Celebrating Emma "Grandma" Gatewood's Legacy on the Appalachian Trail

Descendants of the legendary hiker raise money for Appalachian charities by promoting trails and nature.

Joy Frank-Collins
Caitlin Gatewood Edwards, great-great-granddaughter of "Grandma" Gatewood, in the Old Man's Cave area of the Hocking Hills

When Caitlin Gatewood Edwards recently finished the Columbus Ale Trail, she added another checkmark to a long list of paths completed throughout Central Ohio, both concrete and dirt. The Pickerington native has marked off every trail in the Columbus Metroparks system, most of the trails in the Hocking Hills, the Made in Columbus Trail, the Columbus Coffee Trail and many others that stretch throughout Ohio’s state parks and beyond. But no matter what trail she conquers, it’s done in the shadow of her great-great-grandmother, Ohio’s most renowned hiker, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood

In 1955, Grandma Gatewood, at age 67, was the first woman to solo thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, which now stretches about 2,200 miles (it was 2,055 in 1955) from Georgia to Maine. She was the oldest of her time, and the first person to return and complete it two more times. She also founded and helped build Ohio’s 1,444-mile Buckeye Trail. April 27 (the date the trail was completed in 1967) is designated Emma “Grandma” Gatewood Day in Ohio. 

A photo of Grandma Gatewood on the trail

1967 was also the year Gatewood led a January hike through a six-mile stretch of trails in the Hocking Hills that became known as the Hocking Hills Winter Hike and continues to attract participants each year. 

Edwards, 29, an IT consultant, grew up in Pickerington with her mother, Maureen, and grandmother, Roberta, Emma Gatewood’s granddaughter. She heard stories about the tough-as-nails hiker, but the two never met. Grandma Gatewood died in 1973. 

In 2017, Caitlin and her mother, along with an aunt, Stacy Spohn, founded Gatewood Appalachia to celebrate their hardy ancestor and the region she came from. The company sells Appalachian-made goods such as trail socks and pins, popular among the hiking set, that depict woodland creatures such as raccoons and opossums, as well as a few of Grandma Gatewood herself, including the iconic sneakers—high-top Keds—that she wore on the trail. They donate a portion of the profits to charities and organizations that support conservancy, education and health and wellness within the region. 

Emma Gatewood worked hard throughout her life. She had 11 children, and Maureen remembers that every year Grandma Gatewood would visit each one for a month to help out with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and do chores around the house, from laundry to sewing to cooking. 

A pin of Grandma Gatewood and hiking socks

“That was remarkable in my mind,” she says. “And she instilled that kind of hard work ethic in her children, too.” 

She also passed down her love of being active, hiking and nature. Caitlin remembers being a reluctant hiker as a child on family visits to the Hocking Hills, but returned to the activity in 2020 as a way to get out of the house and away from people during the pandemic. She started with the Metroparks, then branched out to the Hocking Hills, then to Ohio’s state parks, its one national park and other national parks across the country. “Now a lot of my big trips are specifically to go hiking,” she says. 

In 2020, she and her boyfriend climbed Mount Minsi in the Delaware Water Gap and did a small portion of the Appalachian Trail. At one point on the climb, they were on their hands and knees and she recalls thinking of her great-great-grandmother on that same trail in 1955 in her high-top Keds. She draws strength from Grandma Gatewood during tough stretches on hikes. 

“I think about, ‘Wow, she did not have my fancy hiking boots’,” Caitlin says, acknowledging that they are the most expensive pair of shoes she owns, “‘and she didn’t have any of this fancy gear that I have, and she was still out here, crushing it.’” 

In 2021, Gatewood Appalachia partnered with Discover Life in America, a nonprofit that works to catalog every species living in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to create a pin celebrating the synchronous firefly, the glow-in-the-dark bugs native to the park that coordinate their flashing during their mating season in late spring. For each pin sold, $1 goes to DLIA. 

Caitlin, who always hikes with at least one other person, plans to dedicate time this year to overnight hikes. And one day, she hopes to truly walk in the footsteps of her trailblazing great-great-grandmother and thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. 

“I can only hope to be as cool as her one day,” she says.  

This story is from the April 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.