Backpacking in Rocksylvania

Lehigh Gap-Delaware Water Gap, PA

November 1-2, 2002

Continuing our tradition of marathon, off-season, weekend hikes on the Appalachian Trail, Mike and I met up at the Delaware Water Gap hiker parking lot at 9:45 on a sunny Friday morning. Mike had brought a friend of his, Dave Stowe, along for this trip. After a brief donut and eggnog fueling stop, we reached the spectacular Lehigh Gap 38 trail miles away.

Snow graced the northern slopes of Blue Mountain and the weather had turned colder and grimmer than just an hour before. By 11am we’d located the trailhead, saddled up and hit the trail; the wind was blowing and it was quite cold. Fortunately, the steep climb up the eastern side of the Gap warmed us considerably and the dramatic rocks and expansive views to the south and west showed acres of trees at their peak fall colors. It came as quite a shock when we climbed over the last few boulders to the ridge line and were buffeted by strong, cold winds from the north. Definitely a dramatic start to the hike! Mike learned his lesson regarding wide-brimmed hats when a gust of wind forced him to slam his head into a rock to keep his hat on. I stopped laughing quickly when a gust of wind knocked me over as well.

After a bit more windy climbing through bare rocks and blowing snow, we reached the ridgeline. Like most of the PA AT, this hike would remain at a constant elevation of 1500′ along the linear, rocky mountains with occasional (and very welcome) dips down into various gaps. The first few miles wound through mostly barren terrain of rocks, and open clearings, the unfortunate remains of extensive strip mining from earlier in the area’s history. We were in Carbon County after all, and it’s not called that for nothing. The trail was easy and we walked three abreast at a terrific pace.

Sadly all things must come to an end. We enjoyed a brief lunch break in Little Gap and, upon reaching the ridgeline again a mile later, discovered what Pennsylvania is famous for among AT hikers: ROCKS! Lots of rocks! Of all sizes and seemingly arranged to maximize your chances of breaking ankles, stubbing toes, and puncturing the soles of your boots. The weather turned colder and a light rain started to fall. My ankle, still recovering from my break back in April and, more recently, from a weekend hike in Massanutten, is not good at side-to-side rolling motions yet and these rocks began to take their toll. The rain made the rocks slippery and the brightly-colored fallen leaves did nothing to help matters. I had to watch my footing at every step. Hiking poles were crucial. Still, every few hundred yards, I’d step wrongly, stumble and yell. Soon the rain turned to snow and the skies darkened further.

Welcome to Rocksylvania! The view looking west toward Lehigh Gap from the ridgeline.

Welcome to Rocksylvania! The view looking west toward Lehigh Gap from the ridgeline.

There were sixteen miles from the trailhead to the Leroy Smith shelter, our planned destination for the night. With our late start and the short, November days, we had counted on some night hiking to reach our goal. Unfortunately, darkness fell with six or seven miles yet to hike. The rocks had not abated and my going was particularly slow. But we persevered and arrived at the shelter by a little after 8, exhausted, starving and (at least in my case) with a throbbing ankle very much ready to be done.

Preparing back-country haut cuisine requires the utmost skill and concentration. Try as he might, Mike can't cut the mustard and resorts to rehydrating chicken stew.

Preparing back-country haut cuisine requires the utmost skill and concentration.
Try as he might, Mike can’t cut the mustard and resorts to rehydrating chicken stew.

The shelter was small and already occupied by a south-bound thru-hiker from Wisconsin. We apologized profusely for waking him and cooked up our respective dinners as expeditiously as possible. Someone had carved a small jack-o-lantern which I set up to watch over the dinner proceedings; it added a nice, homey air to things. Snow started up again and we were grateful for the shelter from the elements. Just as we’d settled in, another pair of north-bound section hikers showed up. With six in the shelter, we were quite cozy and warm and I slept the night away in uncharacteristic comfort.

Saturday — The south-bound Wisconsonite was long-gone by the time we stirred on Saturday morning. A light dusting of snow had fallen during the night, but fortunately the water bottles had not frozen. Still, getting out of a warm, comfortable sleeping bag is never fun, especially in November. I heated up water for breakfast while Mike searched out the spring and filtered water. The main problem with hiking in PA (other than the rocks, that is) must be the shortage of reliable springs. Since you’re usually on a ridgeline, rehydrating requires tramping down the slope to one of the infrequent springs. We faced a 14 mile hike to the next shelter before the next water break. But, since the weather was cool, we were not terribly concerned.

A night of rest had done my ankle good and we set out in the grey morning in good spirits. The snow started up briefly and we set a good pace to Wind Gap where we had a first lunch. The sun came out and warmed us on the steady climb back to the ridge, but the clouds and rocks soon reappeared and progress became brutal. Ten miles in, I was lagging particularly far behind and feeling particularly poorly.

Dave was anxious to get back to civilization as early as possible to study for a big anatomy exam but there was no way I could handle the additional eight miles from the shelter to the car in one go. Various schemes were contrived and it was finally decided that Mike and Dave would drop their packs at the road crossing near the next shelter, light hike out to the car and then return to pick up the packs. They would then leave my car at the Water Gap on their way north. I would spend the night and follow the next day at a more leisurely pace.

After a second bit of lunch, we reached Wolf Rocks (the southernmost point of glaciation on the AT, as it turns out) and I started to feel substantially better. Wolf Rocks is a spectacular set of low cliffs and loose boulders with a good view to the north. After that, the terrain got easier and our pace increased. When we reached Rt 191 two miles later, we were all doing pretty well. A hundred yards into the woods, Dave and Mike cached their packs.

nelson_overlook“Come with us,” urged Dave. “There’ll be pizza and beer at the end of it!”

I’m going to regret this… “Oh, what the hell!” I assembled a quick pack of a few snacks, some water, a windbreaker, headlamp and car keys and we were off.

It was just as well I’d elected to do the bonus 8-mile hike. As it turns out, there was no water supply at the Kirkridge shelter, so it would have been challenging to spend the night and cook dinner. The time was about 4:30 and we had an hour of daylight left. Moving without a pack on was wonderful and we practically flew over the rough terrain. Several good view points were passed and we covered about three miles before it got dark enough to need headlamps. Fortunately, at this point we were on an old fire road up the slope of Mt. Minsi to the site of an old tower. We walked and talked in the dark feeling good and tired, but thriving in the adversity that comes from 20+ miles of hiking.

Eventually, the trail left the fire road and we descended on rougher trail steeply into the Delaware Water Gap. There were a series of spectacular ledges with great views. At least they much be great; I’ve seen the view from the NJ side of the river in the daylight, and this one looked pretty good at night. I-80 below was a mass of white and red lights moving in a highly collimated, artificial line like some sort of technological ants. The darkened cliffs on the far side were faintly visible in the starlight. The trail at this point was well-trodden and popular being within four miles of a very popular tourist destination. We didn’t complain and quickly descended through softwoods and past a pretty brook, the first water we’d seen since the start of the trip.

Eventually, we passed the small Lake Lenapi and emerged in the town of Delaware Water Gap, PA. The AT travels down some sleepy streets before meeting a long, tedious sidewalk along the interstate and over the Delaware River. Sore of foot, we hiked next to the roaring traffic buffetted by 18-wheelers and U-Haul trucks. Then came an interminable bit of pavement pounding to the parking lot. We reached the car at 8pm and were glad of it. 38 miles had been hiked in 33 hours and we were feeling justifiably smug. We retrieved the packs, downed a large quantity of pizza, recovered Dave’s car in the starry PA night, and parted company.




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