The elevation profile of Pennsylvania is unimposing. However the state has a reputation for being tough on AT hikers and I believe that reputation to be accurately endowed.
There are increasing numbers of rocks to deal with the further North that one hikes in the state. Hiking on rocks always kind of sucks. What makes Pennsylvanian rocks suck so much is the particular ways that hikers encounter them.
First, there is the rock strewn path. This is very common. There’s soil up under the rocks but it is hard to step on because there are loose rocks just all over the damn place. They range in size from just larger than gravel to head-sized. They are loose and will roll if you step on them wrong. Nobody can ve bothered to move them apparently. I did kick some of the anklebreakers out of the trail to see if maybe they would scurry back after a minute. They did not – maybe they only move at night?
Second is the rock pile. It is less common and ranges in scope from a few steps to a half mile long. It is just a bigass pile of rocks and one is expected to navigate it. Rock piles are commonly so deep that any small item dropped is just plain GONE. Where the “trail” is the rocks seem to be more generally flipped to present steppable surfaces but only marginally so. It is common for hikers to wander several yards left or right between blazes as it’s hard to tell exactly where to go on rock piles. Could injure anything from feet to noggin depending on how you fall. I suspect that these piles are rocks mating. It’s the best explanation.
Third is the rock path. There’s no soil really to speak of. Just rock with some decaying leaves and loose rock on top. Plants and trees grow in occasional cracks. The rock is generally not smooth but uneven which reduces chances of slipping but hurts your feet at every step. Mostly just hurts feet and ankles.
Fourth are the boulder fields. Rock piles but bigger individual pieces. Generally easier to navigate than rock piles but obstacles when encountered are much tougher. Could shift a boulder and be doneski.
Fifth are the shark infested trail areas. There’s soil to walk on and it is mostly soft and loamy. Poking up through it are triangular knife edge rocks that look a lot like shark fins sticking up out of the ground. They really hurt when you step on them. I am sure that these are punishment for my sins, real and imagined.
I could name more as could anyone who has walked this godforsaken stretch of trail but that’s enough to give you an idea. Pennsylvania hurts the feet due to rocks.
In truth it’s mostly the Northern portion of the state that sucks. We have really suffered on miles since we zeroed in Pine Grove but everyone else seems to be suffering as well. We have passed (and been passed by) other hikers about the same as when hiking other states.
Our biggest single challenge was the climb leaving Palmerton. It’s a Superfund restoration site dealing with contamination from a century of zinc mining activities and the trail is a rock climb that goes around restoration work areas. Neither of us enjoys heights or anything particularly associated with heights. About 1/2 mile into the ascent you reach a point where trees come to an end and it’s just rock for about a mile. At that point InProgress had to put away her trekking poles. A tip broke off one of mine so I had to put mine away regardless.
It seems that the folks who maintain the trails in the state really aren’t interested in making it any better than it is. We got a ride out of Palmerton with a trail maintainer who made jokes about sharpening the rocks being one of his trail jobs. Nice guy and we really appreciated the ride but someone should really beat these guys about the head and shoulders until they get a friggin clue – the rocks in the trail are a bad thing.
Climbing up the rock ascent out of Palmerton we (I) made a wrong turn off the trail and wound up scaling about thirty vertical feet that just plain got scary before we found out where the trail was and got back to it. The blaze where we should have turned was on top of a rock and plainly visible only after we passed it. We were so grateful to get back on the trail that we didn’t even get indignant about that poorly located blaze.
The rest of the Superfund detour was easier going and we made 16 miles that day. Funny that – the detour was easier walking than the trail. Hmmm.
Speaking of funny things, you can’t buy beer in a convenience store in Pennsylvania. Makes those stores a lot less convenient. And there are consequentially a lot fewer of them.
All in all I will not miss that state and its weird ways. I write this from the safety of New Jersey, the garden state.