Long distance hikes in PA
I find it’s natural for us humans to reach loftier goals when we find a hobby or career that we love. From playing T-Ball to becoming a pitcher for the Phillies, collecting stamps to trading stocks, having goals helps us better ourselves.
For the hiker, going from a two-hour jaunt at the local park to strapping on a 40 pound pack and hiking 50, 100, or 1,000 miles it a matter of meeting goals. I’m not what I consider a long distance hiker. The longest I’ve done in one trip is about 90 miles. Someday, I’d love to through hike the Pacific Crest Trail and the AT, but until 5 months on the trail can become a reality, multi-day and week-long trips are my limits.
Pennsylvania is a hiker’s paradise. Not only does the Commonwealth host nearly 230 miles of the Appalachian Trail, but also the Mid-State Trail (310 miles), the Laurel Highlands Trail (70 miles) and the Quehanna Trail (75 miles). The Susquehannock Trail System (STS) is an 85 mile trail located in Potter and Clinton Counties. Made up of a series of 63 connecting trails for a loop hike that travels through some of the most remote areas of PA, but also close enough to civilization and modern amenities to be a great trail for a first time backpacker.
I’ve done the STS twice. The first time in 2009 with my son and other scouts from his troop that were aging out. The second was a post-graduation trip in 2011 also with my son and a few of his friends. Both trips started as a bit of a disaster. In ‘09 we were slammed by an unexpected thunderstorm just 30-minutes into the hike and missed the trailhead. We ended up huddled under pine trees trying to stay dry and then bushwhacking through 5 miles of woods until we located the trail (having a good map and knowing how to use a compass are MUSTS). The 2011 trip found us having to hike several miles past our planned first campsite due to the stream being dried up. We ended up hobo camping behind a shuttered hunting camp. That first night also proved the weatherman wrong with the temperatures dropping at least 15 degrees lower than what was forecasted. None of us were prepared and it was a long, cold night in the woods.
I learned much from both hikes. For the first hike, we each packed and carried seven days of food. Seven days of Mountain House meals, Ramen noodles, oatmeal, and snacks makes up nearly 20 pounds. My pack on day one was nearly 70 pounds. For the second STS hike, we boxed up half of our provisions and mailed the box to ourselves at the Cross Fork Post Office. Cross Fork is the halfway point on the trail and mailing ahead is a great way to cut weight. I called the postmaster at Cross Fork about two weeks before the trip and gave her a heads up so that she would know we were picking the box up there. It really didn’t matter because when we reached Cross Fork we learned that their rural driver took the box out on delivery thinking it was for a local with a name not even remotely similar to mine.
Another thing I learned on the first trip, and saw again on the second, is that morale can play a big part of a multi-day hike. While the young men on both trips were in good shape, as were the fathers who went along, the first couple days of the hikes were difficult. The STS trail has lots of elevation changes, including two spots with over 1,000 feet in a mile. Just when you finish going up, you’re going back down. And then back up, and back down. Up and down, mile after mile. There are very few sections of relatively flat hiking. Elevation changes wear a hiker out fast for the first few days. After 3 or 4 days, the body adjusts to the daily activity and one developes what is known as “trail legs.” By our third day in on both trips, there were members of our group who wanted to quit or didn’t think they could physically make it. While the STS is designed to be hiked in a counterclockwise direction (the trail guide is printed this way), a clockwise hike may be better for the first time backpacker. Ole Bull State Park can be reached by day three and the campground has toilets and hot showers, a big plus for morale.
Reaching Cross Forks on day four or five brings not only a resupply of food and snacks, but the local bar has amazing hamburgers and the general store is well supplied with Gatorade, snacks and most importantly, ice cream!
Other than during extremely dry spells, water is not an issue on the STS. There are plenty of creeks and streams to fill water bottles, but be sure to filter your water. Giardia is prevalent in the mountain streams due to fecal matter from the local critters. We used a combination of hand pump filters and water purification tablets on our first trip, and nothing but a SteriPen UV water treatment device on the second with no ill results.
I suggest purchasing the STS Guide Book, available from the Susquehannock Trail Club website. For the first trip we planned each day’s hike and campsite by using the book and it worked nearly perfectly. The guide book provides a detailed description of the trail direction, elevation and features, as well as suggested water and campsites. It also provides details about the history of the area. The Trail Club also hosts the “Circuit Hiker Award” for people completing all 85 miles of the trail. Established in 1972, the award requires participating hikers to keep a daily log of their hike, sign each logbook located at strategic points along the trail, and to send their documentation to the club. Hikers who complete the trail are awarded with a Circuit Hiker Award patch and have their name enrolled on the circuit hiker roster. An interesting note, when we hiked it in 2009, one of our boys was the 1,000th hiker to complete the trail. Since then only 114 more hikers have done it, that’s less than 20 hikers per year!
The STS offers some spectacular scenery and vistas. We saw porcupine, deer and even a rattlesnake during our hikes. The trail passes through Hammersley Wild Area, one of the most remote places in PA, filled with wildlife and beautiful trout streams. While remote and rugged, the trail is never more than five miles from a road, which is a big plus for first time hikers. During our 2011 trip my son injured his knee several days into the trip. We were able to reach an active rural road where we left the boys and started road marching back to the trailhead where we left our car. As luck would have it, a few miles down the road a DCNR employee came upon us and gave us a lift back to the trailhead. It’s nice to know help is around when emergencies happen.
Bears do inhabit the mountains of PA and I strongly suggest using a hanging “bear bag” at all campsites. I use a large stuff sack, paracord rope and a five foot section of plastic coated cable to keep the bears away from our food. As I mentioned, we did see a rattlesnake on our one hike, and while not numerous, venomous snakes do live along the trail so be sure to watch where you step, especially in the sections of rocky trail.
For more information about the Susquehannock Trail System visit the club website at http://www.stc-hike.org. The trail guide can be purchased via the site. Watch for more posts coming about PA’s long distance hikes including the Mason-Dixon Trail and our start on section hiking the Mid-State Trail.