I've been saving this one for one of those rare days off when I actually had nearly the whole day available to me. So after I dropped my granddaughter off at day camp, I turned northward and made the 90-minute drive to Gathland State Park near Burkittsville, Maryland.
The park is named for George Alfred Townsend who was a Civil War press correspondent, one of the youngest to report on the war from the front lines. He also covered the assassination of President Lincoln, and the subsequent pursuit of the killer, actor John Wilkes Booth. He was a well-known and prodigious writer, at one point penning some 18,000 words per day. In a time when inkpens had to be dipped in ink and written on foolscap, this was an amazing level of output. After the war, he remained one of the most popular of Washington correspondents, having gathered a huge audience.
When he was 47, he began building an estate on land he purchased in Crampton's Gap, a wind gap cutting through the otherwise contiguous South Mountain. This land was also the site where the Battle of South Mountain was fought in September 1862. Among the structures that he had built out the abundant native stone was an arch dedicated to war correspondents who were killed while covering wars.
The Memorial Arch.
What remains of his mansion.
After his death, the land was given to the state for a park, which is known not by Townsend's name, but his pen name, "Gath."
The AT (Appalachian Trail) passes right through this property, descending from the northern part of South Mountain, across the gap, and back up onto the southern ridge. Last week, I hiked the southern ridge, part of it anyway, from Weverton, north of Harper's Ferry. It was a brutal climb, and looking at the topo map I saw that the part starting from Gathland was a much gentler ascent, so I decided to give this one a try.
Traffic being what it is, it took me almost two hours to get there. But upon arrival, I saw the beautiful property, and two parking lots. I pulled in, geared up, and headed south.
There are two access points for the trail, one being a path that begins right off the upper driveway. But if you want a bit of a ceremony (and don't mind the rocks) you can pass through an arch that was meant to be part of Townsend's mausoleum, although he didn't use it. Once on the trail, the climbout is much gentler than it's southern counterpart. Part of that is because the elevation at the gap is 400 feet higher that the point just off the Potomac River. But the path is still strewn with rocks.
Once again, my trekking poles stood me in good stead, keeping me from falling as I teetered and tottered over the stones. Rocks aside, it was an absolutely perfect day, sunny, very low humidity, and temps in the low 70's. For Virginia/Maryland in late July, this kind of condition falls somewhere between "rare" and "unheard of". The tree canopy is dense, so there's not a lot of sunshine falling onto the hiker. But the birds were singing, the breeze was delightful, and I was in my element.
Speaking of rocks, on the path I began to see a lot of quartz rock, both lumps of crystals, and veins running through other rocks.
I'm no geologist, so I'll leave it to others as to why, but this stuff was scattered all along the ridgetop.
The terrain meandered up and down, although there weren't any really difficult climbs. I made decent time, even having to slow for the excessively rocky parts.
About 3 1/4 miles in, I came across a sign...
...at the head of a side trail. Not having visited on of these shelters, I decided to take a look.
At the end of the trail was a pretty good sized log structure...
...hollowed out on the back side...
It is a sleeping shelter with a loft and the only decoration are firmly-worded signs to clean up afterwards. There were also a couple of picnic tables and a very primitive privy. I decided to stop and eat my lunch here. It was very peaceful, and there was an overlook which won't become visible until late fall.
After eating, I rejoined the trail and continued on. My intent was to hike all the way to Weverton Cliff and back, a distance of some 12 miles. But when I got to a point about 5 1/4 miles, I reached a place where the trail sloped downward through a prodigious rock garden. I was tired, and I decided to reverse course at that point. The way back went much quicker. And my increasing fatigue didn't keep me from enjoying the lovely scenery.
I kept going, pushing an even harder pace, and finally I passed back through the arch, having done 10.56 miles in just under 5 hours.
I wandered around a bit looking at the buildings in the park, but after taking time to stretch, I climbed back in the car and headed home.
This was a hike I've wanted to do since seeing South Mountain on the Topo map. The south end was a hard climb, and the north end was a long hike, but the tired I felt heading home was manifestly a "good tired."
This was the longest hike I've attempted since I did a 20-miler as part of the qualifications for Eagle Scout when I was a teenager. All things considered, I did all right.
My next hike I think will involve the section of the AT south of US 50, less than 30 minutes from home. I don't think I'll do this 2-hour drive again anytime soon.