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Susquehanna Life

Hiking Havens: Hike the Most Popular Trail in America

Jun 11, 2021 04:40PM ● By Karen Hendricks

The Appalachian Trail Museum, right on the Appalachian Trail, marks the halfway point of the entire 2,190-mile trail. But good news—you don’t have to hike half of the trail to get there. You can put the museum directly into your GPS as a driving destination too. It’s a fun day trip, offering both a trail adventure and museum exploration.


Adventure awaits

The Appalachian Trail Museum is not your typical museum. It’s a one-of-a-kind landmark—the only museum in the country devoted to hiking—housed in a historic grist mill within Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Cumberland County. And what a unique location: The state park is intersected by the A.T.—which is under the National Park System—and surrounded by Michaux State Forest.

“What we’ve tried to create is something that captures the experience [of the A.T.] and encourages people to embark on some outdoor adventure of their own,” said Larry Luxenberg, museum founder and president.

Every year, more than 3 million people use the trail, with some 3,000 of them setting out to “thru-hike” the entire A.T.—Luxenberg was one of them, back in 1980.

“I enjoyed the physical aspects, but more than that, I enjoyed the trail community,” Luxenberg recalled. That journey led to his writing of the trail guide, Walking the Appalachian Trail. And as one thing often leads to another, it was during the researching and writing process that he came up with the idea for an A.T. Museum. He noticed that no one was collecting and preserving historic A.T. memorabilia.

“The artifacts started flowing in, once the idea became public,” said Luxenberg. Just as the A.T.’s founders turned their vision for a trail into reality, Luxenberg’s trail-blazing idea for a museum manifested itself in 2010.

“Now it’s a unique stop along the trail—a chance to sample the community and learn more—it’s become part of the fabric of the A.T,” Luxenberg said.

The ground floor introduces children to the A.T. through colorful, interactive displays, while the main floor houses trail memorabilia—including a shelter built by Earl Shaffer of York County. He was the first person to hike the entire A.T. in 1948—a feat that earned him the nickname “the crazy one.”

Visitors of all ages often intermingle with thru-hikers—stepping off the trail and into the museum often feels like they’ve reached the holy grail of the A.T.

“The museum contains a number of signs, including one that was on top of Mt. Katahdin, Maine [the A.T.’s northern end—the goal of many thru-hikers],” said Luxenberg. “Often when hikers touch that sign, it brings out emotions, and it’s not unusual for one of them to start crying.”

An interactive map of the A.T. is being developed—described as the “most involved, elaborate exhibit” by Luxenberg—for the museum’s top floor.


Hit the trail

While the A.T. is the longest hiking-only footpath in the world, stretching from Maine to Georgia, its middle section in the heart of the Keystone State is relatively flat, woodsy and green—perfect for recreational, novice hikers.

“If you’re looking for a day hike, this is a great place to come,” said Christopher Houck, Pine Grove Furnace State Park manager. “It’s Penn’s Woods—rocks and trees… and after 15 minutes of hiking, you feel like you’re the only one out there.”

Across Pennsylvania, state park attendance surged by 30 % in 2020, as visitors turned to nature for an escape from the pandemic. Houck believes those trends will continue into 2021, as many Pennsylvanians discovered how much they enjoy nature.

“People got a taste for it and keep coming back,” said Houck.

About two dozen volunteer docents staff the museum, including Ed Riggs of Gettysburg. He enjoys helping visitors launch day hikes from the museum.

“The A.T. founders never imagined people would hike the whole thing,” said Riggs. “It was built so that people from metropolitan areas could drive a short distance and experience the wilderness.”


Trail ambassadors

Riggs became a museum volunteer “as a way to give back,” after completing his own thru-hike in 2014.

“I feel like it’s a way to stay on the trail, so to speak,” Riggs said. “There’s a spiritual aspect to being out in the forest, experiencing the quiet of nature—I want people to go out in the woods to decompress and enjoy the beauty of it.”

In a way, Riggs and his fellow volunteers could be considered ambassadors of the A.T.

“I like seeing people’s eyes light up—especially young kids—when you tell them the trail goes from Georgia to Maine. It’s so fun to open their eyes up to the trail,” Riggs said.

And that speaks to one of the main missions of both the A.T. and the museum: instilling an appreciation for the outdoors in the next generation.

“The ultimate goal,” said Houck, “is to spark that interest to last a lifetime, to have an advocate for the woods, for preserving these lands.”

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Karen Hendricks is a freelance journalist based in the Harrisburg area who has enjoyed writing about the Appalachian Trail for more than 40 years—ever since her 5th grade science fair project.

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