Hiking – AT NOBO – Ensign Cowall Shelter (Wolfsville Road) to Pen Mar

This is my favorite section of the trail in my home state. There isn’t much to choose from: Maryland has one of the shortest sections (by state) of the AT at only 40 miles. The AT in Maryland is also quite flat. However there are three “big” climbs for Northbound hikers: Weverton Cliffs, Pine Knob, and Raven Rock.

Where is “the best” section of the AT in Maryland?

On this hike, we explored the northernmost 10 miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maryland, which contains one of the big climbs to Raven Rock. Raven Rock is also the mid-point for this 10 mile-long hike. Most of the AT in Maryland is contained within the boundaries of South Mountain State Park, including virtually all of these 10 miles.

I first hiked this section a couple of years ago while “thru-hiking” Maryland from Harpers Ferry to Pen Mar.  Along this 10 mile section, there are two really good overlooks (Raven Rock and High Rock), two good streams to get water, varied terrain, and a couple of thick evergreen stands (mainly hemlocks). The hemlocks are interesting to me as most of the AT (at least in the immediate area) is deciduous forest.

Hiking the AT – Northern Maryland

Somewhere on the AT

We started our day as a party of 3; myself, and two friends: Dave and Josiah. Our initial meeting point was Pen Mar which would be our ending point. We stashed a car for the end of the hike and drove to our starting point to the south. There is a small parking lot along Wolfsville Road where the AT crosses. After parking the car we began our trek North.


Wolfsville Road to Raven Rock

Heading north is a steady, but not steep, climb to Foxville Road.  Immediately after departing from the parking lot, you walk by the Ensign Cowall Shelter.  You then pass through a few fields where the trail blazes are painted on posts instead of trees. Until you get to Raven Rock, the terrain is easy to moderate. You pass over two streams including Warner Hollow Run and the Little Antietam Creek, which has some of the best water I have ever tasted (filtered of course).

Running water at Warner Hollow

We passed through the Hemlock stand I mentioned earlier and we arrived at Little Antietam Creek shortly afterward. We took a break to snack and enjoy the sounds of the water. I highly recommend stopping at Little Antietam; you can see the evergreens (especially nice in Winter) and watch the water flow by. It’s hard to miss since Raven Rock Road is just beyond the creek. The running water drowns out most of the road noise though.

Party of 5

…Not the TV show. We were contacted at the beginning of our hike by our friend Jesse (who joined me in the previous hike). He would meet us at Raven Rock Road and hike the second half of the day with us. We had about an hour before he arrived so we opted to cross the road and complete the climb up to Raven Rock. Jesse found us around noon and carried his hiking companion with him: 2-year old Geneva. Raven Rock is a pretty good climb (about 300 feet to the overlook), but carrying an extra person up that hill doesn’t make it any easier. Our hiking party of 3 had now become 5.

Raven Rock and High Rock

Dave exploring Raven Rock Shelter
Dave exploring Raven Rock Shelter

At the overlook, you are only about halfway finished the climb to the top of the ridge. The beginning is the steepest part, however it’s another 300 feet of climbing until you level off near the Raven Rock Shelter. We stopped at the shelter to recover from the climb and just have a look at the shelter. This was one of the best shelters I have seen on the AT. It looked brand new, it was fairly large, and had a great system for hanging up food.

After the Raven Rock Shelter, the terrain is flat for about 2 miles until you make it to High Rock. To get to High Rock, you take a small detour off of the AT and end up at a parking lot. High Rock is difficult to miss as it is covered in colorful graffiti and has a near-panoramic view of the Great Appalachian Valley.

All 5 members of the hiking party at High Rock

Hang gliding anyone?

I’m not sure if it is still used, but there is a platform for launching hang-gliders. The concrete platform (where we are standing in the picture above) is slick and slopes down slightly toward the edge of the cliff. At the end of the concrete is a metal platform where I assume you launch hang-gliders from. There is no safety rail anywhere. I don’t recommend walking to the end of the platform unless you like living on the edge. I’m sure it’s safe…

High Rock Hang-gliding launch platform
That’s far enough – High Rock Hang-gliding launch platform

High Rock to Pen Mar

The descent from High Rock can be tricky (especially when you are carrying a 2-year-old). I may have forgotten to mention the descent to Jesse. Anyway, hiking North from High Rock, the trail gets very rocky heading downhill. You have to “climb” a bit over the boulder field. From the bottom of the boulder field, it’s about 2 miles to Pen Mar. The trail is relatively flat with a smaller boulder field along part of it.

Nice balance – Descending the boulders from High Rock


Along the last mile before Pen Mar are remnants of the Civil War. There are no signs, but along the trail there is clearly a stone wall that was built, and if you climb up the hill behind the wall, there is what looks like an ammunition bunker. The location is marked on the map above, but I forgot to take a picture. If you are into history (especially the American Civil War) then it’s worth a stop. Otherwise, it’s just a big hole in the ground. Maryland has a very short section of the AT, but the trail passes through several strategic locations relating to the Civil War. Lots of history here!

Wrap it up!

After our Civil War detour, there is only about a mile of flat and slightly muddy terrain until reaching Pen Mar. There isn’t much going on in Pen Mar, but it is certainly an Oasis for thru-hikers. There is an overlook, visitor center, water, and a park where they probably let thru-hikers camp for a night. One day I would like to thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Pen Mar (and the Mason-Dixon Line) is almost the midway point on the trail. What a journey!

Entering Pennsylvania on the Apppalachian Trail - 1-11-20
The endpoint for this hike – entering Pennsylvania on the Apppalachian Trail

Josiah and I made the extra 2/10 mile journey to the Mason-Dixon Line and briefly entered Pennsylvania.  We spent almost all of our daylight (~9 hours) on the trail.  We certainly went at a leisurely pace, however the average hiker can complete this section easily in 5 hours.  In fact I have heard there is a 4-state challenge where hikers attempt to hike in 4 states in one day; starting from the Virginia/West Virginia border, hiking through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.  It’s roughly 45 miles!

What’s next?

If you haven’t hiked this section, I highly recommend it. Maryland is known as a flat state for thru-hikers, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing to see. There are two great overlooks, good stream water, and a few challenging climbs. Besides Weverton Cliffs near the Potomac River, Raven Rock is the most challenging climb along the AT in Maryland. Perhaps that is the next place to go! Thanks for reading.

Overlook of the Great Appalachian Valley in Pen Mar, MD

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