Hiking the Appalachian Trail from Caledonia State Park to Tumbling Run Shelter and Back

My first backpacking trip in a decade

I started seriously hiking again for the first time in nearly a decade. I moved to Lancaster, PA in early June, and I’ve been getting to know the region by exploring the different trails. Day hikes are great for getting started, but I wanted to go backpacking for an extended period of solitude in nature. Challenging myself physically and mentally while getting away from it all was important to me. Plus, there just isn’t a ton to do right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A friend recommended I explore Michaux State Forest, a large forest a tad west of Gettysburg and about a 90 minute drive from Lancaster.

Browsing the trails, I found an ideal route for a single night of camping. For ease of preparation and ease on my body, I thought it best to not overdo the length of the trip. The Appalachian Trail goes through through Caledonia State Park, located within Michaux State Forest, and is about 10 miles north of Tumbling Run Shelter, a rest stop along the A.T. Perfect for my first solo backpacking trip, so with that and the dates decided, I began to prepare for the trip.

Prep

My brother generously lent me his 90L backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and some other smaller gear. (Thanks, Shane!) With the essentials covered, there wasn’t much gear I had to acquire. I already had hiking boots, a hat, a first-aid kit, a head lamp, and two 32oz lightweight water bottles. But there was some more gear I did acquire specifically for the trip: hiking poles (biggest surprise that I absolutely love and was originally unsure about), trowel, portable water filter, compass, lightweight rope, and a small flashlight.

One evening before the trip, I went for a test hike with a mostly packed backpack to get it adjusted and prepare myself for carrying such a large pack. I’m glad I went because I didn’t understand the reality of carrying 30+ lb. in a pack before the test hike. It’s pretty freaking heavy.

That same friend of mine who suggest Michaux State Forest lent me a Purple Lizard map—a waterproof and fantastic map—of the area. I studied the map and got familiar with the trail.

Photo of the Purple Lizard map of Michaux State Forest with some annotations
A sloppy overlay of the plan drawn with my phone

Before I left on the morning of Friday, July 24, I packed my food. I went to the market a couple days before and got some specific food for the trip. I knew I didn’t want to make anything that required a stove for the sake of simplicity and minimizing pack weight.

Photo of sandwiches, mangos, bars, trail mix, and oatmeal
All of the food I prepped and packed for trip

The food consisted of two PB&J sandwiches, two vegan cheese and Field Roast sandwiches, six Fruit Larabars, a big bag of trail mix, mushroom jerky, and oatmeal mix that I’d soak with water and eat for breakfast.

This was too much food, but I wasn’t quite sure how much I’d need. I didn’t finish the oatmeal on the hike. Aside from a quick handful, I didn’t eat the trail mix. And the mangoes were completely unnecessary. I bet this amount of food could almost have gotten me through two nights of camping. Maybe!

I put everything in my backpack, filled my water bottles, and put together a small bag of casual clothes to change into once I finished the trip. The fully packed backpack came in at 33.6 lb.

All of my prep was done. I let my brother know the plan in case something went wrong, and I left for Caledonia State Park.

Day One

Selfie photo of Brett at the start of the hike
A selfie just before starting the hike because I guess I take selfies now

I hit the trail at 10:20am. Sweat began pouring from body within five minutes, the humidity engulfing me. The pack felt like carrying a small child grasping onto my back, but I made progress step-by-step.

Photo of the Appalachian Trail sign post, reads "Maine to Georgia" with South and North directional arrows
Appalachian Trail sign post

The first major portion of the route was the aptly named Rocky Mountain. Before the trip, I thought rocks were cool and fun hike on. They’re a welcome change from the normal trail. Now I realize that rocks are my enemy—slippery and unforgiving.

Photo of a rocky step trail
Trail steps leading up to Rocky Mountain
Photo of mossy rocks

I made my way carefully through the rocks—well as carefully as I could, which wasn’t careful enough. I stepped on a rock and my foot slipped, the rock slick from the humidity. My left knee smashed down on the rock, pain jolting through my leg. When I got up, blood ran down my shin. I set my pack down, took a photo (of course), and got my first-aid kit out. Thank goodness for the first-aid kit. I disinfected the wound, wiped up the blood, and tried to apply a bandage with tape. The bandage and tape wanted to do anything other than stay on my knee, but the blood had stopped running, so I let the blood clot without any assistance.

Knee sore, I kept on going. The pain soon faded to the background with each step. Almost a week later and the scabs on my knee are nearly gone. There’s a slight pain and a little bruising, but it’s nothing too serious. This wouldn’t be my last slip on a rock, though.

Mid-day passed, and I took breaks to hydrate and eat. The next mountain to pass was Snowy Mountain. Following the trail on the ground without looking at the white blazes for the A.T., I made my way closer and closer to a watchtower at the peak of Snowy Mountain. It was 2:40pm.

Photo of a ranger watchtower at the top of Snowy Mountain

I circled the tower and couldn’t find where the trail continued. There were two service roads but no markings to denote the A.T. An older man and woman walked up one of the unpaved service road. I said, “Hello,” and kept trying to figure out where to go. Still lost and slightly confused, I walked over to the couple now standing in the trees. The man’s shirt was pulled up and the woman was rubbing his stomach. It was a little odd, but I figured they’d be able to point me back to the trail. I asked for some help, and it was as if they had never heard of the Appalachian Trail before. I was clearly interrupting their wooded rendezvous, so I scurried away to give them their space. Disoriented and getting tired, I pulled out my map and compass and tried to figure out where to go. The service road ran along the A.T., so I thought I could follow that and cut over. I walked along the service road for about half a mile and decided it best to circle back until I was for sure on the trail. The couple were nowhere in sight, and I eventually made my way back to the trail markers. I discovered there was a fork in the trail—to the left was the A.T. and to the right was this tower. I unknowingly went right instead of left.

Photo of trail split
This is where I initially hung a right instead of going left

Lesson learned: keep an eye on the trail blazes.

The A.T., or at least this portion of it, uses white blazes along the trees, and it’s regularly and clearly marked.

Back on the trail with my slight panic fading, I focused on getting to the next waypoint along the trail—Chimney Rocks.

There was one problem, though. There was no water between Caledonia and the shelter I planned to stay at. I had 64 oz. of water, but I was drinking it too quickly with the heat. With just a swig left and my clothes drenched in sweat, all I wanted was to chug an entire bottle of water.

I got to Chimney Rocks at 4:00pm, tired from the day of hiking. But the scenic vista of the valley below lifted my spirits.

Photo of the view from Chimney Rocks

After sitting and resting for about ten minutes, I climbed down the rocks. Misjudging how steep a massive rock was, I tanked it, comically falling on my ass and sliding down the rock. I’ve got a large bruise on my tookus to prove it, at least until it heals.

Again, rocks are not my friends nor yours.

Tumbling Run Shelter wasn’t too far from Chimney Rocks, and it was essentially all downhill. I got to the shelter at 5:00pm. A group of five younger adults, a single individual, and two grandparents and their grandchild were at the shelter. There was plenty of space for all of us between the two wooden shelters and various campsites for tents.

I sad hello, set down my pack, and set up camp. It took about ten minutes, and it was the perfect way to decompress after the hiking all day.

A spring was not too far from the shelter, so I brought my water filter and went to town. It was cold and clear and some of the best water I ever drank.

Water spring at Tumbling Run Shelter

Finally starting to come down from the focused hiking and feeling rehydrated, I set out on a short evening hike on the Hermitage Trail. Hiking with a half-weight pack was like floating along the trail with nothing slowing me down.

While I didn’t spot much wildlife aside from a chipmunk, birds, and insects, I fell in love with the vibrant moss and lichen growing on nearly everything. The texture of nature is endlessly fascinating and beautiful.

Tired and not feeling too sociable after the long day, I crawled into the tent and read The Great Gatsby. I’m not sure why I brought a book about New York City with me hiking, but I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. My shoulders burned from carrying the pack, my backside and knee hurt from my falls, and I couldn’t get truly comfortable. I was still sweating, and the tent felt like a coffin. It wasn’t until the sun set that I began to cool down. Even through the sweat and pain, I was having a fantastic time. I was on a real adventure.

At 9:20pm I heard thunder. I hadn’t set up the rain cover for the tent and left my gear outside to air out. I turned on my phone and checked the forecast.

I knew I had to do something. I didn’t want everything to get soaked and have a soggy hike back the next day. I slipped on my headlamp and boots and sprung into action. I set up the rain cover over the tent, tying it down. I brought everything inside of my tent to keep it dry. And then I laid there, unable to sleep, listening to rain assault the tent while thunder threatened above.

I drifted off to sleep—tired, sore, and uncomfortable.

According to my Fitbit, whose mileage I don’t fully trust, I walked 37.7k steps and hiked 17 miles. Between getting lost and the Hermitage Trail evening hike, the 17 miles doesn’t seem like too far a stretch. Potentially inaccurate mileage aside, what a day! That’s a lot of hiking. It took me six hours and forty minutes to do the section of the A.T. on the first day.

Day Two

I woke up at 4:52am and wrote in my journal, “Feel like a sore piece of shit; tired, barely slept; my shoulders, pecs, legs, and ass are all sore. It’s still dark. The rain cover did its job. Nothing is soaked.”

According to my sleep tracking watch, I got five hours of “Fair” sleep.

Even though I didn’t get the best sleep of my life and was quite sore, I was excited to hit the trail early. I broke down camp, filled up my water bottles, and ate some soaked oats.

The first challenge of the day was the steady ascent back to Chimney Rocks from the shelter.

The Appalachian Trail heading north from Tumbling Run

I made solid time, refreshed and invigorated by the cool morning air. I returned to Chimney Rocks with the sun already in the sky. A fellow hiker who stayed at the shelter was sitting on one of the rocks making oatmeal while watching the sun rise.

“Nice to see you again. I’m Brett, by the way,” I said.

“Snooze Town,” he replied.

I chuckled in my head and we made small talk. I didn’t know about trail names at the time. I wish I had talked more to Snooze Town on the night before because he was a nice guy. Lesson learned to be more social at shelters an on the trail. Happy trails, Snooze Town.

Sun rising over Chimney Rocks

Back on the trail, I hoofed it. I was back at the car in less than five hours, cutting off almost two hours from the day before. Being more familiar with the trail and a bit less wander-y, it was more of a focused workout than the day before. I enjoyed hiking as quickly as I could, passing by memorable waypoints.

No slips or falls or injuries on day two. My shoulders were sore and the pack was heavy, but those feelings eventually faded.

There were a lot more day hikers out on the trail on Saturday morning compared to Friday. It makes sense, it being the weekend and all. Caledonia State Park was swarming with people having picnics and grilling. I’m glad they were out enjoying nature.

Selfie when I made it back to the car

Reflections & Learnings

I had such a positive experience. It was an adventure, a journey. I was a little nervous about going alone, but it ended up working out totally fine. The A.T. was well-marked and well-maintained, which made it a joy. Tumbling Run Shelter was beautiful, which I had no idea what to expect.

I packed too much food, so now I know a little bit more for next time. I also think I overdid it on the first day hiking so many miles with the pack. 10 miles would have been just right. Or a shorter hike to camp and then exploring from there.

Rocks are not my friend. They are slippery and unforgiving.

Follow the gosh darn trail blazes!

Be prepared for rain.

While 33.6 lb. isn’t an excessively heavy pack, it sure seemed heavy. I haven’t been doing any strength training around my shoulders, so that’s probably part of it. Most of my exercise the past three months has been running and hiking. But I really would like to see how I could trim some weight and maybe even use a smaller pack. I’ve got a 40L backpack with quite a bit of support. It’d be interesting to either stay in shelters next time with some kind of bug netting or try using a hammock or even get a bivy. There must be some other ways to trim some weight too, but I’d have to systematically go through everything. The tent was definitely the heaviest item I had with me.

On the mental side of the hike, I expected being alone in the woods to be a lot more emotional. I was prepared to have a difficult time being alone with myself as I’m through a challenging personal transition in my life. But similar to running, I just focus on each step and enjoy what’s in my vision and keep on moving forward. It was as if my mind was empty. Hiking and running are different than walking in that way. It’s a lot less contemplative, at least for me.

What’s Next

I’ve got a couple trips planned for the next few months.

In August, on the new moon, I’m going to drive up to Cherry Springs for some stargazing. It’s supposed to be incredible.

In September, I took the week after my birthday off to go on a New England road trip where I plan to go on a bunch of different hikes in Mass, New Hampshire, and Vermont. I’m also hoping to see some friends in those areas (socially distant visits of course).

I’m so grateful to live in an area of Pennsylvania where nature isn’t too far away. There’s lots to explore still, and I can’t wait to get out there again on day hikes, road trips, and backpacking trips.

Author: Brett Chalupa

day: software developer, night: comic artist

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