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!

Trip Report: The West Rim Trail (PA)

After our snowy, cold hike on the WRT back in March, one of the hikers requested that we attempt it again. Since I’m generally a fan of the WRT as a 2-day trip, I naturally agreed. This time around, the forecasts were pretty favorable, so we figured that we would manage to stay warmer and drier this time around. How well do you think that worked out for us?

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Perfect weather on Day 1 of our WRT hike.

After a 40 minute shuttle to the southern terminus of the WRT, our hike started off pretty darn well. The weather was a bit chilly at the beginning, but the sun was shining and there were only a few wispy clouds in the sky. It was about 10AM when we hit the trail, and sunset was going to be at 4:48PM. We knew we’d have to keep moving to finish our 15.5 mile hike before dark. The southern half of the WRT is generally in the woods, and only has one or two isolated vistas, so we didn’t have many distractions to slow us down. At times, we were moving over 3MPH, but we ended up closer to a 2.5MPH average for the day. We made it into camp around 3:30PM with plenty of sunlight to spare. We set up camp, ate dinner, and got a pretty warm fire going. We heard some coyotes nearby and had some fun convincing our only female companion that they would be swarming our campsite all night. We hung all our food as a precaution. Around 6PM, we all started to half-seriously joke about hitting the sack, but we managed to stay up until almost 8. A pretty spectacular full moon lit our campsite up, and made it a little hard to fall asleep, but we all managed.

As usual, I woke up pretty early… around 5AM. I packed up my gear and sat next to the dormant fire ring; enjoying the solitude until the everyone else started to wake up around 6. A few morning showers hurried us out of camp, but luck wasn’t on our side. The 20% chance of rain quickly became 100%, and we ended up walking in a cold, moderate rainfall and fog for most of the day. With the exception of the weather, our 16-mile day went pretty well. We all wished that we had hiked in the opposite direction, so that we would have seen the WRT’s trademark vistas in better weather conditions the previous day. We were back at the cars by 2PM, changed into dry clothes, and got on our way home.

Next time, we might try this as a 1-day, 30-mile traverse.

Trip Report: Hiking the West Rim Trail (PA)

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Shay takes a picture of Dan L standing next to this lonesome tree, overlooking the Pine Creek Gorge.

Let me start by saying that meteorologist are not to be trusted. OK… now that I have that off my chest, I can tell you about my hike this weekend.

Saturday morning, Sharon, Mark, Dan L, Shay, Brandon and I met at Pine Creek Outfitters. PCO is located approximately 1 mile from the northern terminus of the West Rim Trail, and they offer a very convenient shuttle service. We all paid our fare and piled into the van. After a half-hour of early morning chit-chat, we arrived at Rattlesnake Rock and the southern terminus of the trail.

As soon as we stepped out of the van, we began to question the weather forecast. The “50% chance of AM flurries” was quickly becoming a steady snowfall. We took a few photos at the trailhead and then hit the trail.

Other than the snow, the initial climb of ~1000 feet went without a hitch. By the time we reached the top, most of us were warmed up and had the kinks worked out. The quickly accumulating snow, however, made for slower and slower forward progress as we continued on past the Dynamite Shed. Sharon (a first-timer) fell back fairly early on with pain in her hip flexors, and Mark (our wiliest veteran) slowed down to walk with her (although the rest of the group did stop fairly regularly to let them catch up). We paused briefly at one or two small vistas, but tried to keep moving as much as possible to avoid freezing.

During a brief walk on a mountain road, the State Forest Rangers drove by. They stopped to make sure we were prepared for the weather and cold, and then they continued on their way. About 14 miles in, we collected water for camp. We passed Bradley Wales Picnic Area and camped at a large dry site adjacent to a sprawling vista.

Mark and Sharon fell asleep without eating, but Shay, Dan L, Brandon and I lit a fire. We cooked our dinners and attempted to dry out our wet shoes and socks. Dan L and I hit the sack fairly early, while Shay and Brandon chatted a bit longer.

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Brandon’s and Shay’s tents just before sunrise.

Around midnight, I woke up half frozen. I quickly realized that my there was a rainstorm of condensation inside my TarpTent Rainbow and my quilt was wetted out. I donned all my remaining layers and managed to get another hour of sleep. The 17 degree cold eventually became unbearable, so I woke up and distracted myself with music, cell phone games and coffee  until everyone else woke up.

In the morning, Mark announced that Sharon wouldn’t be able to continue. The two of them got on the road. Mark’s plan was to blaze ahead, get the car, and come back for Sharon as she slowly walked along the road. Dan L, Shay, Brandon and I continued on the trail as planned.

The 4 remaining hikers moved ahead through areas of crunchy snow and slippery ice. Worn out from the day before, wearing frozen shoes, and making slow progress in crappy trail conditions gave us the excuse we needed to take a shortcut on the Seimons Trail. This saved us about a mile. This trail rejoined the WRT at a forest road crossing, where a Subaru was approaching. As the car passed, Sharon was in the passenger seat! She was rescued by a passerby, who told us that Mark was way down the road and doing fine.

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Shay and Brandon cross the finish line with our mascot, Pickle.

We continued on to a string of beautiful vistas (about 25 miles into the hike), and then started our long descent toward the northern terminus. We encountered several vast sheets of ice, which required very careful footwork, but we all made it out unscathed. I ran ahead, so that I could get pictures as the others finished. We then walked 1 mile along the road to PCO, where our cars were waiting for us. Everyone had a great time, and Shay did a particularly great job on her first real backpacking excursion!

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Dan L finishes the WRT

The weather and trail conditions made this hike challenging, but, under normal conditions, this trail isn’t too hard. Water was practically unlimited, although I have heard that it can become scarce in summer. There are plenty of campsites (the best being at miles 4.5, 6, 14.5, and 20 on the map).