Short Thru Hikes in Pennsylvania 

Would you be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania is chock full of great backpacking trails? Everyone knows that the Appalachian Trail travels through the Commonwealth, but I believe that there are trails that the weekend warrior may find more rewarding. Hidden within the PA State Forests and Parks are several gems that can be thruhiked in one to five days.  These are my favorites.

Loyalsock Trail

  • Length: 59.2 Miles
  • Duration: 2.5-5 Days

In my opinion, PA trails don’t get much better than the Loyalsock Trail (LT).  Located in Northeastern PA, the LT weaves through the Loyalsock State Forest and Worlds End State Park, roughly following the Loyalsock Creek. It begins on PA-87 near Montoursville and ends at US-220 north of Laporte. Out there, you’ll find something for everyone: waterfalls, streams, vistas, rock formations, and a road walk. The trail is well-marked by yellow plastic discs emblazoned with “LT” in red, making navigation a breeze. Water is readily available in all seasons, which means no schlepping tons of water. There are a lot of ups and downs (the elevation profile is often compared to the EKG of an arrhythmia), but there are only a handful of really tough climbs. Definitely add the LT to your list!

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

  • Length: 70 Miles
  • Duration: 3-6 Days

Looking for a more leisurely backpacking experience? Check out the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT). The LHHT is located in Southwestern PA, stretching from Ohiopyle State Park to PA-56 near Johnstown. With the exception of the initial climb to the ridge and the descent at the end, this is a relatively tame hike. This trail is its own PA State Park, which is what makes it different than any other trail in the state. There are shelter areas every 6-12 mile along the trail. These areas include tent camping sites, privies, firewood, water, and clusters of wooden shelters. You must reserve your campsites or shelters in advance, which means you have to plan out your hike and stick to it. There’s no improvising on the LHHT! I suggest booking the shelters, so you can leave your tent or tarp at home. The shelters also have built in fireplaces, which makes them great for winter trips. I strongly suggest the LHHT for beginners, but it can also provide an interesting change of pace for veteran backpackers.

West Rim Trail

  • Length: 30 Miles
  • Duration: 1-3 Days

One of PA’s better-known wonders is the Pine Creek Gorge (AKA The Grand Canyon of PA). As the name suggests, the West Rim Trail (WRT) roughly follows the western rim of the gorge. This means that you’ll get plenty of great vistas along the way! The ups and downs are minimal on the WRT. You climb up to the ridge, follow it for 25 miles, then drop down again. Water is relatively easy to find, and there are a handful of nice campsites as well. If you want some added convenience, I suggest that you park at Pine Creek Outfitters and have them shuttle you to the southern terminus. When you finish the trail, just walk back to your car at PCO. It’s only about a mile!

Black Forest Trail

  • Length: 42 Miles
  • Duration: 2-4 Days

The Black Forest Trail (BFT) has a reputation as one of the hardest trails in Pennsylvania. Also located near the Pine Creek Gorge, the BFT often decides to lose 1000-1500 feet of elevation very quickly only to regain it equally as quickly. I’ve always said that this trail is bipolar. Sections are either really hard or really easy, and there isn’t much in-between. The BFT’s proximity to the Gorge means that it has several nice vistas, and it also travels past some interesting old slate quarries. Water and campsites are both abundant, so logistics and planning are a snap. A connecting trail allows you to link the BFT with the West Rim Trail for an extended adventure!

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Mission Abort: Hike at Lehigh Gap

I headed out today with plans on hiking the east side of Lehigh Gap. My route was supposed to take me up the AT, along a retired section of the AT, back onto the current AT, and then down the Winter Trail (forming a rough Figure-8). That plan wasn’t meant to be.

The intersection of the AT and the Winter Trail at the beginning of my hike.

The intersection of the AT and the Winter Trail at the beginning of my hike.

I began my hike on the AT as planned. The trail climbed through the woods for a bit before beginning an exposed rock scramble. This side of the mountain had good southern sun exposure, so the snow was minimal.

However once Pickle and I crossed over into the shade, the snow got deeper. The trail, which was mostly blazed on the rocks, disappeared beneath the drifted snow. I tried to climb up to the ridge, assuming that I’d be able to relocated the trail when I reached the ridge. After several near-miss incidents and hip-deep postholes, I decided to cut my losses and head back down to the car.

I’m not a huge fan of hiking in the snow to begin with, and the trail was simply not enjoyable today. We’ll try this hike in the spring after things thaw out.

Pickle enjoying his post-hike TurboPUP bar.

Pickle enjoying his post-hike TurboPUP bar.

Snowy hike to the Pinnacle

On Friday (1/30), My dog Pickle and I took a snowy hike on the Pinnacle and Pulpit Loop. This route uses the Appalachian Trail and a blue-blaze to form an 8.7 mile loop and goes by the two best vistas on the AT in Pennsylvania: The Pinnacle and Pulpit Rock. Check out this gallery of photos!

Gossamer Gear Jamboree

From January 16-20, I attended a gathering of Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassadors in Moab, Utah. Trail Ambassadors from all over the country gathered to hike and hang out for a few days, and it was a blast! Read my full write-up over on the Gossamer Gear Blog! Also, check out hashtag #GGUtahAdventures on Instagram!

Hike Prep: The Loyalsock Trail

Sixteen months after my epically embarrassing bail five miles into the Loyalsock Trail, I’m ready to give it another go. There aren’t any stomach bugs floating around my house this year, and I’m in much better shape. I’m very confident that I’ll be able to finish this hike strongly.

Trail Markers on the Loyalsock Trail.

Trail Markers on the Loyalsock Trail.

For those who aren’t aware, the Loyalsock Trail is a 59.2-mile-long backpacking trail in Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains region. It starts north of Montoursville, PA along PA-87 and ends north of Laporte, PA at US-202, and it’s traditionally hiked Eastbound. Following the trail is very easy as it travels through the Loyalsock State Forest and Worlds End State Park. Yellow plastic discs are emblazoned with a red “LT” and affixed to trees at very regular intervals along the trail. Signs are also available at many road crossings and some trail intersections.

My companions from Berks-Lehigh Hiking & Backpacking and I will be hiking this trail “backwards” (Westbound), with estimated mileage splits of 9/22/17/11. We’re aiming to camp with my fellow Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador Brian Horst at Mile 11. This will be my group’s final night on the Loyalsock Trail and the first night of Brian’s Eastbound hike with his group from DC UL Meetup.

My Gear Selection

I’ve decided that I’m going to do a test run of my winter kit on this trip. It’s still a little too far out for the forecast to be reliable, but I’d say that overnight temps could end up being anywhere from 25-45F. These temperatures won’t push my gear to the limit, but they will give be a good idea of what things I need to tweak before winter arrives.

For those who are interested in the raw numbers, you can view my complete Gear and Food ListUPDATED 11/5/14 – Added a backup battery for my phone and an extra fleece layer. 11.6lb Base Pack Weight… yikes!

My primary addition for winter will be the Gossamer Gear Thinlight (59″ x 39″ x 1/4″, 9.6oz) pad. This unassuming piece of gear will play a pivotal role in keeping me warm in my hammock.  When slid between the two layers of my Warbonnet Traveler hammock, it will help insulate me against convective heat loss (heat taken away by the air moving beneath you). I plan on using this in tandem with my Warbonnet Yeti and am hoping to be able to push the combination down to at least 10 degrees. to keep me warm on top, I’ll be using my 10-degree Enlightened Equipment top-quilt.

Instead of using my beloved Aquamira to treat water on this trip, I’ve picked up a Sawyer Mini filter. This filter is made to screw onto the top of a flexible reservoir. Once the reservoir is filled, you screw the filter on, then squeeze the reservoir to force water through. Since this fits my 2L Platy Bottle (which I take on every trip anyway), I’m going to leave the Sawyer reservoir at home. To maintain the filter, you just fill the supplied plunger-style syringe with clean water and force it through the filter in the reverse direction of normal flow (called “backflushing”). The filter and syringe combine for a total weight of 2.6oz.

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Sawyer Mini filter with cleaning plunger.

Because we’ll be getting a late start on Day 1, we’re going to have to hike nearly 9 miles in the dark. Even though I love my 1-ounce Petzl e+Lite headlamp, it isn’t bright enough for any kind of real night hiking. That’s why I’ll be carrying my Petzl MYO RXP headlamp. I picked this lamp up a few years ago (for use on night hikes), and it is VERY bright. It does a great job of lighting up the trail, but it is also VERY heavy, weighing in at 6.2oz. I’d never carry this lamp unless I absolutely needed it.

Since I’ll be carrying heavier, bulkier gear and 4 days worth of food(10.4lb Base Pack Weight, 19.6lbs BPW+Consumables), I’ll need a bigger pack to put everything in! That’s where my brand new Gossamer Gear Gorilla comes into play. This pack has 10 liters more volume than my usual pack (the previous model of the Gossamer Gear Murmur), and it also has an aluminum stay to help transfer the weight of the pack to my hips. The Gorilla was completely redesigned this year, and I’m excited to finally get it out on the trail.

Food Selection

Dinner on night one will be an Italian hoagie. It’s heavy to schlep into the woods, but it will be delicious and well worth carrying. The other two nights, I will be enjoying a high-class meal consisting of instant mashed potatoes and Spam prepared and served in a freezer bag.

For simplicity’s sake, I will be eating the same thing from breakfast and lunch every day: a tortilla with Justin’s Almond Butter and Bacon Jerky. This may seem like an odd combination, but it has become one of my favorite trail foods this year. It is easy to prepare, and there is no cleanup at all. To me, those are both trademarks of the perfect hiking meal. Just squeeze the almond butter out of the packet, slap on some bacon jerky, wrap it up, and eat while you hike!

My snacks will include an entire bag of Fritos, a block of cheddar cheese, chocolate covered coconut chips and chia bars. I’ll also be bringing along some of the dietary supplements I use during my gym training (Whey Protein Isolate, BCAA’s, and a Sleep/recovery aid).

Trip Report: 2 Days on the Allegheny Front Trail

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The Ox crosses Benner Run on a foot bridge.

The Allegheny Front Trail (AFT) is one of Pennsylvania’s many backpacking trails. For 42 miles, it wanders through the Moshannon State Forest while circumnavigating the Black Moshannon State Park. The AFT follows diverse, but mostly gentle, terrain as it follows streams, plunges into hollows, sneaks through red pine plantations, and boardwalks through swamps. I had done this trail twice previously as a 3-day trip, but this time I’d attempt to do it in two.

As usual, my trusty dog Pickle came along for the hike. We met Aaron (AKA “The Ox”), whom I hadn’t hiked with since our Presidential Traverse in June, at the eastern trailhead on Route 504 just after 9AM. I’d always hiked the AFT clockwise from here, so Aaron agreed to indulge me and hike counter-clockwise this time.

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Pickle hikes on a bed of freshly fallen leaves.

It was 9:30 when I finally had my gear out of the car, and we stepped onto the trail. We ambled along discussing everything from our favorite craft brews to my utter disdain for DIY home improvement projects. The gentle terrain lent itself quite well to conversation. We took a lunch break just afternoon and were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had already covered almost 10 miles of trail.

Soon after lunch, we made a short, but steep climb up to a Forest road, passing a trail register about three-quarters of the way up. After passing a hunting camp and a DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) job site, we had our first wildlife sighting of the day: a fat porcupine lumbering down the trail. The Ox held Pickle so I could make sure it was safe to bring the dog through. With Pickle on his leash, we made our way around Porky, who had retreated up a tree. I kept the dog leashed for a while afterwards, just to be safe.

Upon reaching the end of the grassy road (the highest point on the AFT), we started descending directly to the trail’s low point on the shores of the Moshannon Creek (AKA the “Red Mo”). The Red Mo’s water has a distinctive rust color, which comes from the acid runoff of an old coal mining incident. Every rock touched by the creek is now stained orange. This water is, of course, unsuitable for drinking.

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The Red Mo stains this boulder a rusty red.

After following the Red Mo for a few miles, we climbed up over a steep spit of land and then descended to one of the Red Mo’s tributaries: Six Mile Run.

Six Mile Run is a nice little trout stream, with several nice campsites along the way. The Ox and I decided to press on a bit further and cross Rt. 504 before camping along the run. This would get us exactly to the halfway point of our hike. About a mile after the road crossing, we found our spot and settled in.

I was toasty warm in my hammock, and slept far better than normal. When I woke up and poked my eyes out from under my quilt, I was shocked to see that it was already bright and sunny. It was 7:30 and much later than I planned being up. I rushed through breakfast and packed up in a hurry.

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Snug as a bug in a… hammock.

The first few morning miles went a little slow. We lingered in a red pine plantation (planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps after the area had been clear cut by loggers) to take care of our morning “business” because our camp had been a bit too close to water. The trees in this region were replanted in perfectly straight rows, giving it a very unnatural feel.

After wrapping up our business, the miles went quickly for me. I felt good, so I started cruising along at over 3mph, stopping once an hour to let The Ox catch up. He was never too far behind.

As we entered Black Moshannon State Park, the trail became very swampy. We had almost no choice but to suck it up and power through the wet muddy mess. Once our feet were good and wet, we reached a long stretch of boardwalk, which traversed the swampiest sections of trail. After 3.5 miles, we left the park as unceremoniously as we had entered it.

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Pickle standing guard over my Gossamer Gear LT4 poles.

Before too long, we were crossing Underwood Road. With less than 4 miles to go in our hike, we were FINALLY making the gentle climb up to the Allegheny Front, an east-facing escarpment in the Allegheny Mountains that forms the border between the Piedmont and Ridge-and-Valley regions. The AFT, which had previously been smooth and pleasant, suddenly became rocky and angry.

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All the rocks came out to play during the last 4 miles.

Sliding around on the loose rocks was no fun, and this area also had the only challenging climbs of the whole trail. The combination of the two factors slowed our pace. On top of that, my feet started sprouting blisters like it was going out if style. The Ox took off ahead of me for the first time in 2 days. The AFT had a few small vistas in this area, but not enough to make up for the pain in my feet.

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“Ralph’s Pretty Good View”

We eventually emerged at our cars. In standard fashion, I stripped naked by the side of the road and changed into a clean set of “driving clothes”. The Ox and I shook hands and parted ways.

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Less than a half-mile to go!

Report: Susquehanna Super Hike

This past Saturday, I participated in the 6th annual Keystone Trails Association Susquehanna Super Hike and Ultra Trail Run. Participants had the option of two distances (23.4 or 29.6 miles) on a course comprised of sections of the Conestoga and Mason Dixon Trails. At the close of registration, 454 people had signed up.

I’d never done any kind of race or trail challenge event, so this was all new to me. I wasn’t in any danger of winning the thing, but I signed up mainly to test my stamina under somewhat controlled conditions. Exactly how fast could I cover 23.4 miles, if speed was my goal?

Of course, 1 week before the race, I came down with a bad case of bronchitis. I started eating Mucinex like candy just to get through my days (don’t try this at home). I was truly worried about what effect this would have on my hike. By race day, I was feeling 80-90% better. Only a minor cough and a little chest congestion remained. I got lucky.

The check in table at Super Hike

The check in table at Super Hike

388 people started the race with me that day. Hiking with so many people made me apprehensive because I have a bit of enochlophobia (fear of being in crowds). I managed to suppress that anxiety and focus on something just as troubling: the heat. If i had to guess, I’d say it was in the low 70’s with a billion percent humidity at 7am (the temperature allegedly hit 90 at some point during the day). I was sweating before I even started moving.

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Me (far right) at the starting line with some members of DC UL. (Photo Credit: Jen Adach)

Right out of the gate, I decided to run for a bit. The trail started off flat, so I figured I’d take advantage of that. Of course the “real” runners pulled well ahead of me, but I was able to separate myself from the slower part of the pack. I wasn’t all that worried about getting ahead of people, but I really wanted to get out of the crowd. I ran about 3/4 of a mile until the trail and then slowed to my hiking pace when the trail headed uphill. I battled with the crowd for the first few miles, but everyone started spreading out after that. I’d never really be alone, but I often had a 100-200 yard buffer between me and the next hiker. I was OK with that.

The first ten miles looked like they were going to be the hardest. There were no truly brutal climbs, but there were a LOT of moderate ups-and-downs. My problems started around mile 3. While hiking downhill, I noticed that my insoles were sliding and bunching up at the front of my shoes. Before long, hot spots were forming on my heels and toes. I had to make an unexpected to fix my shoes around Mile 5. This problem would recur all day, but I decided not to stop again. I could power through blister pain for one day and nurse them back to health after the race. Normally I wouldn’t have such a cavalier attitude towards foot health, but I didn’t want to waste any time.

The first checkpoint was at the Holtwood Pinnacle. I decided not to waste time refilling my hydration reservoir, which by my best estimation still contained just over a liter of water. I grabbed a cup of Gatorade and a Clif bar and got back on the trail as quickly as possible.

After the checkpoint, the trail got a little easier. There were still a few climbs here and there, but not as many as before. I managed to regain a little speed. Around the 11th mile, we hopped on a road and crossed the Susquehanna River on the bridge. Shortly after that was the next checkpoint.

I lingered at the second checkpoint a bit longer than the first. The first order of business was refilling my hydration reservoir, but that was easy thanks to some young volunteers who did the work for me while I headed to the snack table. I enjoyed half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a few cups of water (fortified with electrolytes from Elete). This checkpoint even had loaner trekking poles from Leki, but I had my Gossamer Gear LT4‘s and didn’t need to borrow a set.

Stopping at this checkpoint caused my muscles to start tightening, so I was stiff for the next mile or two. This was particularly painful when the trail started going back uphill. Luckily, I got warm again and loosened up before too long.

The trail meandered through the woods, along a dirt road and past the Holtwood Dam. Just before the third and final checkpoint, the race route took us up a long, grassy incline. The heat and humidity of the day had started to become oppressive, and this hill, which wouldn’t have been very challenging on a normal day, became brutal. Every single hiker slowed to a crawl and looked half-dead as they death-marched up to the checkpoint.

The checkpoint itself was very hot. I heard grumblings that it was 101 degrees in the sun there. I helped myself to water and a banana or two and then started walking once more. I heard that the next section included road walking, which I was not looking forward to. I imagined that the asphalt would be brutally hot, but it turned out that it actually gave me a bit of a reprieve. Even though we were exposed to the sun, there was a beautiful breeze blowing through the corn fields. The smooth road was hard underfoot, but the smoothness was a welcome change after hiking on rocks most of the morning.

The trail went back into the woods for the last 2 miles or so. By this point I had started hiking with 3 or 4 other people. I was nice to have someone to talk to. I was alone most of the morning, and the conversation made my brain forget how tired I was.

As the trail entered Otter Creek Campground, I knew that my hike was almost over. When I saw the finish line, I broke into a dead sprint. I wanted more than anything to finish this race strong, and I did. My final time for the 23.4-mile course was 7:30:21 and I placed 51 out of 205 finishers. There was tons of food for the participants at the finish, but I wasn’t very hungry. I only had a hot dog and an iced tea before boarding the shuttle bus and heading back to my car. Despite the heat, I had a great day on the trail, and I’m looking forward to coming back to the Super Hike next year.

On the shuttle at the end of the race.

On the shuttle at the end of the race.