On the trail: Pennsylvania’s woods a chance to get away

Terry Rumbaugh cooks pancakes for breakfast after a night sleeping in the woods near the Quehanna Trail at Parker Dam State Park.
Terry Rumbaugh cooks pancakes for breakfast after a night sleeping in the woods near the Quehanna Trail at Parker Dam State Park. Photo provided

Backpack the Quehanna Trail and you will encounter wildlife. The trail traverses a wide range of habitat types: mature trees, stands of hemlock, meadows, mountain streams, rock ridge tops, mountain laurel and rhododendron penetrable only after a trail is cut through it. This varied, large, remote and wild landscape gives wildlife the space they need.

Recently, a childhood friend, Terry Rumbaugh, drove down from Erie and joined me for three days backpacking on the Quehanna Trail from the trailhead in Parker Dam State Park to Lost Run Road, covering 20.5 miles.

After dropping a vehicle where the Quehanna Trail crosses Lost Run Road, we drove on to Parker Dam State Park. Our goal was to enjoy a spring weekend with perfect weather, encounter wildlife, soak up the silence, and simply get on the trail. The Quehanna Trail was the perfect place.

Pennsylvania’s forest seemed limitless to the colonists, but that forest was gone by the early 1900s. What we have today is the legacy of that frenzied period. There is a display at the trailhead that offers a glimpse back into that era: a forest of white pine and the ingenuity it took to fell that forest. Look at the photos, the short paragraphs, the tools and the log slide. Then head up the trail and into the forest we have today. It is beautiful, but far removed from unbroken forest and the pine cathedral that forest once included.

We relied on “Foot Trails of the Moshannon and Southern Elk State Forests” by Ralph Seeley for information about the area. The book is more than a hiking guide as it provides historical information such as, “After leaving Parker Dam State Park heading east, for some distance the Quehanna Trail follows a log slide. Further on it follows the railroad grade of the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company, operating in the period 1907 to 1911 along Little Laurel Run.”

The trail is next to, and then above, Little Laurel Run. Immersed in the sound of the mountain stream followed by the view of it threading its way through meadow, then rhododendron thicket, the trail is a delight.

We were not seeing wildlife, but we regularly heard the hammering of woodpeckers, and more specifically the laugh of the pileated woodpecker. We flushed grouse as we walked through areas where a young forest was emerging. We saw the first of many piles of bleached coyote scat, thick with animal hair.

Before the trail crosses Tyler Road and as it follows the Goodyear Logging Company railroad grade, the depressions where the ties once were are clearly visible. A deer fence exclosure — constructed after logging to protect young trees from deer damage — is visible from the trail just beyond the road crossing.

After crossing McGeorge and then Wallace Mine Road we would be following Alex Branch, 6.2 miles of trail that Seeley had recommended to me when I asked him where he would backpack for a weekend on the Quehanna Trail.

“Alex Branch was named for Alex Wallace, the same man for whom Wallace Mines Road is named. He herded cows and sheep in the area after the lumbering. The mine output fueled logging engines,” Seeley wrote in “Foot Trails.”

Today Alex Branch is a beautiful little mountain stream. Trailing arbutus lined the trail and was the only wildflower we saw in mid April. By late May there will be many more wildflowers. Looking out through the forest it was hard to picture cows and sheep grazing.

Seeley’s book clarified the construction and sorry condition of a bridge we used to cross a wetland. “The Quehanna Trail crosses the stream in a wetland area using a bog bridge of unique construction … planks fastened to aluminum cylinders that rest on water and muck. It is assumed that the aluminum will not react with the water, which is a trout stream. The bridge was ruined by remarkably intelligent equestrians in 2013, having their horses walk on the planks. Who will replace it?”

We hoped to camp along Alex Branch, but after skipping a site just past a hunting camp we arrived at the next site to find the only other backpackers we would see all weekend camped there. They went as far as the next stream crossing, Trout Run, did not find any other campsites, and returned.

Emerging from the thick hemlock forest along Alex Branch we climbed into an open area filled with late afternoon sunlight. In a protected spot under overhanging rock the distinctive chevron yellow and black pattern of a timber rattler soaking up the warmth of the sun caught my eye. After motioning for Terry to stop and pointing the snake out, I took one cautious, quiet step forward to get a better photo. In an instant the snake had uncoiled and slid under the rock buzzing a warning as it disappeared.

Sunshine gave way to late afternoon shadows as we descended to Trout Run. More interesting rocks and a beautiful stream dropping over rock into deep, clear pools. After crossing the bridge over Trout Run we soon found a relatively rock free area to camp.

We were not at an established campsite so we camped lightly, removing one rock before setting up our tent and cooking over a small backpacking stove. The easy afternoon that we had planned had stretched out to include 8 miles, and we were in our sleeping bags by dark.

Our second day out was again leisurely. On the trail by late morning we continued through this valley of large rocks. The trail turns to the left as it enters Roberts Run valley with another nice stream and more boulders.

The trail goes right, up a tributary of Roberts Run, crosses it and then follows a sidehill to an impressive view of a huge meadow and beaver dam. At dusk or dawn this looked like a great place to see wildlife. Our first sign of elk was along here: the long tooth marks where elk had stripped bark from a sapling.

Turning away from the beaver dam the trail follows another tributary, with a nice campsite, for a mile. There are many large beech and hemlock trees. As we worked our way through dense hemlock two large animals left their beds. Their distinctive gait and white rumps immediately identified them as elk. They moved in an arc in front of us, likely not wanting to leave the cool shade of the hemlocks.

Porcupine teeth marks were the only graffiti marking the beech trees, unlike the initials and hearts that mar beech trees closer to roads. Porcupine droppings spread away from the cavity at the base of one of one beech.

The climb to Chestnut Ridge was rewarded by an expansive view to the north. After lunch we crossed Knobs Road, and walked through the site that included ruins from Civilian Conservation Corps Camp S-74 (Bucks Camp) which housed 136 young men in the mid 1930s. CCC boys built roads that became part of the infrastructure that exists in our State Forests today. They also fought forest fires that were another part of the legacy of the mess left by the logging industry.

Moving away from the CCC site the trail parallels headwaters of Deer Creek. It is a pretty, small stream with a cozy campsite in a small valley of white pine and hemlock. This was a picturesque, but very rocky, section to walk through.

The Quehanna Trail crosses the Caledonia Pike, threads through mountain laurel and drops to Gifford Run. An expansive meadow spreads out at the bottom. You can see the remains of a splash dam, dams that loggers built on small streams to hold water that was released in the spring to help float logs downstream to rivers. This was the largest of several of these dams along Gifford Run.

Gifford Run was our goal for our second night. We found a campsite beneath large white pines.

In the morning we built another campfire and enjoyed pancakes, cooked to perfection by Terry. Our campsite was just past a side trail to some rocks and rock ledges, and we took a short morning hike up to an impressive view.

Back down the trail, we shouldered our packs and too soon were climbing out of Gifford Run.

Away from the road we dropped into Deserter Run. While crossing on rocks we saw two brook trout darting upstream and under cover. On the hike up and out of Deserter Run, Seeley’s account resonated: The story behind the name is that a World War I deserter lived here in a hermit shack; perhaps a Civil War draft-dodger did the same.

By 1 p.m. we reached our shuttle vehicle along Lost Run Road. Our three days were relatively easy — late starts and modest miles. The weather was perfect. We encountered wildlife and trekked through beautiful, varied terrain.

The Quehanna Trail is a wonderful place to encounter wildlife in their space, on their terms. It is also a place to find yourself for a day, or for several days, footstep after footstep with only the trail ahead.

Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club. He can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net


Directions: To set up a shuttle drive to Interstate 80; at the Snow Shoe exit take State Route 144 north to State Route 879 west. Take a slight right onto the Quehanna Highway and follow 9.7 miles. Turn left onto Reactor Road for 1.1 miles. Take a slight right onto Lost Run Road for about 3.0 miles. The parking area is on the left after the Quehanna Trail crosses Lost Run Road. Leave a vehicle here.

Continue on Lost Run Road about 4.0 miles. Turn right onto Caledonia Pike for 9.4 miles. Keep left onto Wallace Mine Road for 2.8 miles. Turn left onto McGeorge Road for 0.1 mile. Turn right onto Tyler Road for 1.0 mile. Turn left onto Laurel Run Road for 1.8 miles. Turn right onto Laurel Ridge Road for 2.3 miles. Turn right onto Mud Run Road for 0.2 mile. Turn right onto Fairview Road to Parker Dam State Park office. Sign out on the trail register, and continue to trailhead parking.

Parker Dam State Park also can be accessed directly from exit 111 of Interstate 80, following State Route 153 north 6.1 miles to Mud Run Road, turning right and following signs to the park.

Resources: Although the DCNR map of the Quehanna Trail contains some inaccurate distances and some outdated road names it is useful for this hike.

“Foot Trails of the Moshannon and Southern Elk State Forests” by Ralph Seeley contains trail information and interesting history of the area.

I consulted with Ben Cramer, author of Guide to the Quehanna Trail, about the inconsistency between the 19.2 miles that the DCNR map listed for the Quehanna Trail from Parker Dam State Park to Lost Run Road, and the 21.5 miles that my GPS unit measured. He told me that he measured the distance at 20.28 miles, and that a recent minor trail relocation by DCNR may have added around 0.2 mile to his measurement.

These books are available from Scott Adams Enterprises.