or 15 minutes (on and off) and occasionally for 30 – 45 minutes (such as the large boulder scrambling at the top of the ridge after climbing out of Duncannon). As indicated, I have stressed about when the long stretches will begin. The good news is that I keep wondering and worrying and nothing really materializes. The AWOL guide warns of an almost 6-mile stretch heading towards Duncannon (“trail very rocky from here north to PA 274”), but I thought the warning was overblown. I had other days to Swartara Gap and to Route 501 and to Route 183 and to Port Clinton and to Eckville where some of these rocks were present, but tolerable, so my search for when the rocks started continued.

Obviously, almost the entire week was spent the same way: ridge walking, climbing down and back up to the ridge, but little other elevation changes, a long green tunnel with few views/outlooks, and few notable points of interest or interesting landforms. Often the path was actually quite pleasant, such as much of the trail to Port Clinton . There were long, easy descents into Eckville and Route 309. Highlights of the week were old railroad town of Port Clinton, a visit from a dear friend for dinner, an unplanned, but wonderful visit (both fellowship and meals) to Rock n Sole hostel and a couple of extended walks and conversations with friends. Also, the weather moderated and there was very little rain and much sunshine. And maybe seeing my first rattlesnake was a “highlight.”

Perhaps the most notable “highlight” was that I think I decided where I think the rocks begin. The last hiking day of the week was Eckville shelter to Route 309 and The Summit B&B. There was a stretch between Dan’s Pulpit through Balance Rocks and on to the Allentown Hiking Club shelter that presented both kinds of rocks almost non-stop for about 4.5 miles.

Most of this is to say – I spent most of the week wondering and worrying about the rocks and snakes to come. It turned out to be essentially just that – wonder and unnecessary worry, an unexpected calm before the most difficult patch of rock hiking, but just as the week was ending I got a thorough introduction of the storm to come. After a relatively easy climb back up to the ridge from the Eckville shelter, I hit “Dan’s Pulpit,” where my first rattlesnake greeted me. Perhaps a little like the serpent in the Garden, I should have realized this signaled bad news because now I know the rocks of Pennsylvania begin right after Dan’s Pulpit.

The rocks, both varieties continued with some brief respite for the next five miles or so. I had finally encountered that long, extended stretch of rock challenges. I knew more, and the worst, were still to come. Hopefully a well-adjusted mental outlook coupled with a visit from a close friend (who picked a most “interesting” time to “guest hike”) will help me attack successfully the final 50 miles of Rocksylvania.

And while the trail goes all rocky, below are some additional recent sights.




Share this...
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn

Last modified: June 20, 2018

One Response to :
Week #16—The Calm Before the Rock Storm

  1. Jamie says:


    Keep on truckin’. The photo of the snake (copperhead or rattler?) looked as though you were too close for comfort. The other photos are gorgeous. Jamie

Comments are closed.