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5 family hikes along the Appalachian Trail

Family hikes along the Appalachian Trail give kids a taste for the appeal of the 2,189 mile trail. There might be no better time to hike the mid-Atlantic portion of the Appalachian Trail than fall, when the chilly nights jump-start Mother Nature’s wondrous show of colors among the maple, birch and oak trees that blanket the mountains.

Annapolis Rocks along the Appalachian TrailHiking with my family in Pine Grove Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania two years ago, the 2-by-6-inch white blazes painted on the trees greeted me like old friends.

I explained to my daughter, Katie, that those blazes mark the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, a ribbon of land that runs from northern Georgia to Maine.

The Appalachian Trail

About 15 years earlier, I had completed a five-month “thru-hike” of the Appalachian Trail, but on this day our route was a little less ambitious — just about a mile — during a camping trip in the park.

The “AT,” as it’s known, welcomes all — the long-distance dreamer, the weekend warrior, and the day-hiking family with young children (and/or dogs) in tow.

Here are five relatively close hikes where you can take advantage of the best the Appalachian Trail has to offer this fall.

Some of these hikes can be modified into shorter options. All have adequate parking nearby.

The trail is generally well marked; just be sure to follow the white blazes. (Two white blazes together indicate a switchback or change in direction, but usually that is obvious.) Other trails that branch off from the AT will have a different color (often sky blue) blaze.

Annapolis Rock/Black Rock
Boonsboro, Maryland

Length: 6 or 8 miles
Type of hike: Out and back
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Distance from Annapolis to trailhead: 1 1/2 hours

This hike offers great views including one of Lake Greenbrier. Proceed north from a parking lot on Route 40 near Greenbrier State Park. After a quick climb, the trail levels off and runs along the spine of South Mountain. After 2.5 miles, there is a short (0.2 mile) side trail to Annapolis Rock, a sandstone cliff offering views back toward Lake Greenbrier. You can turn around here, or proceed another mile to Black Rock, offering 180-degree views to the west.

Bonus: You might see rock climbers working their way up the cliffs at Annapolis Rock.

Washington Monument State Park
Middletown, Maryland

Length: 5 miles
Type of hike: Shuttle
Degree of difficulty: Easy to moderate
Distance from Annapolis to trailhead: 1 1/2 hours

This hike between U.S. Route 40 Alternate and Interstate 70 takes you past the first completed monument to America’s first president. The stone tower originally was built by the residents of Boonsboro in 1827. (It has been rebuilt at least twice.) A fairly level walk then skirts Greenbrier State Park before reaching the Interstate 70 footbridge. Park one car at U.S. Route 40 Alternate (Old National Pike) and the other on a small lot on Route 40, 0.2 miles off the trail.

Bonus: There are picnic tables and a playground, and the top of the monument offers excellent views. Migratory birds such as falcons and eagles pass through in early fall.


Harpers Ferry along the Appalachian TrailWeverton Cliff
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Length: 2 or 9 miles
Type of hike: Out and back
Degree of difficulty: Moderate
Distance from Annapolis to trailhead: 1 1/2 hours

This hike begins with a flat, leisurely walk along the C&O Canal towpath for about 3 miles before beginning a steep climb up South Mountain. Weverton Cliff, at the southern tip of South Mountain, offers spectacular views west back toward Harpers Ferry, where the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers merge. For a shorter hike, skip the canal towpath and park at the Weverton Road Park and Ride. It will be a quick, steep climb from there.

Bonus: While in Harpers Ferry, stop by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy on Washington Street. The ATC is the nonprofit organization that manages the trail, and the office is a trove of AT history and artifacts. You might even see thru-hikers passing through. Go ahead and give them a lift to the grocery store or laundromat. They will be very appreciative.

Shenandoah National Park along the Appalachian TrailThe Pinnacle and Marys Rock
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Length: 6.8 miles
Type of hike: Out and back
Degree of difficulty: Easy/moderate
Distance from Annapolis to trailhead: 2 1/2 hours

This hike covers perhaps the most scenic stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, with unobstructed panoramic views from several spots along the way. It begins near the Jewell Hollow Overlook at milepost 36.4 on Skyline Drive and proceeds north. The Pinnacle, at 3,350 feet, offers outstanding views to the west. Marys Rock, which has perhaps the best views in the entire park, is reached via a short side trail off the AT. For a shorter hike of about 3.7 miles, you can park at Thornton Gap and hike south to Marys Rock, but you will miss the Pinnacle.

Bonus: There is a nice picnic area at the Pinnacles Overlook, at milepost 36.7 on Skyline Drive.

Hawk Rock
Duncannon, Pennsylvania

Length: 1.6 miles
Type of hike: Out and back
Degree of difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
Distance from Annapolis to trailhead: 2 hours

When hiking to Hawk Rock, it’s easy to see why Appalachian Trail thru-hikers refer to Pennsylvania as “Rocksylvania.” This short, steep, rocky hike quickly climbs about 750 feet and takes you to a sandstone outcropping that offers gorgeous views north to the nearby down of Duncannon and the Susquehanna River. Earl Shaffer, the first person ever to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (in 1948), lived not far from Hawk Rock and considered it one of his favorite spots on the entire trail. The trailhead parking area is on Watershed Drive at the south end of Duncannon.

Bonus: When in Duncannon, stop by the Old Sled Works, a former sled factory that is now an antique market. The highlight is a vintage arcade with games dating to the 1920s.

Fast facts about the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail facts and figures
Total length: 2,189 miles
Northern terminus: Mount Katahdin, Maine
Southern terminus: Springer Mountain, Georgia
Highest point: Clingmans Dome, Tennessee (6,643 feet)
States trail crosses: 14 (Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine)
Miles in Maryland: 41

By Bo Smolka

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