In Maryland, the Appalachian Trail runs for 40 miles along the crest of South Mountain, traversing the entire state as it heads north toward Katahdin. Maryland’s A.T. is regarded as the flattest 40 miles of the entire trail. By the time most thru-hikers reach Maryland, a solid 1,000 miles into their journey, they’re in killer shape and a little bit bored. After knocking out some of the most mountainous terrain along the footpath, the relatively flat stretch of trail through Maryland presents an opportunity for a speed hike. Enter the Maryland Challenge, a perennial thru-hiking test where backpackers attempt to push through the entire state in 24 hours. Tack on a couple more miles on either side of the state and you can set foot in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in the same day. Call that the Four State Challenge. Thru-hikers tend to refer to the challenges as simply “the Death March.” The A.T. may be flat through Maryland, but 40 miles in a day is never a piece of cake.
“After finishing the challenge, we hitchhiked to the nearest town in Pennsylvania and crashed in a hotel with a case of beer and a lot of Domino’s pizza,” says Ian Mangiardi, a 2009 thru-hiker who completed the A.T. and Four State Challenge with his best friend Andy Laub. Together, they were known as The Dusty Camel. “We had to take a zero day after hiking through Maryland.”
Just because the A.T. is consistently flat through Maryland doesn’t mean it’s boring, a common misconception among thru-hikers entering the state for the first time. The trail follows South Mountain as it heads north, offering views from rock outcroppings and some of the spiffiest shelters on the entire trail. The A.T. in Maryland also gives hikers access to some of America’s most significant history. Brutal Civil War battles were fought on South Mountain and the first memorial to George Washington sits along the trail. You also get to walk across the Mason-Dixon line at the north end of the state.
There’s plenty of reason for a backpacker to linger, but the flat terrain and “manageable” miles make the Four State Challenge too tantalizing to resist for most thru-hikers.
“We pushed ourselves throughout the entire A.T. trek, averaging 19 miles a day,” Mangiardi says. “When we reached the flat stretch through Maryland, we wanted to rock n’ roll and see how far we could push our bodies in a day.”
The allure of the Four State Challenge has spread beyond the thru-hiking community, with weekend warriors testing their own limits on the Maryland stretch of A.T. The Mountain Club of Maryland even organizes a march through the state every other May, attracting 150 masochistic hikers from all over the country.
Maryland’s a gorgeous state. Why not walk it all in a day?
Highlights of the Four State Challenge
You’ll hike just under 45 miles to complete the Four State Challenge. But it’s not all about knocking out miles and watching the clock. There’s plenty of reason to stop and smell the roses along the trek. Here are a few highlights from the Four State Challenge.
Harper’s Ferry: Walk through downtown Harper’s Ferry, in West Virginia, which is the “psychological halfway point” for thru-hikers because the A.T.C. head office is located in town. Most would-be thru-hikers drop off the trail before reaching Harper’s Ferry. Walk through downtown, then cross the Potomac on a trestle foot bridge.
Weverton Cliffs: After climbing from the Potomac to the ridge of South Mountain, take the short side trail to the edge of Weverton Cliffs for a killer view of the Potomac below.
Gathland State Park: There’s only one memorial to war correspondents in the U.S. You’ll walk by the 50-foot arch/castle dedicated to the men and women who tell the stories of war in Gathland State Park.
Washington Monument: Just 100 yards off the trail, you’ll find the first monument ever constructed in honor of our First President, a 30-foot high stone cylinder.
Annapolis Rocks: If you’re really trying to make time, you can skip most of the spur trails to overlooks throughout the Maryland section of the A.T. But the quarter-mile side trail that leads to Annapolis Rocks is worth the effort thanks to the view of Greenbrier Lake to the south.
High Rocks: As you get closer to Pennsylvania, you can also take a quick detour to High Rocks where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see hang gliders launch. The loop trail leading to the rocks is only one-tenth of a mile.
Mason Dixon Line: Just after crossing into Pennsylvania, you’ll see a wooden sign marking the Mason Dixon Line. Be careful. You’ve just entered Yankee territory.
Do it Yourself
The Four State Challenge requires roughly 43.5 miles of hiking from the Potomac River to the Mason Dixon Line. Arrange for a shuttle or park two cars, one at the train station in Harper’s Ferry, the other in Pen Mar County Park in Pennsylvania. Plenty of hikers have tried the challenge only to fail, so don’t let the flat terrain fool you. Most knock out the state in under 20 hours. To give yourself the best opportunity for success, start well before daybreak and hike the first couple of hours in the dark.
The Mountain Club of Maryland’s organized Challenge hike takes place on May 4.
Three More A.T. Challenges
Thru-hikers have to keep themselves entertained when slogging through “the green tunnel.” Here are three off-the-wall challenges commonly undertaken during the epic journey along the A.T.
Half-Gallon Challenge: Pine Grove Furnace State Park, in Pennsylvania, marks the geographical midway point for A.T. thru-hikers. Tradition dictates that all thru-hikers buy a gallon of ice cream and try to eat the whole thing in an hour.
West Virginia Challenge: The A.T. only runs through West Virginia for 2 miles. Consider this anti-challenge-challenge: try to spend as many nights as possible in the Mountain State, moving at least 200 yards from your previous campsite each day.
Facial Hair Challenge: Sorry ladies, but this is just for the boys. No shaving from day one. How fabulous is your beard after six months in the woods?