The Maryland Challenge Southbound
As if the Appalachian Trail weren’t hard enough, many hikers seek out extra challenges to spice up their journeys. There are the classics, like Ten-Before-Ten and 12-Before-12, when you try to do the respective number of miles before the hour, as well as the belly-busting food challenges, like the Half-Gallon Challenge and the endless individual restaurant-sponsored pancake and burger challenges up and down the trail. One challenge that immediately piqued my interest, however, was the Four State Challenge. This 43-mile hike consists of stepping foot in four different states in one day (PA, MD, WV, VA). It’s a hefty feat that very few hikers undertake. Just short of the Four State Challenge, however, is its slightly little brother: The Maryland Challenge.
The Maryland Challenge is just what it sounds like: a one day hike where you try to complete all 41 miles of Maryland in one day. If you’re going southbound, you start at Pen Mar Road, just on the other side of the Mason Dixon line, and follow the trail all the way to Harpers Ferry. If you’re going south, you’ll find the beginning of the trail resembles much of Pennsylvania. It’s pretty rocky with some mild elevation gain that is not favorable to do before sunrise. Once you reach the halfway point (roughly the Washington Monument), the terrain mellows out quite a bit, and you’ll find yourself walking the last three miles on a flat bike trail alongside the Potomac (think of that flat stretch in CT right before Kent).
I started my challenge at 3 a.m. and finished around 4:30 p.m., completing the 41-mile challenge in just under 14 hours. By the end, it had started to rain and my knees and legs were completely shot. I originally planned to complete the Four State Challenge in its entirety, but the last two miles to VA were up a very steep mountain, and I knew that I would just have to turn around and come back down if I planned to zero the next day (which I certainly did). So, I happily settled with the Maryland Challenge.
Up to this point, my longest day had been 25 miles, but I had heard that Maryland was relatively tame and that I shouldn’t worry too much. The terrain wasn’t bad, but you definitely want to give yourself as much time as possible to complete the challenge. I only took one break throughout the day and started extremely early because the afternoon called for showers on a cold day. I figured I knew I’d be hurting by the end, but being wet and cold would only make it worse. So I did my best to boogie.
The early morning hours were a bit hard to navigate, especially if you’re beginning in the dark. I would suggest doing a bit of night hiking before you embark on this challenge since there were a lot of rocks to negotiate (the bigger type) and I had to stop multiple times to look around for the next blaze. If you don’t mind hiking later into the evening, I would suggest starting closer to sunrise.
One of the best parts about going southbound on this challenge is how easy the last ten or so miles are. You have a pretty steep descent of switchbacks down to the Potomac, but once you reach the river, it’s as flat as a pancake, and you can basically just put your legs in cruise control for the last hour.
When I reached Harpers Ferry, I felt extreme relief. I was happy to have completed the challenge but was sad that I hadn’t taken more time to enjoy Maryland. You pass through many historical sites throughout the state, and I wish I had had more time to stop and take in each one individually. It is completely possible to complete this challenge and still take your time. So, if you’re looking at tackling Maryland in a day, pick a nice day, start early (but not too early), and take enough breaks to be able to enjoy the hike.
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