Who was Grandma Gatewood?

Do you like to hike? Emma Rowena Gatewood sure did.

In 1955, at the age of 67, Gatewood told her 11 grown children that she was going for a “walk.” She didn’t stop walking until she had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles) — solo — in a single year, the first woman to ever accomplish that feat. She did it again in 1960 and then yet again in 1963 at the age of 75, making her the first person to ever thru-hike the trail three times (though the third time she did it in sections).

Grandma Gatewood Memorial Hiking Trail

The Grandma Gatewood Memorial Hiking Trail spans 6 miles, beginning and ending at the Hocking Hills Old Man's Cave visitor center.

Emma Gatewood
Hiker on the Appalachian Trail

Known for her minimalist, no-nonsense approach to hiking, Gatewood used a homemade sassafras walking stick to help steady her on the trail and carried a cloth sack slung over her shoulder, filled with only 18 pounds of food and equipment. Today’s hikers often carry twice that much weight if not more, and they do it with high-tech backpacks. Instead, she had the following advice for would-be AT hikers: 

“Make a rain cape out of a shower curtain and an over-the-shoulder sling bag and buy a sturdy pair of Keds tennis shoes. Stop at local groceries and pick up Vienna sausages; most everything else to eat you can find along the trail.” 

Gatewood was born in Ohio’s Gallia County in 1887, and her father was a Union soldier who had fought and was wounded in the Civil War. She had 14 brothers and sisters who slept four to a bed in the family log cabin. Emma married young, at age 19, to a man who was both mentally and physically abusive; the couple divorced in 1940 after 33 years of marriage. 

Emma Gatewood first learned about the Appalachian Trail in the August 1949 issue of National Geographic magazine. “The story made hiking the trail sound easy,” she said. “It wasn’t.”

Her first attempt at the AT, in 1954, didn’t go well. Starting in Maine, she was determined to hike the trail north to south, finishing in Georgia. Within only a few days, she lost the trail — never admitting to being lost herself, of course — and was found by two rangers. 

Undaunted, Gatewood tried again the next year, 1955, starting in Georgia and planning to walk the trail south to north, which is what most thru-hikers do today. Emma completed her trek to the summit of Maine’s Mount Katahdin in about five months, hiking through 14 states, eight national forests, and six national parks. 

Upon returning home from her adventure, Gatewood surprisingly found herself a national celebrity. She was interviewed by numerous newspapers and even Sports Illustrated magazine, and she appeared on the television programs NBC Today Show, Art Linkletter’s House Party, and Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life

Years before all that recognition, as Emma Gatewood was raising her large family, she often took the kids to Ohio’s most-visited state park, Hocking Hills, for a day’s outing. “She said Hocking was her favorite place to bring her family to go hiking,” says Pat Quackenbush, recently retired naturalist supervisor at the park. “In 1966, she became one of the leaders of the park’s annual Winter Hike.” In fact, she led that hike every year until she died in Gallipolis in 1973, at age 85. 

Quackenbush said he remembers meeting Gatewood briefly at the park when he was a young boy. “I wasn’t aware then of how well-known she was,” he says. Today, the main trail from Old Man’s Cave to Ash Cave is known as the Grandma Gatewood Trail.

If you would like to participate in this year’s annual autumn Grandma Gatewood Hike, it’s scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 16, starting at 9 a.m. at the Hocking Hills Old Man’s Cave visitor center. Family-friendly, the hike covers 6 miles, from the visitor center to Cedar Falls and back. 

In addition to having an Ohio state park trail named after her, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood was also director emeritus and a lifetime member of Ohio’s Buckeye Trail Association. A PBS documentary of her life, Trail Magic: The Grandma Gatewood Story, was released in 2015 and it’s a great watch — especially if you’re starting to think you are too old to try something new.