Appalachian Trail Museum

It’s the end of June and the bubble has passed the Appalachian Trail Museum. This means a steady stream of NOBO (north bound) thru-hikers along with a good handful of SOBO (south bound) thru-hikers have passed the half-way point on the Appalachian Trail. On the trail, they are often joined by section hikers, day hikers, and campers. Thru-hikers come in with trail names such as “Blueberry” and “Slug” and “One Lung” and “Splat” and many have stories to tell. They’ve spent weeks or months following the white blazes marked on trees in the “green tunnel.” What is this trail language of which I speak? It’s the language of the Appalachian Trail, and I learned it at the museum: the only place where you can see Benton MacKaye’s study, Grandma Gatewood’s shoes, and Earl Shaffer’s lean-to shelter. 

We’re deep into Appalachian Trail land and lore here. The Appalachians are very old, a landscape formed in the prehistory of Pangea, with an Indigenous place name and legendary historical figures whose stories the museum aims to tell. These stories, shared through historical objects, text wall panels, and a roster of guest speakers, inspire the hikers of today—and tomorrow. The museum is close to the mid-point of the 2,100+ mile trail and located within a Pennsylvania state park which is itself inside a state forest, but it’s deceiving to ask where the mid-point of the AT is: it changes every year, because the exact location of the trail shifts due to erosion, trail restoration or roadway work.

Along the AT are numerous “trail towns” which provide places to eat, shower, sleep, stock up on supplies and soak up downtime with others, trading stories and tips over locally made brews. Many of these trail towns, such as Damascus, Virginia, host annual events where hikers and outdoor enthusiasts of all sorts descend into town for a multi-day festival. The AT Museum, while not an official “Trail Town” per se, functions like one, with a General Store and a lodging house with dorm style rooms located close by. The AT Museum is run as its own not-for-profit organization, separate from, but a partner to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) and Pine Grove Furnace State Park. Basically, the ATC is in the business of caring for the trail and its many users, while the AT Museum is in the business of caring for the trail’s ever-evolving history and for encouraging a life-long relationship with the trail.

The AT Museum is a relatively new addition to the AT story. A group of serious enthusiasts banded together and identified a 18th century stone grist mill structure in Pine Grove Furnace State Park, which once served a robust iron-making community. The stone stack for the iron furnace still stands, as does its twin in nearby Boiling Springs, a small Trail Town community. The building needed to be adapted for the museum’s use, and the renovation project continues even today, twenty years later. Many visitors remember when there were few exhibits here—today all four floors are packed with gear, artifacts, digital screens, and books, so much so, that museum collections are housed off-site. The museum’s exhibits highlight the iconic names and personas of those who either quite directly made the Appalachian Trail or made it their own in some way. Trail pioneers Benton MacKaye and Milton Avery are represented, including, most impressively, MacKaye’s “Sky Parlor,” his intact study, the place from where he dreamed up the idea to create what would become the country’s first national trail. While MacKaye was the dreamer, Avery was the doer, who helped to establish the route of the AT south of the Delaware Water Gap, and blazed and measured the whole trail. The two men, friendly colleagues at one time, had a falling out over the creation of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, which changed both the location and the nature of walking through the woods.

Benton MacKaye’s “Sky Parlor,” originally from his Shirley, Massachusetts office, was reinstalled in the museum in 2021.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura A. Macaluso

Two individuals who made the AT their own are well loved in the museum. The first person to be documented as hiking the entire length was Earl Shaffer (1918-2002), a World War II vet who felt most at home on the trail, where he walked out his difficult wartime experiences. Shaffer was from nearby York, Pennsylvania, and ended up hiking the AT twice more in his lifetime. Although the trail had been completed in the late 1930s, no one accomplished the whole until Shaffer, who later wrote “Walking with Spring,” one of the hundreds, if not thousands of memoirs, guidebooks and poetry thru-hikers continue to produce today. Another beloved icon of the AT is Emma "Grandma" Gatewood (1887-1973), who was a 67-year-old grandmother from Ohio when she got on the trail in 1955 with a handmade rucksack over her shoulder and a pair of inexpensive sneakers on her feet. Books by and about people such as Shaffer and Gatewood are sold in the museum’s small store, where visitors can also stamp their “AT Passports.”

Display of items, including a handmade rucksack, used by Grandma Gatewood on the Appalachian Trail. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura A. Macaluso
Earl Shaffer built four shelters on the AT during his time as a volunteer for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. This shelter, from Peters Mountain in Pennsylvania, was reinstalled in the Appalachian Trail Museum. Shaffer was the first person to walk the entire length of the AT, which he did in 1948. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura A. Macaluso

The Appalachian Trail has always been attractive to foot travelers of all kinds, and they benefit from peculiar traditions, such as “trail magic” which means doing something for the hikers passing through, whether that is providing granola bars, water, or a lift to the nearest Walmart. This happens all along the trail, unexpectedly and is usually received with gratitude. Another tradition which happens at the General Store close to the museum is the “Half Gallon Challenge,” whereby thru-hikers are gifted a ½ gallon of ice cream—it’s Hershey’s of course, we’re in Hershey land here—and sitting under the eaves, attempt to eat it in one sitting. Most who take the challenge are up for it!

I need to run now. A section hiker (someone who takes the AT in sections, perhaps over several years or more) named “Grumpy Pumpkin” came in, and he wants to talk. He calls himself a “lash” (a long-ass section hiker) and he’s been on since Georgia but is getting off the trail in NE Pennsylvania after he visits family he hasn’t seen in a while. Maybe. Or, maybe he’ll continue through to Maine, but even with a pair of brand new shoes, he’s behind the time—the bubble passed two weeks ago, which is the grouping of people who inevitably end up going in the same direction at about the same pace. They are determined to make Mt. Katahdin before the Baxter State Park closes trail access for the winter.

One of the three “Half-Way Markers” that exist on the Appalachian Trail, close to the museum in Michaux State Forest. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY Laura A. Macaluso

The AT Museum is open seasonally, from April to October. For the East Coast of the United States, these months are the window which support hiking—and sleeping—outdoors. NOBO hikers must get to Maine before the winter season slams into fall, bringing with it dangerously low temperatures, wind, and snow. The AT Museum is a place to document some of these intersections: stories about blisters, cooking tepid noodles, bad weather, searching for a water source, chance encounters (animal or human), sleeping under the stars, GPS maps versus paper maps, and how to clean yourself on the trail and keep the environment in good shape. It doesn’t matter what the challenges are—and there are plenty—people of all ages will always come to hike the Appalachian Trail, and the museum is here to document, applaud and share in their efforts.

Appalachian Trail Museum

1120 Pine Grove Road

Gardners, PA 17324

United States

Free Admission, Donations Welcomed

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Laura A. Macaluso

Laura A. Macaluso, Ph.D. researches and writes about monuments, museums, and material culture. She has written or contributed to more than ten books and is the author of essays and blog posts in the field of cultural heritage. Currently she’s working on a publication project with Amy Speckart, PhD for the 250th anniversary of the United States, titled Revolutionary Narratives, Stories for a Reflective, Inclusive and Expansive 250th Commemoration and is also under contract to publish Art for Hartford, A Capital City and Its Public Art. She has been a volunteer at the AT Museum since moving to Pennsylvania two seasons ago. See more of her work at