Published March 22, 2024

Grandma Gatewood, One of Ohio’s Most Famous Hikers

Emma Rowena Caldwell Gatewood, known as “Grandma Gatewood,” is considered a thru-hiking pioneer, one of America’s most famous hikers and a great ambassador for the Appalachian Trail. She is credited for helping save the nation’s foremost trail.  

She also helped build the Buckeye Trail, Ohio’s 1,444-mile long-distance hiking trail that circumnavigates the state – and runs through five of your Five Rivers MetroParks, including Taylorsville, Island, Deeds Point, Eastwood and Huffman MetroParks. 

Born October 25, 1887, in Gallia County, Ohio, Gatewood – along with her 14 siblings –   grew up doing the strenuous manual labor required to run her family’s farm. At 19, she married farmer Perry Clayton Gatewood and eventually became a mother to 11 children and grandmother to 23 grandchildren.   

In the early 1950s, when she was 67 and all her children had moved out of her house, Gatewood read a National Geographic article about Eric Shaffer, the first man to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. The fact that no woman had yet solo hiked this trail presented a challenge to her. 

Her first failed attempt to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail was in 1953. Gatewood broke her glasses, became lost and was then rescued by a few rangers who told her to return home.  

Two years later, in 1955, Grandma Gatewood left her difficult domestic situation behind and became the first solo female thru-hiker to complete the 2,168-mile long Appalachian Trail. She told her kids she was “going for a hike in the woods.” Gatewood walked for 146 days, through 14 states and went through seven pairs of shoes. During her travels, she gained and lost altitude on the trail equivalent to climbing Mt. Everest 16 times (464,512 feet) – all at age 67. 

When Gatewood set out, she only took a homemade denim bag with a blanket, shower curtain, cup, canteen and bottle for water, small pot, spoon, Swiss Army knife, first-aid kit, pins, flashlight, piece of rope, raincoat, warm coat, and one change of clothes. She did not take a sleeping bag, tent, compass or map, instead relying on the hospitality and kindness of strangers who lived along the trail for food and shelter. 

Despite this hospitality, the trip was not entirely comfortable. Gatewood often slept wherever she could find shelter, including on porch swings, under picnic benches or on beds of leaves. Her diet consisted of canned Vienna sausages, raisins, nuts, chicken bouillon cubes and greens she found on the trail – Gatewood was particularly resourceful and had learned which plants were edible before starting her journey. 

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Media coverage of her trip was extensive, and many local reporters interviewed her along the way. Her own children found out about her feat because a newspaper clipping made its way to their hometown.  

Two years later, in 1957, Gatewood hiked the Appalachian Trail again, making her the first person – male or female – to have completed a thru-hike of the trail twice. In 1964, at age 76, she did the trail once again and became the first person to hike the trail three times.  

Between her time on the Appalachian Trail, Grandma Gatewood also hiked the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail.  

Despite her hiking adventures taking her away from home, Grandma Gatewood never lost her love for Ohio’s natural spaces. Gatewood helped build the Buckeye Trail and participated in the Buckeye Trail Association’s inaugural hike in 1959.  

In the 1960s, she began clearing and marking a 30-mile trail along the Ohio River in Gallia County, hoping it would become part of the new Buckeye Trail. Grandma Gatewood was in her 80s and still worked on this trail for 10 or more hours per day. 

In January 1967, she led a Buckeye Trail hike through a section of Hocking Hills, which became an annual winter tradition. The Winter Hike at Hocking Hills continues to draw thousands of hikers to complete the six-mile “Grandma Gatewood Trail.”  

When she showed up for her final winter hike in 1973, Gatewood couldn’t physically make the hike. However, she stood at the trailhead and greeted the 2,500 people who had come to hike, including many old friends and people eager to meet Ohio’s celebrity hiker. Grandma Gatewood died later that year on June 4, 1973.  

The Appalachian Trail Museum includes exhibits about her story and, in 2012, Grandma Gatewod was posthumously inducted into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame. 

To learn more about the Buckeye Trail, click here 

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