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!

Hike Prep: The Black Forest Trail

I’ll soon be hiking the Black Forest Trail. This 42-mile loop is considered to be one of the most challenging and rewarding trails in the state of Pennsylvania. Named for its dense hemlock groves, the BFT includes several steep, rocky climbs that are paid off with beautiful vistas. I plan on completing this in 2.5 days. 

Rather than carrying my usual backpacking pack, the Gossamer Gear Murmur, I’ve decided to attempt to fit all of my gear into what is essentially a day pack. As this pack is still in the prototype stage, I will not divulge any details beyond the weight, and will henceforth refer to it as “Mystery Pack” (I will reveal the mystery and provide a full review if/when this pack ever goes into full production). This pack is actually a little heavier than my Murmur but offers a few luxuries that my Murmur does not.

Another change from my recent gear lists will be my choice of trekking poles. I’ll be leaving my Black Diamond Distance Z-Poles behind and testing my brand new pair of Gossamer Gear LT4 poles. The LT4’s are over 4oz lighter (per pair) than my Z-Poles. I haven’t been using my poles as much lately, and I felt a lighter pair was in order because they were spending so much time strapped to my pack.

After several years of hiking in La Sportiva Wildcat trail runners, I just wasn’t happy with my last pair. They were relatively new going into my New Hampshire vacation and completely shredded after. I decided to try something new. I went into East Ridge Outfitters (my favorite local shop), and the manager Amberly pointed me toward La Sportiva Ultra Raptors. They felt good on a 100 yard hike around the store (the girl always knows what shoes I’ll like), so I figured I’d give them a whirl. They are a bit heavier than a lot of trail runners on the market (29.9oz for the pair), but they are almost a full ounce lighter than my Wildcats were. 

August in Pennsylvania is usually hot and sticky humid, so I’m hoping to be able to leave my puffy jacket, hammock underquilt, and most of my rain gear at home. My 40-degree Enlightened Equipment ProdigyX top quilt will be in the mix instead of my 10-degree Enlightened Equipment RevelationX quilt. Since it’s doubtful that I’ll be in the mood for hot food, I plan on going “No Cook”, which means no stove, fuel, or cook pot. These changes alone will shave over 2 pounds off my base weight. There will also be a significant reduction in pack volume, which will allow me to squeeze everything into this slightly smaller pack.

My food selections for this trip don’t exactly add up to a well-rounded diet, but they are calorie dense and will keep me fueled for my hike. The bulk of my calories will come from Power Butter (a fortified peanut butter intended for body builders). I got this for free as a promotion, so I figured I should use it for something. I packed a few tortillas to act as a Power Butter delivery system. I also packed some Justin’s Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups, almonds, Back to Nature Bar Harbor Blend, and Chex Mix Muddy Buddies. When I go no cook, I’m always on a lookout for fun new ways to get my caffeine fix. This time I decided to try Awake Caffeinated Chocolate. Each square contains the same caffeine as a half-cup of coffee. Like I said: Not exactly nutritious, but it will get the job done.

My complete gear list for this hike is available HERE!