Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Backpacking the Loyalsock Trail

Pennsylvania often gets overlooked as a backpacking destination.  While the state doesn’t offer dramatic mountains like other regions, low mountain ranges and vast forests cover much of the state.  The most trafficked and best known backpacking in PA (as natives often call it) lies along the 230+ miles of the Appalachian Trail that run through the state.  Most hikers not from the region overlook the 2.2 million acres of State Forests within Pennsylvania.  The state and various hiking groups realized the potential of these forests for recreational purposes.  As a result, Pennsylvania offers an extensive system of backpacking dedicated trails.

Outside of the surrounding area, the Loyalsock Trail may not be well known. The trail runs 59 miles, primarily through the 114,000-acre Loyalsock State Forest in the northeast part of the state in Lycoming and Sullivan Counties near Williamsport.  The trail gets its name from the Loyalsock Creek, which the trail roughly follows from mountain ridges.  This part of PA is referred to as the Endless Mountains Region.  Conceived in the early 1950s, the trail as it looks today, has been in place since the early 1960s and was built, maintained, and promoted by the Alpine Club of Williamsport.

So after spending the past 12 years or more exploring New England, the Rockies, high deserts of the west, and now the Adirondacks, why did I have the desire to hike a seemingly random trail in Pennsylvania?  I grew up in PA.  I lived in the state more than 20 years.  As a kid in the early to mid 80s, the first vacations we took as a family were camping trips in Worlds End State Park and the surrounding forest, which is now the Loyalsock State Forest.  (At that time still known as Wyoming State Forest)  I have fond memories of the area as a kid.  I continued to visit the area periodically over the years, last visiting around 2001 or 2002.  On my numerous trips to the area, we passed many landmarks that lie along the Loyalsock Trail, including a couple miles here and there hiking on the trail.

In the mid 1990s, I discovered backpacking.  Apart from the Appalachian Trail, one of the first trails to catch my attention was the Loyalsock Trail.  In 1997, I ordered the current 1996 revision of the Loyalsock Trail Guide by mail.  I know this because I still keep that guide in the envelope it came in and the postmark reads 1997.  At that time, I had the idea of my Appalachian Trail thru hike in my mind, which came in 1999.  I thought the Loyalsock Trail would be a good shake down hike, a practice hike if you will to fine-tune my gear set up.  That shake down hike never occurred.  In 2000 a friend and I batted around the idea of a Loyalsock Trip in Decmeber but settled on an AT section when we couldn’t arrange a shuttle.

I left PA in 2006 for Maine, then eventually Colorado.  I kept that guide and occasionally looked at it regretting not hiking the Loyalsock.  I almost pulled the trigger when I lived in Maine but weather or time never cooperated when I visited family in PA. 

Fast forward to 2019, I moved back to the East in the Adirondacks of New York.  We were within striking distance of PA again.  I needed to pick up a few things from family in PA at some point.  At this point I still brought up the Loyalsock Trail to my other half, Puma.  Since I needed to go to PA anyway, she strongly encouraged me to travel down to PA to get what we needed from family.  She almost insisted that I take the opportunity to hike the Loyalsock along the way before I reached family.  Despite miserable summer heat, the following week had a pleasant break in the weather.  I made spur of the moment plans, and finally the Loyalsock Trail was going to become a reality.  I left our place in the Adirondacks and headed to the eastern trailhead of the Loyalsock Trail (LT) on Tuesday July 23rd.  I slept in the car at the trailhead to get an early start. At one point in the night, a pack of nearby, yipping coyotes interrupted my sleep.  The temps that night dropped close to 50F.

The LT is not a loop so transportation from one trailhead to the other needs to be arranged.  While shuttles are available, I had no luck arranging one quickly.  I decided to hitch from one end to the other.  While I usually I do this at the end of a hike, I hitched at the beginning this time.  This had a couple advantages.  The first advantage was that I was clean.  Without 60 miles of trail funk, I would be much more pleasant to pick up.  Second, I could be right at my vehicle at the end of the hike.

The hitch went much smoother than I could have hoped.  I started at 6AM.  Traffic was little to none and I walked the first two miles or so to PA 154.  Surprisingly the first car on 154 picked me up and took me to PA 87.  It was an unusual hitch since it was a couple probably in their 70s with a grandson in the car.  Not the typical people to offer a ride and I appreciate their kindness.  Traffic on 87 was sparse.  Luckily the 5th or 6th vehicle stopped.  A local contractor took me a few extra miles beyond his job to drop me off at the trailhead since he had extra time.  Once again I appreciate the kindness.  I reached the western trailhead at 8AM.

Day 1
PA 87 to Dutter Run
27.1 Miles

After fine-tuning my pack, I hit the trail about 810AM.  The trail begins at an elevation of 665 feet, its lowest elevation, at the western trailhead along Route 87.  The trail climbs at the onset and faces one of its toughest climbs along the entire trail out of the gate.  The route is steep and loose with several rocky stretches. 

Western trailhead 
Rough terrain on the initial climb

Although the morning was cool, I worked up quite a sweat.  I climbed out of the Loyalsock Valley.  On the cool morning, fog rose from the creek.  I hiked through a section of fog during the initial climb that left the air feeling humid.

Hiking in the fog

I broke out above the fog and the initial climb ended soon enough.  The trail followed a mix of pleasant trail and long forgotten woods roads.  Generally I traveled through hardwood forests with a mix of laurel.  Surprisingly a few patches of laurel were still in bloom.  I continued over easy, rolling terrain before topping out at 1,900 feet at the crest of Allegheny Ridge.

Typical trail after initial climb 
Blooming mountain laurel

Hiking old woods road

Foggy view from Allegheny Ridge

The pleasant trail soon gave way to an overgrown section of ferns that partially obscured the trail.  The ferns alone were not so much a problem.  The morning fog and dew saturated the ferns.  A mile long stretch of ferns left my legs and feet soaked.  Despite the sunny day, I would have wet feet the remainder of the day.

Hiking in ferns

A brief section of trail follows an area of pipeline construction.  Several signs warned of the construction, including one at the start of the new pipeline.  Although there was evidence of construction vehicles in the past, the project seemed to have been complete.  The trail is well marked along the edge of the clearing.

Descending on old woods road

After a couple gentle miles, the trail dropped steeply through Pete’s Hollow.  The rocky hollow offered poor footing, as the rocks were soaked by morning dew and quite slippery.  Leaving the hollow, the trail passes a ranger station and drops to 770 feet, the last time the trail goes below 1,000 feet. 

Pleasant trail

Hiking in mountain laurel

The trail immediately climbs back to elevation.  Although initially steep, the trail climbed gently.  The trail passes a few vistas along the way while traveling through gentle forest and eventually tops out above 1,900 feet at Smith Knob. Beyond Smith Knob the trail occasionally dips down to a creek before regaining the next ridge.  The elevation changed gradually over good footing.  The trail routinely follows old woods and logging roads that have long grown over to trail size.  The trail eventually rises above 2,000 feet.   I made good time over the first 14 miles of trail.  My only prolonged break was at lunch around 1PM at one of the numerous creeks. 

View of the Loyalsock Creek

Another view of the Loyalsock

The trail is very well marked with yellow discs with “LT” on them.  Yellow blazes with red stripes are also used.  There is rarely a point where at least one marking is not visible.  The LT had one feature I have never seen on a backpacking trail before.  There are mile markers at every mile.  The yellow discs will say “Mile 8” or whatever number is appropriate.  I began noticing this around mile 3, then 7.  While I didn’t see all of them, they appeared to be at every mile.

Loyalsock Trail marker

A marker disc and blaze on tree ahead

Just before the 15-mile mark, the trail leaves the Loyalsock State Forest and traverses a stretch of private property.  When possible, portions of trail are used over right of ways, but eventually the trail utilizes a few miles of roads.  The longest stretch on a road is about 2 miles where the trail follows Genesee Road.  Usually I’m not a fan of road walks, but Genesee Road is a very quiet dirt road.  Only two cars passed me during those two miles.  Trees line the road and even late afternoon, I was able to stay mostly in the shade.  As the road climbs, open areas provide views to distant valleys. 

LT utilizing Genesee Road

Only a few camps and homes line the road for the most part.  The trail diverges from the road passing a few more camps as well as some structures dating to the 1800s that served as hotels and casinos.  Another short stretch of road passes a few more nineteenth century structures before leaving the road for good after a half-mile or so.  The guidebook details the history of the various structures.

Despite the road walking, I didn’t mind the area.  The easy walking goes by quickly.  Even though weathered, I enjoyed looking at the old buildings.  Be aware that this entire section passes through private land with nearly 6.5 miles closed to camping.  While the LT is very well marked, the markers along the road are less frequent.  Pay attention at intersections and keep the guide close by if you are unsure.

Still on private land, the trail crosses into Sullivan County for the first time.  Just shy of the 20-mile mark, the trail crests hill, which stands as the highest point on the LT at 2,140 feet.  Leaving the high point, the trail descends steeply, losing about 1,000 feet in the next mile, as it makes its way to Ogdonia Creek   The trail reenters Loyalsock State Forest. 

1/3 of the way through

By the time I reached the creek, I covered 22 miles.  My original plan was to camp by the creek or within the next couple miles at the most.  The area was closed to camping however for reforestation.  A section of trail that entered Kettle Creek Natural Area was also off limits to camping.  I decided to take a break at the creek and take a look at my options.  Since it was only 5PM, I still had at least three hours of daylight left and could easily cover the three miles to pass the Natural Area. A snack and extra water energized me for the climb out of Ogdonia Creek.  I had a few noteworthy trail features to look forward to.

Wildflowers along Ogdonia Creek

Ogdonia Creek

My first destination was Angel Falls, which stands as the highest waterfall on the LT.  A short side trail marks the way.  While the falls may have been impressive, the view was greatly disappointing.  The vegetation around the falls has grown wildly and the waterfall is barely visible.  The steepness of the gorge didn’t leave an obvious path to get to the water below for a better view.  If there was a better view of the falls, it wasn’t obvious.

A not so good look at Angel Falls

Not long after Angel Falls, the trail crosses into the Kettle Creek Natural Area.  A very short trail leaves the LT briefly for the Kettle Creek Gorge Vista.  Although somewhat overgrown and obscured by the evening sun, the vista provided a nice look into the gorge.  The water below can be heard making its way through its rocky course, even though mostly out of sight.

Kettle Creek Gorge Vista

A timber rattlesnake sunning on the vista caught my attention far more than the view however.  I have seen my fair share of timber rattlers growing up in PA.  Having not lived in the state for at least 13 years, this was my first sighting in a long time.  I nearly stepped on the snake.  It remained motionless as it curled up in the evening sun, failing to give me its trademark warning.  I stepped around it after a photo.  It was a nice size snake with at least a dozen rattles on its tail.  The next morning I passed a trail register.  Apparently the snake enjoys the spot regularly as several other hikers reported seeing it in the previous several days.

Timber Rattlesnake

After crossing Kettle Creek and leaving the Natural Area, I passed several good camping spots.  I finally settled on a previously used spot along Dutter Run.  I reached the small stream about 730PM after 27.1 miles on the trail according to the guide.  Dutter Run is a typical small stream and runs orange with tannin.  Its babbling over the rocks made for a pleasant soundtrack to sleep.  A few mosquitoes pestered while I ate my dinner.

Progressing along

Crossing of Kettle Creek

Day 1 home for the night

Day 2
Dutter Run to Alpine Falls
23.3 Miles

I hit the trail about 715AM.  The trail crosses Dutter Run multiple times while passing several waterfalls.  These would be the first of many waterfalls the trail would pass on this day. Not long after leaving Dutter Run, the trail passes a viewpoint called “Mary’s View.”  The view looks toward Smith Knob.  Morning fog rose from the valley below the mountains. 

First falls along Dutter Run

Looking down Dutter Run during a crossing

My favorite falls along Dutter Run

Another pretty falls on Dutter Run

One last small waterfall along Dutter Run

Mary's View

I was eager for a few points in the next several miles.  In the first 2.5 miles of the morning, I would pass the halfway point of the trail and reach High Knob.  Beyond High Knob, I would revisit other spots along the trail that I had known from prior visits to the area.

Lush forest in the morning light

High Knob is known for its vista that spans into seven counties.  A road travels to the vista, which isn’t the summit.  The LT doesn’t pass the vista, but is accessible with a quick walk along the road. On previous visits to this area, we would usually visit the High Knob Vista.

I walked through a muddy section of trail, lush ferns, and crossed the trails halfway point before making the climb to High Knob.  The vegetation around the vista may have grown up some but the view still worth the few minutes it takes to get there from the trail.  In the morning, low clouds and hung below the summits.  Returning from the vista, the trail passes near the wooded summit of High Knob.

High Knob Vista

Another view from High Knob Vista
The trail alternates between ridge and valley leaving High Knob while passing more interesting features.  The trail passes through a corridor between two outcroppings called Split Rock.  Beyond Split Rock, the trail drops to Ketchum Run.

Rock that the trail passes through

Approaching Split Rock

Hiking in the "split" of Split Rock

Another look from the "split"

Trail passing over rocky section

Ketchum Run is another typical mountain stream in this region.  Its rocky course forms a narrow passage as it tumbles down the mountain.  Along the way several small drops and a couple of more impressive waterfalls highlight the creek.  The trail features a few punchy climbs and descents as it maneuvers around steep banks along the creek.

Ketchum Run

Small slide along Ketchum Run

Trail on right along the run

Small drop along the run

Two major waterfalls showcase this stretch of trail.  The trail passes by the top of Lee’s Falls.  It’s possible to reach the base of the falls, but blowdowns limit the access below the drop.  After a few ups and downs along the creek, the trail reaches Rode Falls.  Rode Falls may be the most impressive along the entire LT.  It features a drop off a bowl shape ledge with a deep hole below.  If I had been there later in the day, I would have happily taken a dip, but the morning air was still somewhat cool.  To negotiate the drop, the trail utilizes a fixed ladder along the creek.  For those with dogs or fear of ladders, a marked bypass avoids the ladder.  Rode Falls shouldn’t be missed.

Lee's Falls

Small drop above Rode Falls

Approaching Rode Falls

Rode Falls

Ladder along the falls

Beyond the falls, the trail regains higher ground.  Along the way, the LT reaches two overlooks, Lower Alpine View and Alpine View.  Both overlooks offer a nice look at the Loyalsock Creek and the surrounding mountains. 

Lower Alpine View

Another view from Lower Alpine View

A rock cleft near Lower Alpine View

Alpine View

Leaving the overlooks, I continued making good time before reaching a few more points of interest.  Mineral Springs, as its name implies, rises from the ground rich in minerals.  The minerals give the spring an orange color and the water has an odor to it.  Immediately beyond the spring, the trail crosses a road with another waterfall.  The waterfall was running at lower, summer water levels so it wasn’t flowing to at its best, but is still pretty.  This waterfall is another site I have visited several times while camping in the area.  The LT follows the stream above the falls with several smaller drops as it rushes down the mountain.

Hiking through coniferous forest

2/3rds of the way through

Passing a rock outcropping

Mineral Spring

Waterfall above Mineral Spring

Small falls above the larger falls

I soon reached Worlds End Vista beyond the waterfall.  The vista, like High Knob, is another point accessible by road.  This time the LT travels directly to it as well.  This vista was another popular destination I visited by both car and foot, while camping in the area.  The vista provides a nice look at the Loyalsock Creek as it carves its way through the mountains.

Worlds End Vista

Leaving the vista, the LT shares its route with several other trails so keep an eye out for markers.  Leaving the vista, the LT descends quite steeply over rough terrain.  This portion of the LT features some of the most challenging travel as it makes its way toward the Worlds End State Park facilities.

Start of tough terrain leaving vista

Trail hiking between rocks

Rocky trail

Crossing Double Run 
Falls along Double Run

The LT passes directly past the park headquarters for the state park.  A public swimming beach, concession stand, picnic tables, water spigots, and bathrooms are accessible in the park.  Camping in the park is limited to the campground with proper reservations.  I took advantage of the picnic tables and water spigot for a late afternoon snack and break.  I dunked my head in the Loyalsock Creek as well to cool down for the next climb ahead.

Crossing the Loyalsock Creek

The trail crosses the Loyalsock Creek on a road bridge after leaving the facilities at the state park.  One of the toughest climbs on the LT follows as the trail climbs rough, rocky terrain as it makes its way to the High Rock Vista.  The vista offers another look at the Loyalsock Creek and the state park facilities.

Bridge over High Rock Run

High Rock Run

Tough terrain climbing to High Rock Vista

Some of the most challenging terrain on the LT

The Loyalsock from High Rock Vista

High Rock Vista

Beyond the vista, the climbing mellow before reaching several miles of easier trail at higher elevation.  By trail mile 50, I started to pass a few campsites along Big Run.  I continued a short distance past Big Run and headed up Tom’s Run.

Less than 10 miles left

Another attractive waterfall drops along Tom’s Run.  A short side trail diverts from the LT to reach the base of Alpine Falls.  I followed the trail to take a few photos of the falls. The sun was behind the mountains making the hollow dark.  I had a difficult time getting a good photo.  While the falls are quite pretty, the flow wasn’t too strong and would be even more scenic after rain or in spring.  I hiked the three minutes back to the LT and continued above Tom’s Run.  Above the falls, the LT crosses the Tom’s Run.  Campsites are available on either side of the run.

Alpine Falls

By this point I covered 23 miles for the day.  It was 630PM and I was happy to call it a day, especially with the campsite so close to the falls.  Initially I planned on setting up camp before the creek crossing.  The site seemed wetter than I would have liked.  After dinner I checked out the other side of the creek and found a much larger and dryer site, even closer to the top of the falls.  I moved my gear to the better campsite. As darkness set in, the mosquitoes let their presence known. The splash of the falls made for a relaxing night of sleep.  This was one of the nicest waterfall campsites I have had in all my years of backpacking.

Day 3
Alpine Falls to Mead Road (Eastern Trailhead)
8.8 Miles

I tend to hike long days in the summer.  When the sets close to 9PM, I will hike well into the evening.  This trip, I covered just over 50 miles in two days.  That set me up for a short final day on the LT.  My third day, I had just under 9 miles left to finish the trail.

I hit the trail by 720AM.  After a brief climb leaving my campsite, the trail settled in at higher elevation with subtle elevation changes.  Other than a few rock outcroppings and a few short sections of mud, the terrain allowed for quick travel.  The LT travels along its largest body of water, Sones Pond.  For a short distance, the trail follows along its shore.  Numerous good campsites sit close to the pond.

A small buck early on Day 3

Sones Pond

Hiking near Sones Pond

Beyond Sones Pond, the trail drops to lower elevation, generally following the Loyalsock Creek.  The LT often stays above the creek on an old rail grade to avoid private property or steep terrain. The trail leaves the grade, dropping steeply, to river as it approaches the Haystacks.

Cave under a rock outcropping

The LT passing near rock outcropping

Hiking through rocks

The LT negotiating a rough section

Leaving the rock outcropping

Less than 5 miles remaining

Unlike other rapids in the Loyalsock Creek, the Haystacks are comprised of large boulders that stand well out of the creek.  The Haystacks offer a nice spot to swim when water levels are low with several small slides into deeper pools.  In high water, whitewater enthusiasts enjoy boating the rapids.  I arrived early in the morning and decided not to swim.  I did dunk my head into the water to stay cool for the last couple miles of my hike.  While I was there, a family took advantage of the warm morning, playing in the rapids.

Crossing the Loyalsock for the last time

The Haystacks

Another look at the Haystacks

The Haystacks would be a good spot to swim on a hot day

Leaving the Haystacks, the trail follows the banks of the creek.  It seemed appropriate to spend my last hour of hiking following the Loyalsock Trail’s namesake creek.  At times, the creek flows just a few feet from the trail.  As the trail approached its end, it returned to the old rail grade for the last half-mile or so.

The LT passing under cliff near the Haystacks

The LT along the banks of the Loyalsock

Morning sun over the Loyalsock

I passed the junction that lead to the end of the trail, just a few feet away.  I wanted to visit one last highlight of the LT.  I followed the old LT a short distance and visited Dutchman Falls.  Even though some of the falls I encountered along the LT flowed at weaker levels, Dutchman Falls still had a strong flow.  While Rode Falls ranked as my favorite waterfall along the LT, Dutchman Falls followed in a close second.

Almost at the finish line

Dutchman Falls

The upper drop of Dutchman Falls

After leaving the falls, I returned to the LT proper and hiked the last few feet of the LT.  The trail ends at its eastern trailhead at a large parking lot on Mead Road.  I completed the Loyalsock Trail before 11AM.

Old rail grade near the end of the LT

The final blazes of the trail

Final Thoughts

While the Loyalsock Trail may not me as well known as some of the trails out there, it certainly makes for a worthwhile trip.  There are plenty of trails out there that are better known.  Despite its lack of recognition outside of the region, the LT has garnered some attention.  It has been mentioned in Backpacker Magazine as one of the best 50 mile thru hikes.  I have seen it on several lists as one of the better short thru hikes.  Among backpackers in PA, the LT often comes to mind as one of the best backpacking trails in the state.

Falls along Dutter Run

I would describe the LT as a pleasant, forest trail.  It offers a good variety of terrain and features that kept the hike interesting. While I wish I had hiked it sooner, I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much if I hadn’t been out of Pennsylvania so long.  I say this even after my last seven backpacking trips were in the Rockies.  I really enjoyed my thru hike of the LT.  Since I had nostalgia for the area and the trip finally came to fruition more than 20 years after I planned it, hiking the LT meant a little more to me than other trips.

Typical LT forest

My hike fell during a spell of wonderful summer weather.  The days prior to my hike saw heat index values soaring above 100F.  The days failed to top 80F during my three days on the trail.  The nights dropped to a pleasant upper 50s.  In the future, I would shoot for a spring hike when the waterfalls flow their best or fall during foliage season.

This sat at the end of a driveway a short distance beyond
the western trailhead on the drive out

I think veteran and new backpackers would enjoy a trip on the LT.  The LT offers a well-detailed trail guide, excellent trail markings, and plenty of water for the beginner.  The trail navigates a pretty forest that is broken up by plenty of mountain streams with waterfalls and the occasional vista.  I also appreciated the frequency of established waterside campsites, with numerous near waterfalls.

Useful Links
Alpine Club of Williamsport- Order guidebooks, shuttle info, trail updates, and more
Loyalsock Trail Facebook Group- Firsthand details from recent trail users and great place to ask questions

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  1. Wanderfull post im waiting for your next post

  2. I grew up in Williamsport and have always wanted to hike the LT. Your blog convinced me to try it. Thanks so much!

    1. Thanks for reading and I’m glad that I provided som inspiration. The LT is a beautiful trail that I’m sure you will enjoy. Best of luck.