Not far north of the Maryland border, near the town of Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., lies the halfway point of the Appalachian Trail. A simple sign with a double-ended arrow points southwest toward Springer Mountain, Ga., 1,025 miles distant, and northeast toward Mount Katahdin, Maine, also 1,025 miles away.
Hikers linger here to take photos of the sign and contemplate their tenuous yet unmistakable connection to both places.
Although less than 200 individuals a year actually traverse the entire 2,050-mile length of the AT (as the footpath is simply and fondly called by most who have trod it), the fact that you could do so makes the trail a popular hiking destination.
Begun in 1922, the trail was the inspiration of Benton MacKaye, a Massachusetts forester and author who envisioned the mountain route as a link between "a series of recreational communities." In fact, the trail itself was something of a footnote to his larger idea, "a project in housing and community architecture" which would bring more people back into touch with nature.
The trail idea caught hold best, however, and enthusiastic volunteers up and down the Appalachian spine finally completed the route in 1937. A white blaze on trees every few hundred yards clearly marks the AT over its full length.
"There is no good, explainable reason why a hiker gets a special feeling when he or she knows that the trail under his or her feet is the Appalachian Trail. But hikers do get that feeling. It's a conviction inside that they're part of something," writes Jim Chase in "Backpacker Magazine's Guide to the Appalachian Trail." A good introductory guide, the book came out last year (Stackpole Books, $14.95).
Although Maryland's 40-mile share is the shortest of the 14 states through which the AT passes, the hiking opportunities are varied as the route follows a more or less straight, rising and falling line along the ridge of South Mountain.
Because the AT is a point-to-point trail, planning circuit hikes is a challenge, so many people use two cars; one is first parked at the end point to permit return to the start point. But driving to the trail to hike a portion in and out is easily done. Use a good road map in conjunction with a trail guide.
The book mentioned earlier is a fine general guide to the AT, but hikers are advised to also carry more detailed trail maps from The Appalachian Trail Conference (P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, LTC W. Va., 25425; (304) 535-6331). They are available at most outfitting stores. The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (1718 N St., N.W., Washington 20036) publishes the maps in this region.
Here are three suggested introductory hike opportunities:
* High Rock to Pen Mar (and potentially on to the halfway point in Pennsylvania). Trail access is from the town of Pen Mar via High Rock Road. The trail passes its highest point in Maryland at the 2,000-foot High Rock (a popular jumping off place for hang gliders) and offers good westward vistas over the scenic Antietam Creek valley containing Waynesboro, Pa.
* Washington Monument State Park. West of Frederick (via U.S. 40A to Boonsboro), the state park includes a stone tower that is a replica of a Union lookout from the Civil War. The Battle of South Mountain was fought near here at Turner's Gap, on Sept. 14, 1862, and the battle site makes an easy destination for a day hike and return.
* Gathland State Park. America's only memorial to Civil War correspondents sits astride the AT in this tiny park, reached on Gapland Road from Burkittsville on the east or the town of Gapland from the west.
A popular six-mile day hike (requiring two cars) is to depart from the park and walk south to Weverton Cliffs, a breathtaking overlook of the Potomac River valley near Harper's Ferry, W. Va.