Take the train to the AT—low carbon, low stress. No car, no complicated shuttles. Just great hiking! This AT section hike has it all—an ideal blend of natural beauty, history, small towns, great local parks, and meeting interesting people. It’s a perfect example of what makes hiking on the AT a unique and special experience—why people come from all over the world to hike the trail.
Top 5 Highlights of this Section of the AT
- The variety of hiking: A mix of everything — high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, rolling farm fields and wildflowers. And in the summer it’s cool & shaded; 90% of the time no hats /sunglasses needed.
- Lots of History: Harpers Ferry (historic town & national park), the C&O Canal, Mason Dixon Line, Galthand, Washington Monument, Pine Grove Furnace, the Cumberland Valley and the historic towns of Boiling Springs and Duncannon PA on the shore of the Susquehanna River.
- Hike in 4 of the 13 original states
- Some of the nicest shelters on the AT: Well-maintained, many with nice camping options around them. E.g. the new, two-story Raven Rock Shelter, Quarry Gap Shelters, & Tumbling Run Shelters.
- Pennsylvania State Parks: Pennsylvania spent the time and money to do their state parks right. In picturesque settings with lovely shaded picnic areas, good camping, (food in season), lakes to swim in, nice bathrooms, and even some free showers. Pine Grove Furnace and Caledonia State Parks are standouts among a number of great parks.
Note this is installment one of a series of Low Carbon Section Hikes
- Installment 1: This post – Harpers Ferry WV to Harrisburg PA, 124 miles
- Installment 2: Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Shenandoah to Harpers Ferry, 54 miles
- Installment 3: Low Carbon AT Section Hike – Roanoke to Shenandoah National Park, 134 miles
Stay tuned as we add more Low Carbon Section Hikes on the Appalachian Trail…
Reduce the Carbon – Take the Train
This guide is meant to supplement the many excellent general guides to the Appalachian Trail (AT). As such,
- Our guide gives more detail to this specific section of the AT, and in particular how to access it by train from much of the Northeast US.
- Lighten your load: The gear (link) and food (link) for the light packs we used to efficiently and comfortably hike the AT. We believe this will make the hike more pleasant for others.
- And finally, we discuss the places we most enjoyed on the hike in both text and photos.
Make your trip even more enjoyable…
Our 9 Pound – Full Comfort – Lightweight Backpacking Gear List will lighten your load and put a spring in your step. So if you want a light pack but retain all the convenience and comfort of “traditional” backpacking, look no further. You’ll be safe, warm and comfortable. This list has served Alison and I admirably on most 3-season trips in the lower 48 and on our trips world-wide. It works!
Light pack & easy hiking: Dawn view across the Appalachian ridge from White Rock Cliffs of South Mountain.
What’s in this Trip Guide
- Logistics: link on how to use trains and other transportation to and from the start and end of the hike
(including a bit of info on lodging in Harpers Ferrry, WV)
- Some of our favorite places: link to Photo Essay & Trip Description
- Gear: a link to list of gear that we took that kept our packs around 12 pounds
- Food: a link to list of the food we took to save food weight but still eat healthy
- Waypoint and Mileage Table: link to Waypoint and Mileage Table
- GPS Track: link to download GPX track and waypoint file suitable for loading into your iPhone or GPS
(if you want more info on this see: How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS)
- Maps: link to our recommendations for maps and guidebooks
- Harpers Ferry: link to ideas about where to stay and what to do in historic Harpers Ferry
Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train
Stats – Low Carbon Appalachian Trail Section Hike via Train
The trip takes between 5 to 9 days
- 0 mile – trip start in historic Harpers Ferry, WV
- 98 miles to first logical exit, historic mill town of Boiling Springs, PA
- 124 miles to trip end in Duncannon, PA, near Harrisburg PA
- 1.5 hrs from Washington Union Station to start in historic Harper’s Ferry VA (via train)
- 4-5 hrs from trip end in Duncannon PA back to Washington Union Station (via Uber/Taxi and train)
and shorter if you are just heading to Philadelphia, PA – Amtrak 30th Street Station (PHL)
Waypoint and Mileage Table
The table below is in scrollable window or you can see the table full page here, as a Google Sheet
Maps and Guides
The Appalachian Trail is possibly the most documented trail in the world. There are many excellent guides. Our favorite guide is David Miller’s (AT trail-name, AWOL) “The A.T. Guide Northbound.”
We supplement it with the following Appalachian Trail Pocket Profile Maps
Options for Trip Start in Harpers Ferry WV
- You can walk right off the train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill).
- Or, you can stay overnight in a B&B, get a nice dinner and enjoy Harpers Ferry for the evening. Then you can get up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and start your hike.
- If you have the time, consider spending a day or 1/2 day exploring the historic town and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. For a stunning view we highly recommend the hike to Maryland Heights. (The lead picture for this article was taken from Maryland Heights.)
- If you want to make this a 4 state trip by adding a short side trip to Virginia see Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights for more detail.
- For those wanting a very early start and coffee/breakfast the veteran owned Guide Shack Cafe opens at 5:00 am and has the best coffee in town.
Brief Route Description and Trip Highlights – a Photo Essay
This section hike has it all—high, rocky ridges; deep, cool woods; lush stream valleys, historic towns and parks, and rolling farmlands. Between Harpers Ferry WV and Harrisburg PA, it follows the Appalachian Ridge for over 100 miles going through over dozen parks, vast forests, and other public lands. In all, it travels through four states (if you take a short side trip to Virginia).
The trip starts in Harpers Ferry, WV where it crosses over the Potomac River to Maryland and covers all 41 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) in MD. In Pennsylvania it continues another 83 miles on the AT, much of it in the vast Michaux Forest. It ends at the mighty Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, PA.
On a historic note, the hike crosses the Mason Dixon Line, two historic and one actual midpoint markers of the Appalachian Trail, and a number of historic places like Washington Monument PA, Pine Grove Furnace, the old mill town of Boiling Springs, the rolling farmlands of the Cumberland Valley, and the historic river town of Duncannon PA on the banks of the Susquehanna.
The trip starts as you pass by John Brown’s Fort (click for precise map) to pickup the Appalachian Trail at the WV side of the footbridge crossing the Potomac River into Maryland. Once in Maryland the AT turns right and heads east along the towpath of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal (National Historic Park).
Note: You can walk right off the early evening train and hike to the Ed Garvey Shelter and camp for the night (6.5 miles, some of it steeply uphill). Or, and the option many will choose, is to stay overnight and enjoy Harpers Ferry. If you start early the next morning you can make it to Crampton Gap (10 miles) or Rocky Run Shelters (16 miles)
Make it a 4 state trip!
Note: If you want to make this a four state trip (fun!), you’ll want to make a brief side-trip into Virginia. Hike west on the AT to the 340 bridge and follow the AT across the bridge south onto the Virginia bank of the Shenandoah River. Link to Map showing both trip start across the Potomac River into Maryland to the C&O Canal towpath, and the side trip into Virginia across the Rt. 340 bridge.
After about 3 miles of fast and level walking on the C&O Canal Towpath, the AT turns left, crosses the train tracks and heads steeply uphill to the Junction with the side trail to the Ed Garvey Shelter.
Crampton Gap Shelter and Gathland State Park
Gathland State Park is a good place to collect some spigot water and use a restroom. The spring at Crampton Gap shelter is intermittent (worst mid-summer).
Crampton Gap and Gathland State Park are worth at least a brief look. Built in the late 1800’s, Gathland was the mountain home of George Alfred Townsend, a Civil War journalist. A few of this unique collection buildings and structures, designed and constructed by Townsend, were partially restored in the 1950’s.
Washington Monument State Park
Washington Monument State Park is a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table and use a restroom. The Monument is worth visiting both for its history and for a great view of the Cumberland Valley.
Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell Shelters
The unremarkable Pine Knob shelter is worth a stop for the nice piped spring behind it. There are some large campsites near the shelter. To regain the AT northbound take the shortcut (rather than retracing your steps).
Good water source between Pine Knob and Ensign Crowell shelters:
There’s a nice piped spring a few 100 yds west of the AT (downhill) from Pogo Memorial Campsite.
If possible, avoid camping at Ensign Crowell Shelter. It’s not the nicest shelter. It’s very near a road, often crowded, and has an iffy water source mid-summer.
“The Rocks of Pennsylvania”
This section of intermittently rocky trail actually starts in Maryland about 5-10 miles before you enter Pennsylvania. “The Rocks of Pennsylvania” are not as bad their reputation. Care and patience will get the job safely done. The hardest and rockiest section of trail is on the descent off the ridge down to Pen Mar County Park near the MD/PA border.
Raven Rock Shelter
Raven Rock Shelter (mile 36) is one of the nicer shelters of the trip. In addition, the flat expanse around the shelter has lots of great camping areas, many with their own picnic tables. The only downside is that there’s no water at Raven Rock Shelter. It’s a fairly long round trip downhill get water. (Alternatively you can collect water from the stream at MD 491/Raven Rock Hollow, before hiking about 1 mile uphill to the shelter).
Pen Mar County Park and Mason Dixon Line
Pen Mar County Park has nice views. It’s a good place to get spigot water, have a snack at a shaded picnic table/pavilion and use a restroom. There are vending services in season. Just a few minutes past the park is marker for where the AT crosses the historic Mason Dixon Line.
Deerlick Shelters are nothing to get excited about. But there’s a a really nice spring about 0.2 miles walk from the shelters. And there are some nice campsites along the trail to the spring (and at a comfortable/quit distance from the shelters).
Tumbling Run Shelter to Caledonia State Park
This is one of the nicer portions of the hike. But it is rocky and has a fair amount of elevation change. At 10 miles long it is also a dry and long section. Best to fill up on water from the nice piped spring across the creek from the Tumbling Run shelters. And the shelters have nice shaded picnic tables.
The only water mid-route is at Rocky Mountain shelters. Unfortunately, they are a 1 mile round trip downhill from the ridge. Unless you are camping there, you might not want to walk all the way down just for water.
Caledonia State Park is an unqualified delight. We arrived at the Park in the late afternoon, overheated, grimy and sweaty from a very long day hiking on an unusually hot and humid spring day. We had an ice cream sandwich and a large cold drink from the snack bar, then followed that with a sublime dip in the vast and cold outdoor swimming pool. We emerged an hour later, freshly showered and blessedly cool and comfortable. Needless to say, it was one of highlights of the trip. In addition to the snack bar and pool, the park has a beautiful stream running through it, large shaded picnic areas with many pavilions, and excellent bathrooms.
From Caledonia State Park, it’s only a 30-45 minute walk uphill to Quarry Gap Shelters. These shelters are new and carefully tended and maintained. The picnic shelter had flower pots hanging from the eaves. There was a camp host to guide hikers to camping areas and otherwise help out and make things run smoothly.
Quarry Run Shelters
Birch Run Shelter
Birch Run is a nice shelter with grassy camping around it. There is small stream in front of the shelter and the larger stream, Birch Run itself, is only a few hundred feet further down trail. There is also a nice camp on the other side of Birch Run.
Appalachian Trail Midpoint(s)
Pine Grove Furnace
Pine Grove Furnace is an excellent stopping point on the AT. It has:
- The Pine Grove Furnace General Store, which has limited food, groceries & camping supplies; and a short-order counter serving hamburgers, sandwiches, ice-cream, shakes, etc.
- The store is where thru-hikers traditionally celebrate “1/2 and 1/2,” reaching the halfway point on the AT and by attempting to eat a half gallon of ice cream.
- Lodging at the Ironmasters Mansion Hostel
- A pleasant campground (fee) with excellent facilities
- A public swimming lake (in season) with free showers.
- Historic site/remains of the Pine Grove Iron Works/Pine Grove Furnace. In operation 1764 to 1895.
- The Appalachian Trail Museum housed in a 200 year old grist mill.
James Fry Shelter
Entering the Cumberland Valley
Note: After the Alec Kennedy Shelter there are no official AT Shelters until the Darlington Shelter 18 miles down the trail.
Boiling Springs PA – 1st option to uber to train
Boiling Springs is a lovely, historic mill town surrounding a large mill pond (now “Children’s Lake”). At mile 98 it is the first obvious opportunity to take an Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. Cost of ride is approx. $25 to $35 and around 30 minutes.
There are a number of lodgings, a couple of food stores and a few restaurants in Boiling Springs. There is also a free campground. There’s a nice public pool in town with showers (get $3 off admission at the ATC HQ Office).
The Appalachian Trail Club Mid-Atlantic Regional Office is along the shore of the lake. It’s definitely worth a visit—it has a lovely porch for sitting in the shade, trail needs, maps, and fuel.
Crossing the Cumberland Valley
Leaving the Cumberland Valley to Trip End in Duncannon PA
This section Starts with lots of walking through bucolic farm fields and hedge rows. Then you exit the valley by climbing the two ridges of Blue Mountain and Cove Mountain before dropping into Duncannon PA.
- From Boilings Springs to Duncannon PA, pretty much every crossing of a major road is a potential place to Uber to the Amtrak Station in Harrisburg PA. See trip logistics section.
- There is no camping along the AT for this section.
- Spring water is much harder to find. And we were less happy about getting water from streams running through farmland and moderately populated areas. Altho there are some options to get spigot water along the way.
- Darlington and Cove Mountain Shelters are the last two AT Shelters of the trip: These shelters are respectively at the top of the last two ridges of the trip, Blue and Cove Mountains.
This rocky promontory offers superb views of the Duncannon area. It’s a stop on the Audubon’s Susquehanna River Birding and Wildlife Trail, and a famous rest stop for hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
Duncannon PA – the end of the trip
Uber to the Harrisburg Train Station is approx. $20-$30 and about 20 minutes. Duncannon PA is a very hiker friendly town. Their is a riverfront campground in Duncannon for a modest cost. There are also number of lodging options, food stores, restaurants and even an ice cream store.
Note: Duncannon is a historic river town on the Banks of the Susquehanna River just outside the Harrisburg metropolitan area. Duncannon is just downstream from the Juniatta-Susquehanna River confluence at Clarks Ferry and sits below the impressive the Kittatinny Ridge. The town had historic impact as a trading crossroads in Pennsylvania’s colonial era. From Conestoga freight wagons to canals, railroads, and highways, the Duncannon was a major influence on the region’s transportation.
Logistics – getting to and from trip start and trip end
Trip Start: getting to Harpers Ferry, WV from Washington, DC
Harpers Ferry is easily accessed from Union Station in Washington DC. The first train of the day arrives in Harpers Ferry just after 5:00 pm. The $13 Amtrak 29 Capitol Limited: 4:05 pm “Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS)” to 5:16 pm “Harpers Ferry, WV (HFY).” Other options are the MARC Brunswick Line commuter trains arriving at 6:05pm, 7:18pm, and 7:54pm, and 9:00pm (weekdays only), see MARC train schedule.
Need to Start from another city in the North East or Mid-Atlantic?
Amtrak’s DC Union Stations is accessible by train from most of the East Coast. See Amtrak trip planner.
Trip End: from Boiling Springs, PA or Duncannon, PA back to Washington DC
Trip end to the Harrisburg, PA Amtrak Train Station (HAR)
- Uber – We took Uber from our trip end to the Harrisburg Train Station. It took ten minutes for our car to arrive and 20 minutes to the train station, costing around $30. This works equally well from Boiling Springs or Duncannon, PA.
- Bus from Duncannon, PA – Although we didn’t take it, there appears to be a once daily, morning CAT commuter bus Route 23 from the Clarks Ferry Bridge Park and Ride – CAT and Carpool (it’s essentially on the AT, south shore of the Susquehanna River – here’s its location on Google Maps). It’s a 10 minute walk from the N 6th St & Boas St bus stop to the Harrisburg train station.
- From the Harrisburg Train Station there are number of daily trains back to DC. We took the Amtrak Keystone Service to Philadelphia, PA 30th Street Station (PHL) and transferred to the Northeast Regional to Washington – Union Station, DC (WAS). Approximately 4-5 hours and $80 to $120.
Lodging in Harpers Ferry
If you decide to stay overnight in Harpers Ferry, it’s best to book well ahead. Trip Advisor is a good place find a room. The historic town and National Historical Park are popular destinations. Even for mid-week reservations many B&Bs are booked weeks, even a month or more in advance (many with 2 night minimums on weekends).
The Lower and Upper Sections of Harpers Ferry
The town of Harpers Ferry is in two sections. 1) The small lower historic section by the river and the National Historical Park and 2) the larger upper section, about 10-20 minutes walk uphill. In the lower section, lodging is limited and competitive. There are a just few nice B&Bs in the lower section and they tend to be fully booked weeks or even month’s in advance. The Town’s Inn is a traditional place for Appalachian Trail hikers to stay. In addition to rooms, it has a small hostel, a cafe, a bistro and a small store with a good selection of trail food and supplies. Be forewarned, it was recently featured in the reality TV series, Hotel Hell (an amusing watch).
Lodging options are more plentiful in the upper section of the town, but there are fewer attractions and restaurants—altho the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters are here and also the best coffee shop in town, the Guide Shack Cafe which opens at 5:00 am for those wanting a very early start with coffee/breakfast. Many lodgings in the upper section provide free shuttle to and from the lower section. Some will even meet your train. We stayed at the Jackson Rose Bed & Breakfast and enjoyed it.