A Mask in the Woods: Means Hollow Road to Pine Grove Furnace General Store (12.5 miles)

Fall has unexpectedly arrived in Maryland, bringing crisp temperatures, decaying leaves, and lots of soup. Everyone seems a bit caught off guard — late September should still be shorts and t-shirts weather. On the morning of our last hike, when we departed from our house at 5:00a.m., it was below forty degrees! As I started the drive I thought about our lunch plans to eat burgers and fries at the Pine Grove Furnace General Store, home of one of the trail’s “Half-Gallon Challenges.”

I alluded to this challenge in a blog a few weeks ago, and I didn’t realize how quickly we would get to it. Basically, the half-gallon challenge at Pine Grove is to buy and consume a half-gallon of ice cream. Lots of backpackers, even though they need about 5,000 calories a day, can’t conquer this challenge! And while there are other Half-Gallon challenges on the trail, this is the first for people traveling Southbound, and the General Store sits very close to the official halfway point of the whole trail. So you can eat a half-gallon after you’ve reached halfway on the AT! However, as I drove with gloves on, eating a half-gallon of ice cream didn’t sound like the best idea in the world.

For anyone planning to do what we did and send two cars to Pine Grove Furnace, beware: there are two parking lots, a lower one and an upper one that sits right next to the General Store. There is also no service via AT&T (me) and Verizon (Henry). Since I’m what some might call a “speed demon” on the highways (it’s really not that bad), I assumed I would beat Henry to the parking lot. I rolled into the lower lot and backed into a space so that I could see him come down the road. Then, thinking he wouldn’t be able to see me anyway, I got out of the car and stood by the trunk, ready to wave him down.

Minutes passed. Eventually, I decided to follow the road up a ways to see if they had parked somewhere closer to the general store (I didn’t know this upper parking lot existed). Coming down the road at just that moment was Henry — making his way down to the lower parking lot to see if I was there after waiting for about ten minutes. From now on, we’re agreeing on a parking place first.

We started our hike from Means Hollow Road, putting Henry’s car in park on the side of the dirt road like we did with mine last time. Right away we crossed several dirt roads and passed the Milesburn Cabin. Apparently, you can rent this primitive cabin for $35 a night on weeknights and $50 on weekends. We were quiet as we passed because there were definitely people there.

We had a small incline at the beginning of this trail, and that warmed me up quickly. Henry was still very cold and commented on it as we walked. He noticed I had my quarter-zip sleeves pushed up, and asked, “Are you warm?” I was. He could not believe it. It was probably still in the forties at the time, but my body has always run hot.

Honestly, even at the end this was a gentle section of trail. The sections of just rocks were few and far between. We had a few places where there was a steep descent but no crazy uphill portions. We walked over quite a few bridges — even some that looked like they could use attention — and in general had the trail to ourselves.

One of the most interesting things we found this time were all of the different AT midpoints. Apparently, every year the Appalachian Trail Conservancy will find exactly where 1095 miles is between the beginning in Georgia and the end in Maine, and it changes. We passed several different markers that were the AT mid-points for that particular year, signed by hikers of that year. We signed the 2020 post. Henry noticed someone else was on the trail calling themselves “sunshine.”

After the mid-points, the trail has you walk down Michaux Road and then turn down Bunkerhill Road. The whole way is easy to find and follow with clearly marked blazes. We then walked through a stretch of forest that looked like it had been burned because the trees were more spaced out, they were scrawnier, and in general it just felt less dense. The trail spills out onto Highway 233 where you pass a house belonging to an elderly couple who was out mowing their lawn together. They have a dog who must have been older too because while standing at attention, he did not notice us go by until Henry passed (at the rear) and then his woofs filled the valley.

To get back to Pine Grove Furnace, you are taken down a dirt road and then up back into the woods for a bit. Even twelve miles in, this still felt like an easy hike, and unlike last time, it stayed that way the whole time. We walked back onto a gravel road, passed the Ironmaster’s Mansion on our left, and walked uphill to the General Store.

Now, lunch. I’m realizing looking back that this post has very little about the actual hike, and maybe that’s because I’m writing it a week later or maybe it’s because the trails are starting to look more and more similar. But the General Store is something new and different. Inside is an ice cream counter, a grill, a small gas station-esque area of snacks, and a back cooler where they keep the half-gallons of ice cream. We were ready for hot, greasy grub, especially since we needed to sit outside in the still nippy air (socially distanced from people outside our party). As I was about to order, a park ranger came in and began talking with the cook behind us.

“Hey, um, I’m sorry, but this burger is raw in the middle,” she said.

“Raw?” the lady at the grill said. I gulped.

“Yeah, and I was wondering if you could just cook it a bit more. Sorry,” the ranger said.

“Oh yeah sure,” cook said. Oh no, I thought to myself.

“I know on the grill it definitely looks cooked,” said the ranger. “It’s a mistake anyone can make.” Not one I want the person making my lunch to make though.

The ranger passed her plate over and walked back outside.

Henry leaned in behind me. “There’s no way she’ll make the same mistake twice, right? I mean, she knows we were here and heard that. So she’ll definitely cook ours.” I couldn’t fault his logic. We ordered two bacon cheeseburgers, two fries, and got two sprites from the back fridge. You might say we’re married. Overall, I was impressed with the menu. There were a few vegetarian options, chicken options, and the “hiker’s burger” which was the bacon burger with a fried egg.

Our burgers were cooked. I forgot to take a picture at the start (I’m a bad millennial), so I took one halfway through. Henry said the picture makes it look gross. I’m here to report the facts, people. The burgers come on a ciabatta roll.

Eat the fries first. At one point Henry said, “I bet these were great when they were warm.” The fries are greasy and delicious but you want them hot. Sitting in fifty degree weather did not help their situation. The burgers were everything I expected them to be, and they filled me right up.

We walked in to look at the ice cream. The flavors were: black raspberry, vanilla, chocolate salted caramel, and cookies and cream. We decided that we could get flavors we wanted and for cheaper at home and thought this was more prudent since there was no way we were actually going to complete the half-gallon challenge. Maybe another time. Pine Grove Furnace State Park hosts the Appalachian Trail Festival every year, so maybe we’ll come back for that next year and give it a go.

So, should you stop at Pine Grove Furnace General Store? Hell yes. Should you be super hungry and arrive there after hiking for days and living on oatmeal and Mountain House meals? Double yes.

Miles Completed81.3
Miles to Go2108.7
Percentage Complete3.7%
Not quite at 100 miles yet…

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