It’s the granddaddy of all hiking trails and it passes right through our backyard.
Running from Maine to Georgia, the Appalachian Trail spans 2,190 miles as it passes through 14 states. The longest hiking-only footpath in the world, the trail covers 227 miles in Pennsylvania, including nearly 50 in the Lehigh Valley, traversing the Kittatinny Ridge through the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area before crossing into New Jersey.
One of the most beautiful times to hike the AT is autumn, as the leaves begin to change and the days become cooler. In many stretches, you’ll also find that the crowds of summer have diminished, making for an even more enjoyable experience.
If you’ve never spent any time hiking this amazing outdoor resource, here’s what you can expect:
Where to start
The Appalachian Trail is easily accessible in our region, crossing several roads including Route 309 north of New Tripoli, Blue Mountain Drive near Danielsville, Route 115 outside of Wind Gap and Route 191 between Bangor and Stroudsburg.
For newbies, one of the easiest hikes is the 0.8-mile roundtrip stretch that goes from Bake Oven Road in Heidelberg Township to Bake Oven Knob lookout, which offers sweeping vistas of the Lehigh Valley below. The 8-mile stretch between Wind Gap and Fox Gap at Route 191 also gives hikers the chance to explore Cherry Valley National Wildlife Refuge, one of the two wildlife refuges the trail passes through.
“With the exception of the climbs from the two rivers — the Delaware at the north end and the Lehigh in the middle — and a lesser one from the road crossings in Wind Gap, much of this section [of the trail] is accessible from roads that go across the top of the ridge and therefore is relatively level,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy Regional Manager Bob Sickley said. “That being said, hikers need to be prepared for Pennsylvania’s famous rocky stretches, where footing can be challenging.”
Bill Steinmetz, a volunteer leader with Appalachian Mountain Club who has spent nearly four decades hiking and working on the trail, recommends the area where the Lehigh River flows from Carbon into Lehigh and Northampton counties as an excellent place to consider a hike.
“The Lehigh Gap area on the south or west side has some very nice trails,” he said. “There are some loop trails there that are maintained and there is parking at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center on the west side [of the gap]. They have trail maps and [other resources]; that’s a good place to start.”
What to take
Without a doubt the most important piece of equipment needed for hitting the trail is a quality pair of sturdy hiking boots.
“It’s going to be a little bit harder than a hike in the state park,” Steinmetz said. “There are sections that are a bit rocky, so good footwear that will support your ankles is the primary thing.”
Other essentials include water and a backpack to carry items such as snacks, first aid kit, cell phone, compass, map, light rain gear and extra clothes. Mornings and evenings will be on the cooler side, so wear layers that you can add or remove as temperatures change. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy recommends taking at least one liter of water per person, more if it’s on the warmer side.
Great vantage points
Steinmetz said when he encounters AT hikers in other states, one of the first things they remember about Pennsylvania is the Lehigh Gap because of its spectacular views and the rocky climb.
“I think Lehigh Gap has more views [than nearby Bake Oven Knob] and if you want to do something very strenuous you can do each side,” he said. “You can do the rocky climb in the morning and then head over to the south or west side and do a loop along the north trail up there. It just has spectacular views of the grasslands. You can spend all day there on both sides.”
Other great vistas in the region include The Pinnacle in Berks County, which can be accessed via a 10-mile hike starting on State Game Lands 106 north of Kempton; Wolf Rocks, which are reached via a 4.8-mile trail off Route 191; and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in northeastern Northampton County.
“The trail on the Pennsylvania side is just beautiful,” Steinmetz said of the recreation area. “You can do a hike up there to the top of Mount Minsi. There are great views in several locations on the way up. That’s very popular.”
Other things to know
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and its partners are relocating the trail in the Palmerton area between Lehigh Furnace Gap and Little Gap. Sickley said the goal is to take the footpath to viewpoints that will remain as remediation efforts on the Superfund site continue and to construct a more sustainable footpath, minimizing future trail maintenance needs.
It’s also worth noting that autumn means hunting season in Pennsylvania, so it’s a good idea to wear fluorescent orange clothing, especially during the popular firearms bear and deer seasons.
For anyone who plans to embark on something longer than a day hike, there are several shelters in the region, starting in eastern Berks County with the Eckville Shelter east of Hawk Mountain. Others are located in Lynn Township, the Bake Oven Knob area and Washington Township in Lehigh County, as well as Bushkill and Upper Mount Bethel townships in Northampton County.
“Most of the shelters have camping areas that are nearby and are located in locations where water is available,” Steinmetz said. “The one thing to stress about shelters is that if you pack things in, then pack them out.
“If you take your trash out, it’s a real help to the [trail] volunteers and it helps improves the experience for the people who come after you.”
Appalachian Trail Conservancy www.appalachiantrail.org/
Delaware Valley Chapter of Appalachian Mountain Club www.amcdv.org/
Mark Demko is a freelance writer for The Morning Call