Was Pennsylvania worthy of an extended backpacking trip? My review of the Pennsylvania Hiking Trails guide as I was putting together the PATC online store only reinforced what I already knew. The beauty of Pennsylvania trails is one of the best kept secrets on the East Coast. Our five days on the Quehanna also convinced me that the spectacular beauty in the Pennsylvania backcountry is known mostly to local users - which means particularly good opportunities for solitude and more of a "wilderness" experience. Oh, and the area certainly lived up to those expectations. In five days covering 50+ miles (most of which was on the Quehanna proper), we didn't see a soul on the trail. In return, the Quehanna offered up its greatest jewels - healthy hemlock forests thriving in gentle hollows, open woods where you expected moose to appear at any moment, open parks ringed in deciduous and evergreen, and noble oak forests unravaged by the pestilence of the gypsy moth. And was it reminiscent of Dolly Sods? In spots, it most certainly was. But the variety was much greater.
So just where is this 72.8-mile loop trail? Looking at a map of Pennsylvania, locate State College near the center of the state. Forty-five miles north-west you'll find a large, uninhabited area anchored on the west by Parker Dam State Park, the most well-known gateway to the Quehanna Trail. As far as travel time is concerned, in a straight driving shot from my home in Burke, VA, it's a mere four hours and 15 minutes to the trailhead. That's less time than it takes to get to Cranberry Wilderness in West Virginia. Interesting, eh?
In it's large circular route, the trail passes through Moshannon State Forest, various State Game Lands, and the Marion Brooks Natural Area. The trail requires almost no road walking, has plenty of cross-connectors (either using trails or roads), and is always close to dependable water. For a backpacker, that's just about the perfect setting for a great trip. And great it was. In five days of walking, there was not one stretch of trail or road that was not beautiful and distinct in one way or another. The healthy hemlock forests were another great bonus. It was delightful to settle into a cool grove of green trees after passing through one of the Quehanna's many open areas.
In terms of the trail and topography, the route is lightly used, but well marked. However in some spots, we had to stop and look carefully for blazes. Some were hidden by trees and branches. Others were poorly located, and a few were confusing. For instance, when going from a trail to a railroad grade, there's an expectation that you'll see a blaze as you climb onto the grade (change in footpath type). Not so on the Quehanna. The blaze might be located well down the trail, visible with some squinting. In a couple of spots, double blazes were located after major turns in the trail, which was a bit confusing. We weren't sure if the double blaze was for people coming the other direction, or for us. But these minor confusions were easily overcome with some momentary searching. As for the trail itself, the route is nearly level in many spots, except where it drops into select stream valleys along the route. In these spots, the concept of switchbacks seemed to be foreign to trail builders. The route had a tendency to "nose-dive" into hollows at 20 to 30 degree grades. Given the rocky nature of the trail in spots, this could make for slow going into the deeper hollows. Fortunately, since the elevation changes are not great in this high plateau region, the drops were never long. But some of those climbs - boy, short but they'll get the heart pumping. Our "highest" climbs were 500 feet and 300 feet respectively. The rest of the route grade was gentle, and a pleasure to walk, except in rocky areas where footing could be a little challenging. Nothing unlike what you've seen in the Sods, but a little harded to negotiate due to the lightly used nature of the trail.
Following Steve's suggestion, we decided to start our trip at Parker Dam State Park east of Pennfield. The Ranger Station had an excellent topographic map of the entire Quehanna Route (at 20-foot contour elevation) and Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests Recreational Guide and Highway Map. Both are free, and highly recommended acquisitions for trip planning purposes. They may be requested before-hand from Moshannon State Forest. We arrived at the trailhead at around 4pm, which provided us time to knock off some quick miles to a quiet backcountry camp.
The trail starts with a gentle climb into a small stream valley, which it parallels for about three miles. The late evening sun was warmer than expected, and cast golden light over ferns that had recently shed their fall color. We finally made the gentle climb out of the valley to pick up the Goodyear Logging Railroad Grade, which passed through beautiful open forests carpeted with deep brown ferns in fall color. The Grade followed in a nearly straight line for over a mile, finally crossing the McGeorge Road. From here, we snaked around to the south shortly crossing the Wallace Mine Road and arriving at a small camp spot located next to a spring. While the hour was getting late, we both decided the spot was a bit close to the road, and also quite close to a backcountry cabin nestled in the fringes of a large, open meadow. So we pressed on, crossing the open meadow and Alex Branch, finding some very suitable sites five miles in at a thick hemlock forest near the stream. Well, this was going to be an experience I had missed for a while - camping in a thick, healthy hemlock forest. Camp was shortly in order, bear line secured, and a pot of water boiling on the stove. It was going to be a beautiful evening. By 8:30pm, the half-moon was rising over the meadow, and I was starting to get a very "Dolly Sods" feeling about the place. We both slept peacefully and deep on a thick carpet of hemlock needles.
Tuesday morning brought heavy clouds and light rain, which turned into steady rain as the day wore on.
After breaking camp, the trail followed along the northern edge of the Alex Branch stream valley through this open woods.
A very wet morning as Dean checks out the open country along Alex Branch.
After following Alex Branch along the small northern ridge, the trail passes this view before dropping into a side drainage.
We continued to follow the Quehanna up the Alex Branch stream valley. As the valley narrowed, we picked up the Goodyear Logging Railroad Grade passing the "Rock Ledges" and arriving at the upper stream valley with a small beaver pond.
Alex Branch narrows near the "Rock Ledges" into a small forested stream valley.
Now the rain started in earnest, and the cameras were spirited into dryer locations. From the view of the upper Alex Branch drainage, we started our first real climb of the trip to an un-named 2400-foot summit with another view of the backcountry. As the trail started the climb to the summit cone, the trail steepened to a 20 degree grade and the wind picked up. Alas, the tremendous view of the backcountry was fogged in completely, and our only view was of the microwave tower on the summit. At this point, with temperatures hovering around 50 degrees and a chill and rainey wind blowing, I decided to slip on the Gore-tex pants in the long, open meadow slanting down from the summit.
After passing through open fields and young forest, we crossed Knobs Road and headed into the woods forming the upper reaches of another stream valley. After crossing Caledonia Pike (a hard dirt road through the forest) we decided to stop for lunch to chase off the chill of cold rain in a small group of hemlock trees next to the headwaters of the stream valley. While it was wet, the woods we had crossed thus far were beautiful, providing a nice variety of open woods, meadows, and now in this new stream valley, a mixed stand of white pine, hemlock and deciduous woods - all the more beautiful in the rain.
The trail hugged the stream closely, and before we had gone far, curved to the left to head up another headwaters branch, ultimately climbing through thick woods and rocky trail to a laurel brake on the flat. And now we started down into our third stream valley for the day, and what ultimately ended up being our camp for the evening. As we dropped into Gifford Run and crossed the well-constructed foot bridge, an unusually convenient campsite presented itself right next to the bridge. While it was only 4:15pm, Dean thought the conditions were lousey enough to call it a day after eight miles of hiking. No complaints here. A rainey camp always takes longer to set up and requires more "fussing", and I was getting a bit chilled from being wet and short of internal fuel. And it wasn't a bad site all in all, situated next to another open meadow with a nice view of a beaver pond. So we threw out the tent, got our bear line secured, filled up the Reliance water container, and prepared for an early evening in the tent watching the rain come steadily down.
One of what were probably a number of beaver ponds along Gifford Run.
View just above the beaver pond. Another area that brings to mind some regions of the Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia.
"Home, wet Home" - camp on Gifford Run. The rain came in waves all afternoon changing to steady rain until well into the wee morning hours of Wednesday. Dean added to the ominous conditions by commenting, "I've seen it rain like this for days on some trips....."
Well, it was my hope that the weather report I had heard as we entered Parker Dam State Park was correct - showers? on Tuesday, partly cloudy on Wednesday. Hope springs eternal, but I was starting to wonder about the conditions as well. I had experienced similar "rain wave" conditions during a Fall trip to the Sods in 1999. The rain would start to taper off and appear to stop, only to start again in earnest. This was our Tuesday evening - stop and start wet conditions. Warm drinks and a hot dinner chased off the chill of the day, and soon we were quite comfortable in our warm sleeping bags taking in the wet backcountry vista.
Fortunately, the weather report was accurate. As dawn arrived, it was unclear what the weather was going to do, but the important thing was that the rain had stopped. As conditions lightened, the patches of blue sky slowly started to emerge from the grey, and the sun finally made an appearance as it popped over the far ridge. We broke a liesurely camp, and by 10am were headed down the Gifford Run stream valley.
The Quehanna hugs close to Gifford Run crossing rocky trail. Some of the trees, such as the white pines in the distance, were quite sizeable.
As the sun was now out, we decided to take an early lunch at the viewpoint looking into Gifford Run and dry out some gear.
Dean wades into some salami and smoked chedder as he enjoys the view of Gifford Run Stream Valley.
Wet gear dries in the emerging sun at the Gifford Run overlook.
We were also at a decision point. Would the trip be five days or six days? We could continue along the Quehanna Trail and then cut across on roads or trails, or we could cut across now. A quick review of the map showed that our best prospects for water, camps, and a scenic locale for an evening camp would suggest cutting across now. That was going to mean three miles of road walking, but given the overall beauty of the region, not an unacceptable option.
Along the Ardell Road in the big crossing to connect to the northern loop of the Quehanna Trail. The colors were past peak, with 70% of the leaves off the trees, but groves of color still were available, and even the past peak colors can be delightful.
Something you don't see in this area - Larch - one of the few evergreens to lose its needles each season. This tree was located in the front yard of a hunter's cabin. Hunters cabins/residences dot the entire region. Many owners call their simple cabins by fond names, such as "Mountain Paradise" and "Havashak", marked by simple signs on or in front of each residence.
In many spots along the road, some nice vistas of the stream valleys were available, and the walk was not unpleasant. The only down-side for me is that hard-surfaced roads - even hard-surfaced dirt roads - play havoc on my feet, and it was during this walk that a blister started to emerge on my left foot. So it goes. Comes with the territory.
After dropping into the large Mollerney Run stream valley, we made a short climb up the road and turned right onto the blue-blazed Mosquito Creek connector trail. The trail was a woods road for the first mile until it dropped into the large Mosquito Creek stream valley.
The open plains of the Mosquito Creek stream valley.
The road ended at the stream where the bridge had been removed and a beaver had decided to build a substantial dam. We crossed realitively dry-footed with the help of Dean's hiking poles.
View across the beaver pond on Mosquito Creek. The clouds started looking ominous again, and we wondered if the rain would return.
As the trail crossed State Game Lands, we passed through beautiful open woods, some of which was still in good Fall color. We weren't missing much by going off the Quehanna for this cut-across. The beauty of the region is pervasive and vast.
After throwing down and filling canteens on Pebble Run, we picked up a short, sandy road in thick spruce, shortly crossing the paved Quehanna Highway. And in another mile after crossing into the Marion Brooks Natural Area, we made our connection with the northern loop of the Quehanna. It was all downhill to our next campsite in the Driebel Run stream valley after a 12-mile day.
Towards evening, the clouds finally cleared, and just before nose-diving into the Driebel Run stream valley, this viewpoint provided a beautiful view in the evening light.
Evening camp among the peak colors courtesy of Beeches along Driebel Run. Beech nuts were falling all evening in this exceptionally quiet hollow.
As the forest stilled, the stars emerged in profusion with the milky way making a dim appearance directly overhead. The colors in Driebel Run were vibrant - one of the few locations we camped where the colors really were at peak.
The following morning brought deep blue skies and gentle breezes. It was going to be a beautiful day for backpacking.
Morning light shines through the Beeches, providing a gentle yellow glow over Driebel Run.
We made our way down a good trail to the confluence of Driebel Run, turning left to start up the beautiful stream valley of Mix Run. An equally beautiful campsite was available where the two streams met.
A view up Mix Run from one of the many excellent bridges that cross the many streams along the Quehanna Trail.
Another view up Mix Run further up the stream.
About half way up Mix Run, we encountered some very boggy areas along the trail. In one spot, my boot disappeared into the muck as I attempted a clean-footed crossing. But shortly, we were on stable ground again, and shortly arrived at another back-woods cabin.
Mossy planks cross a small seep into the front yard of the cabin, with beeches in fall color lighting the forest downstream.
"Camp Hideout" was situated in a beautiful location at the confluence of two branches of Mix Run. The owners had outfitted this basic cabin quite comfortably. A leather couch was situated in the lower "living room" area, and a small stove was across the room to provide cooking facilities and heat. An upper loft was outfitted with beds.
This bright stream flowed next to the cabin, running through some healthy stands of hemlock. What a joy to feel the cool pleasure of an Eastern Hemlock grove again.
After mistakenly starting up the steep road serving the cabin (another case of poorly situated blazes), we continued following the C.P.L. Railroad Grade to the headwaters of Mix Run, then turned west to climb up through healthy oak forest to a crossing of Grant Road. From here, the trail headed west, passing through more open parks interspersed with Hemlocks here and there.
More open parks dotted this stretch of the Quehanna Trail.
View of Sliver Hollow, our next deep stream valley.
Soon we dropped into Sliver Hollow and another extensive hemlock forest. As in all the deep drops into stream valleys, this one was also steep.
The 20- to 30-degree grades into the deep stream valleys could be challenging, considering previous hikers had already loosened the trail under the leaves. I took a spill at this point when I stepped on a wet root - and the feet went out.
From here, we crossed Sliver Hollow and started a steady and somewhat steep climb around a shoulder of Haystack Mountain. As the trail curved around to the south-west, we passed through more hemlock forest and started a slow drop along Medix Run.
A view of the Medix Run from a gas pipeline swath. Moshannon State Forest is a "working forest", with gas wells and many hunter's cabins. However, given the vastness of the forest, these developments never seem to intrude on the experience.
A quick picture from the bridge crossing Medix Run at the base of Bear Run hollow.
A mile after crossing the Quehanna Highway again, we arrived at the base of Bear Run, our second steep climb, and the last of the late afternoon. After a 500-foot 20 degree grind up the hollow, the trail crossed the headwaters and rose to a beautiful plateau in a large oak forest. After ten miles, we decided to call it a night and pitched camp on a nearly flat spot on the plateau. We were treated to another beautiful evening of stars and the milky way.
I awoke at 7:15am Friday morning and stepped out of the tent to take my "morning constitutional". As I was looking around, I noticed a large, furry shape slowly waddling towards our dinner area about 50 feet from the tent. As the furry form got closer and showed no signs of noticing me, I decided to announce my presence by making some innocuous comment, like "Hello there!". The furry shape, froze and squinted at me, then made a 90-degree turn and quickly waddled down the hill. I had finally seen my first porcupine in the wild - and it was a big sucker, probably about 25 or 30 pounds. And the weather was again spectacular, with clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine.
We again found ourselves making a gentle climb on the plateau between stream valleys, crossing Caledonia Pike and nose-diving into an un-named branch of Laurel Run. Once in the hollow, it became obvious our final nine-mile stretch was going to be a "gravy run", because the route followed old woods roads from the hollow, and then around the end of the ridge and up Laurel Run.
The road and easy hiking continued until we faced our last significant climb of the trip, a 300-foot 20-degree grind up the side of Laurel Run to a restricted view of the river valley (ohhh, for a switchback.....). From here, the rest of the route would be easy, with gentle grades all the way back to Park Dam State Park.
As we made the last gentle climb to the top of an un-named summit, we entered a tornado zone, where one of the largest tornados ever to hit the state of Pennsylvania touched down on May 31, 1985 slashing a long swath through Moshannon State Forest. (For Memorial Day hikers that were undoubtedly in the Forest at the time, this must have been quite an experience.) And large it must have been, since for the next 3/4 of a mile, we hiked through young trees along an old woods road. Not a tree over 15 years old was standing in this region.
Fortunately I saw this young porcupine nibbling on grass well before I stepped on it. When it was aware of our presence, it turned it's back, bristled its spines, and readied its tail. We kept our distance, and the youngster finally ambled off the side of the trail at an unhurried pace.
The weather was an exceptionally warm 75 degrees as we made the final descent down to Park Dam State Park. The woods road continued as we crossed Tyler Road a little more than a mile from the Park.
Looking west down the Tyler Road, and the ongoing views of the Alleghennies in late Fall color.
And at 3:15pm, we finally passed by the Parker Dam State Park campground back to the truck. Given that Dean had a hankering to visit the Pennsylvania Elk herd near Benezette, we decided to stay in the campground for the evening and make an early morning ride to the elk viewing area.
A picture of the lake formed by Parker Dam from the stream that feeds it. Park Dam State Park was more than a beautiful location to spend an evening in a campground.
Oh, did I say Elk??? Yes indeed. A number of years ago, the state decided to relocate Rocky Mountain Elk to this remote part of the state. Two herds were released, and one survived and is now thriving to the tune of around 500 elk. We decided to take an advanced exploration to the official Elk Viewing Area along a loop road outside Benezette that evening, after downing some pizza and panzoratti in Pennfield.
This large bull elk was sitting in the front yard of someone's home on the loop road to the Elk Viewing Area.
Unfortunately, the digital camera doesn't have great zooming capability, so it wasn't possible to capture a good view of these elk grazing in someone's meadow on the way to the Elk Viewing Area. They enjoyed good grass and warm sun in this peaceful setting. Elk are still protected from hunting in the state.
We arrived at the official Elk Viewing Area as the evening sun started to slip to the western horizon. And guess what? No Elk!
No elk at the Elk Viewing Area, but this expansive view across the valley was exceptionally beautiful.
Heading back to Parker Dam State Park on PA 255, we ran into an "Elk jam" along the highway. A small herd of cows and one bull were making their way down through the woods to an open pasture along the highway. Sorry about the out-of-focus picture. I deliberately turned off the flash on the camera to avoid spooking these cows.
More elk graze peacefully across the highway in a green pasture.
Well, that was certainly an unusual cap to an evening. We settled into our campsite for the evening after taking some well-earned showers in the campground. The following morning, we decided to head back to the Elk Viewing Area to see if anything was up following a big breakfast at Joe's Diner in Weedville. This time, no elk were to be seen at all, so we started a long, scenic driving circuit that would ultimately land us at the Winery at Wilcox. Our driving route took us north on PA 255 to PA 555 to PA 120 at Driftwood. Driftwood was the location where the Pennsylvania "Bucktail" regiment collected to pole down to Harrisburg at the beginning of their long and storied history during the civil war. A bronze statue was situated along the road in front of the Masonic Lodge. Taking 120 north, we hit Emphorium, then headed west to St. Mary's.
As we were driving through St. Mary's, Dean spotted the Straub Brewery, and got a quick enough glance to see that they had a gift shop and a mysterious attraction called the "Eternal Tap". Well, this was something we had to check out, so a quick U-turn and right up the road put us into the parking lot of Straub's Brewery. We entered the gift shop, which was really nothing more than a small room with a glass case of Straub's giftware. Of course, we had to buy. I turned down the camouflage beer bottle cooler jacket for a plain green model, and picked up a handy-dandy Straub's beer bottle opener. Dean picked up, of all things, Straub's gift wrapping paper for Christmas. But what of this "Eternal Tap"?
We entered the brewery office to inquire, and the kind lady behind the desk simply instructed us to sign in and walk down the short hall to a small room in the back. And THERE - IT - WAS! The Eternal Tap. The Holy Grail of area beer drinkers - a tap built right into the wall of the brewery where visitors may sample (with self-imposed but instructed moderation) a quantity of Straub's brew. Well, now THIS was a surprise. We both grabbed glasses and pulled cold ones from the Eternal Tap. Mmmmm, pretty tasty, and about as fresh as you can get beer, putting Budweiser's "born-on" dated bottles to shame. We pulled another just to make sure we had properly immersed our taste buds. It was cold. It was good. We had to buy some.
In the little town of St. Mary's, PA, there exists an Eternal Tap where the cold beer always flows....
We pulled the truck around to the drive-up loading garage, and a service station bell "dinged" in the background. Out stepped an attendant to bring us our beer. "How much do you want?"
"I'll take a six of light, he'll take a six of regular."
"So that'll be twelve cases then..."
"Yeah, we're a wholesaler man. How many cases do you want?"
After the attendant loaded one case of regular into the back seat, we headed out of St. Mary's to PA 219 and the final leg of our loop drive to the Wilcox Winery. The winery actually didn't have any vineyards, but bottle wine purchased from the region. We tasted, and it was good. So after purchasing a quantity of bottles, we decided to call it a trip and start the long trip back home.
You can acquire a free map of the Quehanna Trail, and a free Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests map from:
Parker Dam State Park
RD 1, Box 165
Penfield, PA 15849