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The 67-Year-Old Who Became the First Woman to Solo Hike the Entire Appalachian Trail

After surviving thirty years of domestic violence, Grandma Gatewood became a record-setting hiking pioneer who helped to save the Appalachian Trail from ruin.

In 1955, at the age of 67, Emma Rowena Gatewood became the first woman to solo hike the entire 2,168 mile (3,489 km) Appalachian Trail — wearing Keds sneakers and carrying an army blanket, a raincoat, a shower curtain, and a change of clothes in a homemade bag which she slung over one shoulder. For food, she foraged for wild plants, as well as carried dried meat, cheese, nuts, and dried fruit. The mother of 11 and grandmother of 23, Gatewood is now considered a pioneer of ultra-light hiking and one of the first high-profile ambassadors of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Her resilience and determination have inspired generations of hikers, whether they're walking a local state trail or tackling the full AT. "I would never have started this trip if I had known how tough it was," Gatewood observed after her hike, "but I couldn’t and I wouldn’t quit." 

People might not have been surprised by Gatewood's perseverance if they had known what she survived to get there. She was born in Gallia County, Ohio in 1887 into a poor family of 15 children, and her father, a Civil War amputee, was a heavy drinker. At the age of 19, she married a 27-year-old named P. C. Gatewood, a brutal man who regularly beat her. On occasion she would escape into the woods, and slowly the wilderness became a refuge for her. She fled her marriage once, but returned after she couldn't bear to stay away from her children.

In 1939, after her husband broke her teeth and cracked one of her ribs, Gatewood fought back by throwing a sack of flour at him — and a sheriff's deputy arrested her. Fortunately, the mayor of the small West Virginia town where they lived intervened after he saw her battered face. After thirty years in a violent marriage, she successfully received a divorce, which was extremely uncommon at the time, and raised her last three children alone. "She was free," says Bette Lou Higgins, producer of Trail Magic, a documentary about Gatewood. "She didn’t have to answer to anyone."

Gatewood's children were grown in 1949 when she read a story about the Appalachian Trail in National Geographic magazine. She was intrigued by the idea that no woman had hiked the full length solo. Her daughter Rowena later remembered her saying, "If those men can do it, I can do it." On her first attempt, leaving from Maine, she broke her glasses and had to be rescued by rangers when she got lost. The second time, she set off from Georgia, carrying only a small sack and wearing Keds sneakers. She ended up wearing through seven pairs of the canvas shoes during her hike.

The hike was more difficult than she expected; much of the trail was in disrepair and badly overgrown. "There were terrible blow downs, burnt-over areas that were never re-marked, gravel and sand washouts, weeds and brush to your neck, and most of the shelters were blown down, burned down or so filthy I chose to sleep out of doors," she said in an interview. "This is no trail. This is a nightmare." Those problems added to the trail's notorious difficulty, including its extreme changes in elevation. "For some fool reason, they always lead you right up over the biggest rock to the top of the biggest mountain they can find," she declared. "I thought it would be a nice lark... It wasn't."

Even with these challenges, Gatewood kept up a pace of 14 miles a day, often walking from sunrise to sunset, and regularly outpacing younger hikers on the trail. In the Southern states, local newspapers started picking up the story of the grandmother who was attempting to hike the trail's full length, and soon the Associated Press wrote a profile on her walk. As word spread, people across the country started following news reports about "Grandma Gatewood," tracking her progress along the trail. "Much of America was pulling for her," says Ben Montgomery, author of the best-selling book Grandma Gatewood's Walk. "[People were] clipping newspaper articles at kitchen tables and watching her traipse across the evening news on television, wondering whether she’d survive, this woman, in so mean a place."

In 1955, after hiking for 146 days, Gatewood successfully became the first woman to complete the entire trail by herself in one season. She later returned to hike the trail again in 1960 and in 1963 at the end of 75, becoming the first person to ever hike the AT three times. She also hiked 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon, averaging 22 miles (35 km) a day, and she was instrumental in establishing the Buckeye Trail in her home state of Ohio. The Appalachian Trail Conference named her the oldest female thru-hiker. Gatewood's highly publicized descriptions of the poor conditions on the trail prompted improvements from the management of the trail; shelters were rebuilt and trails were cleared and re-marked. "Media coverage of her hike led to repairs and restoration of the trail," wrote Diana Reese in The Washington Post. "[She] may, indeed, have saved the trail from falling into ruin."

Grandma Gatewood's various feats inspired people across the country to try hiking some of America's beautiful trails; today, an estimated two million people hike part of the Appalachian Trail every year and nearly 1,000 people a year attempt a thru-hike. She is also considered a pioneer of the ultralight backpacking movement, which emphasizes carrying the lightest and simplest gear possible for any trip. "Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages... most everything else to eat you can find beside the trail," the 83-year-old Gatewood advised those who wanted to follow in her footsteps. "And by the way those wild onions are not called 'Ramps'... they are 'Rampians' ... a ramp is an inclined plane." She also didn't think much of the latest ultralight hiking gear; instead, the highly practical hiking great-grandmother suggested:  "make a rain cape, and an over the shoulder sling bag, and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes."

Books About Grandma Gatewood and Other Mighty Girl Hikers

The Hike

The Hike

Written by: Alison Farrell
Illustrated by: Alison Farrell
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Three outdoor-loving friends — Wren, El, and Hattie, along with Bean the dog — are going on a hike. It's their "favorite thing to do," but each of them has different talents to bring to bear: Wren brings her sketchbook, while El shows them how to make leaf baskets, and Hattie, the smallest, is the best at using their map to find her way. On their route, they observe the flora and fauna of the Western woodland, labeled in the illustrations; scientific backmatter, including a glossary, encourages kids to imagine what they might discover in their own backyards. This picture book is a tribute to friendship, exploration, and adventures in the great outdoors.

North Woods Girl

North Woods Girl

Written by: Aimee Bissonette
Illustrated by: Claudia Mcgehee
Recommended Age: 4 - 7

When Grandma tucks her pants in her boots and grabs her walking stick, this little girl races to join her side! As they walk near Grandma's north woods home, both grandmother and granddaughter get to enjoy special experiences unique to each season — from the snowy nighttime hoot of an owl to the pleasures of fresh tomatoes from the garden — but most importantly, they get to spend extra time together. And when they do, they relish all the beauty that the forest has to offer. This charming story captures the joy of exploring nature with someone you love.

Up The Mountain Path

Up The Mountain Path

Written by: Marianne Dubuc
Illustrated by: Marianne Dubuc
Recommended Age: 4 - 8

Every Sunday, Mrs. Badger walks the mountain path to the top of Sugarloaf Peak. Along the way, she provides helping hands to those in need, and acts as a caretaker for the natural beauty of the trail. One day, she notices a very little kitten named Lulu following her. Lulu wishes she could climb to the top too... but maybe she's too small. Mrs. Badger encourages her, and it's not long before she has a regular companion on her weekly walk. And when Mrs. Badger is too frail to go, Lulu takes up the walking stick. This sweet story celebrating the love of the outdoors and the richness of intergenerational friendship is profound and quietly powerful.

Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail

Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail

Written by: Jennifer Thermes
Illustrated by: Jennifer Thermes
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Emma Gatewood had a tough life, so one day, at age 67, she decided to go for a nice long walk... and she became the first woman to through-hike the Appalachian Trail solo! She wore a pair of Keds sneakers and carried almost nothing with her, relying on her foraging skills and on the help of residents near the trail. When she finished her journey, she not only became famous across the country, she also ensured that this breathtaking trail would be preserved and protected. This inspiring story of grit and girl power will get kids imagining their own adventures!

When Grandma Gatewood Took A Hike

When Grandma Gatewood Took A Hike

Written by: Michelle Houts
Illustrated by: Erica Magnus
Recommended Age: 5 - 9

When 67-year-old Emma Gatewood became the first woman to solo hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in 1955, she also saved the trail for future generations! Her description of the trail's condition prompted a rejuvenation effort, and her success inspired a new generation of people to take on this incredible journey. This picture book biography explores how a mother of eleven set out on a 2,500-mile trek and walked her way into history.

Cece Loves Science and Adventure

Cece Loves Science and Adventure

Recommended Age: 5 - 9

Cece and her friends Daisy and Caroline are looking forward to their Adventure Girls camping trip, and Cece is particularly hoping to use some of her scientific skills in the great outdoors. After learning how to pitch a tent and set up a campsite, they go for a hike, with Cece snapping pictures of trail landmarks. When it looks like a bad storm is coming — and Cece's mom's GPS stops working — clever Cece is able to figure out how far away the storm is and how to use her pictures to create a map to get them safety back. Cece Loves Science and Adventure celebrates friendship and fun, as well as the practical side of scientific knowledge.

50 Things to Do Before You're 11 3/4

An Outdoor Adventure Handbook

50 Things to Do Before You're 11 3/4

An Outdoor Adventure Handbook

Written by: Nosy Crow
Illustrated by: Tom Percival
Recommended Age: 8 - 12

Let's go outside! This pocket-size companion to the National Trust's hugely successful media campaign contains fifty fantastic activities for kids to explore outdoors. From flying a kite to finding frogspawn to swimming in the sea, there's something here for everyone! It also provides space for you to journal your adventures, with notes, photos, doodles, and more. Inspiring and full of fun, this guide is the perfect way to get kids ready to explore the great outdoors.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Written by: Jacqueline Kelly
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

11-year-old Calpurnia is curious why the yellow grasshoppers in her yard are so much bigger than the green grasshoppers. But it's Texas in 1899, and girls are supposed to devote their time to proper activities like needlework, not tromping through the grasses studying bugs. Still, Calpurnia recruits her grandfather, an avid naturalist, to help her figure out the mystery. As the pair grows closer, Calpurnia dreams of becoming a scientist, even as it becomes more obvious how difficult that will be for a girl in her time. This book will give tweens new perspective on the challenges that faced female scientists in the past. Calpurnia's story continues in The Curious World of Calpurnia Tate, while readers age 6 to 9 can check out the early chapter book series Calpurnia Tate, Girl Vet.

Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures
New!

Wild Girl: How to Have Incredible Outdoor Adventures
New!

Written by: Helen Skelton
Illustrated by: Liz Kay
Recommended Age: 9 and up

There are adventures to be had in the great outdoors — and girls deserve to be a part of them! Helen Skelton, athlete, adventurer, and British TV celebrity uses her own journeys — from an ultramarathon in Namibia to kayaking in the Amazon rainforest — to inspire girls to face their fears, challenge their limits, and try the daring feats they have always dreamed of! Skelton divides her book into sections to show girls that, wherever they live, there are adventures nearby, and breaks down the gear, preparation, and training they'll need to enjoy them, as well as top tips from her and other real-life wild girls. Encouraging and empowering, this dynamic book filled with full-color photos and fun artwork reminds girls that "adventures aren't just things that happen to other people; they are your stories in waiting."

A World Of Her Own: 24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers

A World Of Her Own: 24 Amazing Women Explorers and Adventurers

Written by: Michael Elsohn Ross
Recommended Age: 12 and up

Women have always pushed their limits and dared to explore the nature world! In this exciting book from the Women of Action series, teens will read about bold women like Rosaly Lopes, whose work for NASA included discovery 71 volcanoes on one of Jupiter's moons; Helen Thayer, the first woman to walk and ski to the Magnetic South Pole alone; and Anna Smith Peck, the pioneering climber who set the record for the highest climb in the Western Hemisphere at the age of 58. With intriguing sidebars setting the stage for these women and their courageous accomplishments, this book will inspire the explorers and adventurers of the future!

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature

How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature

Written by: Scott D. Sampson

The average American child today spends only four to seven minutes playing outside — 90 percent less time than their parents did as children. Scott D. Sampson, a paleontologist and the host of the TV show Dinosaur Train, provides a framework for getting kids back into connection with the great outdoors. By showing how kids' interaction with nature changes as they mature — and teaching parents and educators how to overcome seeming obstacles like technology and urban environments — Sampson shows the many benefits of outdoor play and how even today's children can develop an enduring love and appreciation for the great outdoors.

Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children

Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children

Written by: Angela J. Hanscom
Recommended Age: Adults

Sometimes it seems like kids can learn all they need indoors, but studies show that rough and tumble outdoor play — the kind that's directed by kids rather than by parents or teachers — is critical to develop sensory, motor, and executive functions. In fact, there's even evidence to suggest that a lack of movement contributes to ADHD, sensory processing issues, emotional regulation problems, and aggressiveness with peers. Using the philosophy of her popular TimberNook program, author Angela Hanscom provides ideas and strategies for parents and educators to ensure that kids get the play they need, whether they live in the country or in an urban environment.

Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail

Written by: Ben Montgomery
Recommended Age: Adults

When Emma Rowena Gatewood became the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail solo, she inspired a nation — and likely saved this national treasure. But her story doesn't begin with her first steps on the AT. Author Ben Montgomery drew on Gatewood's diaries, trail journals, and correspondence, as well as interviews with family and friends, to tell a remarkable story of a woman who survived unthinkable abuse and persevered to tackle a feat that many younger hikers can't complete. At times both funny and heartbreaking, and always inspiring, this is a powerful biography of a woman who lived by the creed "I said I'll do it, and I've done it."

Parks: A National Park Exploration Game

Parks: A National Park Exploration Game

Manufacturer: Keymaster Games
Recommended Age: 10 and up

Celebrate the beauty of America's National Parks with this game from Keymaster Games and the Fifty-Nine Parks Print Series! Each player takes on the role of a hiker trekking the trails during four different seasons. As you make memories on the trail, you collect resource tokens like mountains, forests, and wildlife; collect a set and you can trade them in to visit a National Park at the end of each season. Who will see the most of America's wilderness by the time the year is done? This gorgeously illustrated game for 1 to 5 players is sure to inspire some real-life park visits.

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