I had a chance to log some miles with Ashli on the Appalachian Trail a few weeks ago after we attended the ALDHA annual gathering in Shippensburg, PA. I thought it would be useful to talk about how we used Gaia GPS to plan and navigate, and I can’t help but also recount a few details and photos—the autumnal forest of the AT entranced me.
Planning our Trip
Ashli pre-planned our route along the Sunset Rocks loop, which promised sweeping overlooks across the forested Appalachian Mountains. I added her route to my gaiagps.com account, then synced to my iPhone 5c.
Using the route, we each downloaded maps of the area so we could locate ourselves easily in the wilderness. The maps came in handy, less than 10 minutes into the hike, when we needed to discern which fork of the trail to follow.
Sunset Rocks Loop
The rich colors of our surroundings stood out like the thin, intentional strokes of an impressionist painting. Steep and often rocky conditions of the trail kept my gaze primarily toward my feet, but each eyeful of the forest differed from the last one, right down to the plump, white, fuzzy caterpillars with black horns.
Just shy of halfway through our Sunset Rocks journey, Ashli spotted a steep off-shoot of the trail that looked well-traveled. We dropped our packs and found a tremendous, unobstructed view of the forested Appalachian Mountains. Ladybugs flitted back and forth along the rocks at the overlook. Their red, orange, and yellow wings a perfect compliment to the leaves changing in front of our very eyes.
Before this trip, my only experience with rock climbing involved multi-colored Play-doh blobs bolted to a wall in the gym. We came across only one “choice” on the Sunset Rocks loop—climb over boulders, or bypass them. We chose to summit the rocks. The pine needles crunched under my shoes. The massive rocks felt like a mix between cold stone and sandpaper. Soon after, we finished our 4.5-mile tromp at the intersection of Sunset Rocks and the AT.
We met a few late season south-bound (sobo) thru-hikers from Wisconsin at the trail shelter. They shared their campfire and we shared our candy.
The camp site offered a host of modern conveniences, including a privy. A short stroll from our tent ran an ice-cold spring with a “faucet” installed (pvc pipe planted from upstream so the water funneled straight out). Metal poles with hooks for keeping packs and food off the ground at night flanked either side of the shelter.
First, we filled our Sawyer Squeeze water filtration bags in nature’s sink. The air chilled as the sun set, so we threw on some extra layers and got to work pitching our tent. While our Mountain House Beef Stew and Turkey Tetrazzini cooked on the camp stove (pro-tip: cook the turkey tet with a little less water than directed to avoid a soupy consistency), we played some cards and chatted, then retired to our mansion among the trees.
Return on the AT
Ashli boiled water for our Starbucks Via instant coffee packets and we munched on Nature Valley Almond Sweet & Salty bars for breakfast. After packing up our campsite, we followed the white blazes for day 2 of the hike.
Unlike hiking the predictable, clay-packed trails near my home in Texas, my foot placement required attention. I don’t know how anyone backpacks through the wet leaves and jagged rocks of the AT without trekking poles. The trail spat us out near the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, home of the “Half-Gallon Challenge” (Ashli informs me that many thru-hikers successfully complete it). Delighted we met and hiked together at last, we snapped an AT selfie and headed home.
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