Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Backpacking the Black Forest Trail

As I mentioned in previous trip reports, Pennsylvania doesn't always come to mind as a backpacking destination.  Many hikers not from Pennsylvania or surrounding states aren't aware of the states vast State Forest system. While most outsiders know about the state's section of the Appalachian Trail, the expansive trail system in the state forests often gets overlooked.  Most of the state is covered by forests and mountains.  Since moving back to the eastern US, I started taking advantage of the backpacking opportunities in Pennsylvania.  In the past two summers I hiked the 59 mile Loyalsock Trail and 85 mile Susquenhannock Trail System.   

My next backpacking destination in Pennsylvania was the Black Forest Trail (BFT).  The Black Forest Trail often ranks as Pennsylvania's most scenic and difficult backpacking trail.  The trail forms a 43 mile loop in the north central part of the state, primarily in Lycoming County with small portions in Potter and Clinton Counties.  The route remains in the Tiadaghton State Forest with the exception of brief sections on private land.  

While the trail continuously changes elevations, technically there are no mountains on the trail.  The area is part of the Allegheny Plateau.  Along much of the BFT, flat terrain makes it obvious that you are hiking on a plateau.  Most of the vistas also showcase the flatness along the top of the plateau as much of the terrain above the drainages runs flat for great distances.  Water carved out portions of the plateau which resulted in deep cuts in the otherwise level terrain.  All of the elevation changes on the loop are the result of climbing in and out of the drainages that interrupt the otherwise flat Allegheny Plateau.  That's not to say the trail is flat.  The drainages drop abruptly from the plateau, quite steeply at times The trail  continually traverses in and out of many of these drainages and elevation change adds up.  Over the 43 mile loop, the BFT piles up a respectable 8,550' of elevation gain.

I planned on hiking the trail originally in June.  My plans changed however after I acquired Lyme Disease on my Susquehannock Trail trip.  I had at least one embedded tick on that trip.  About ten days after that trip, I started to feel symptoms such as headaches, fever, and swollen lymph nodes.  A strong course of antibiotics taken quickly after the incident took care of the problem but a couple doctor appointments postponed the trip.  By the time I was able to reschedule the trip, a hot and humid summer set up in the area further postponing the trip.  My new goal was to hit the Black Forest Trail during the fall foliage season.  I set out to hike the trail October 8th.

Day 1
Slate Run- Callahan Run
27.0 Miles  

I arrived at Slate Run the night before my hike around 11PM.  I slept in my car at the trailhead to get an early start.  With shorter October days, I wanted to start early.  By 7AM on Thursday, October 8th, I began hiking.  The most common starting point for the Black Forest Trail begins at a large parking lot along Pine Creek in the village of Slate Run.  The actual trail is reached after a short .2 mile road walk.  

The Black Forest Trail has a reputation for being difficult.  A sign kiosk marks the start of the trail at a bridge crossing Slate Run.  This also marks the low elevation of the trail at 765'.  Almost immediately, the trail begins a stiff climb.  Over the next 2.5 miles, the trail climbs to over 2,000' in elevation. Despite a morning chill, I warmed quickly on the climb. 

Pine Creek from Slate Run Road

Trailhead kiosk

The elevation doesn't come without reward.  The trail passes an old flagstone quarry with interesting rock.  Large cairns comprised of pieces of flagstone meticulously stacked mark the site of the quarry.  While many people frown upon cairns, I found them rather interesting considering they were at the site of an otherwise forgotten quarry from long ago.  The trail passes several rock formations in the vicinity  

The Black Forest Trail is also known for its frequent views.  The first view point comes within the first two miles with several following in quick succession.  The trail builders seemed to make a point to utilize any vista and route the trail to take advantage of the scenery.

Site of old quarry

Early sun 
House size rock near quarry

Most leaves have fallen here
Morning sun on plateau

Sun takes a while to reach the valley in the drainages

After the initial climb out of the valley, the trail travels along the plateau.  The trail travels along the plateau for several miles.  Whatever effort is exerted on the climb, your body has plenty of time to recover on the gentle terrain of the plateau.  The trail diverts to the edge of plateau a few occasions to take advantage of any viewpoint available.  The trail along the plateau usually offers smooth tread.  Only when approaching the vistas on the edge of the plateau does the trail seem to get rocky.  

I planned to hit the trail during the foliage season.  There seemed to be a good mix of leaves starting to change, fallen leaves, and green.  The day before I left was full of gusty winds.  Many of the leaves that changed early lost their leaves in the wind.  The low groundcover vegetation often ran near peak color.

Hiking through colorful ground cover
A good look at the flat plateau

Sun almost in the bottom of the drainage
Brief rocky section near edge of the plateau

Looking across Slate Run 
Looking toward north end of Slate Run

The trail generally travels along the plateau except when it descends ravines, hollows, and drainages where water carved out the land.  The first descent from the plateau occurs after 6 miles when the trail descends Red Run, eventually reaching Little Morris Run.  Dropping from the plateau, the trail negotiates steep, rocky terrain.  Fallen leaves makes the descent tricky as they hide the ground and best places to step.  The steepness doesn't last long and soon the descent becomes more gradual as it follow close to Red Run.

The first 8 miles give a pretty good taste of the remainder of the trip.  The trail travels the plateau over easy terrain broken by climbs in and out of drainages.  About half the elevation changes are abrupt, while the other half run more gradually as they follow gentler slopes of hollows.

Downed leaves made the rocks more challenging
Red Run

Leaving the Wild Area

I quickly noticed that a long, dry summer left its mark on the trail.  The various creeks and runs along the trail barely trickled.  Numerous smaller runs were completely dry.  Near the 8 mile mark, the trail crosses Little Morris Run.  A series of small waterfalls trickled over rock.  The falls were quite pretty, but merely a trickle of what I imagine they normally flow

Pretty despite very low volume
Bridge just below the falls

The trail is generally well-marked throughout its route.  Orange paint blazes on the trees mark the route.  Most intersections feature a sign or double blaze.  Even so, a few spots were met with a little confusion.  The trail utilizes a road for a short distance after crossing Little Morris Run.  The blazing on the tree was somewhat ambiguous.  My instinct based on the blaze was to turn right.  The blazes seemed to become less frequent and the paint looked different.  Within a quarter mile, I reached a sign for a different trail.  I checked the guide book and realized I took a wrong turn.  Luckily I didn't go more than .25 miles before realizing my mistake.  The red paint blazes along the trail are easy to confuse with the orange blazes of the BFT.    

Small waterfall

After a brief stretch off the plateau, the trail soon regained its elevation.  This time the climb followed an old grade and climbed less steeply on a smooth trail.  Back on the plateau, the trail continued to pass several lookouts.  The miles went by quickly on the easy terrain along the plateau.  

Little Morris Run and Francis Branch Drainages
Gradual climb on old grade

Clouds moving in late morning
Vista over Francis Branch

Sign by first PA 44 crossing

After 4-5 miles the trail drops off the plateau gradually, descending to County Line Branch (this creek flows along the Lycoming and Potter County line).  The BFT follows the course of the County Line Branch for a little over two miles.  The trail crosses the creek numerous times throughout this stretch.  Because of the low water levels, this wasn't much of a problem as the creek was easily crossed on rocks.  The biggest issue was the fallen leaves obscuring the shallow water.  During high water levels, a bypass trail can be utilized to avoid the frequent wet crossings.

Just over 16 miles into my day, I stopped at the last crossing of the County Line Branch for lunch just after 1PM.  Given the BFT's reputation, I expected a slower hike.  I didn't anticipate hiking 16 milse by 1PM,  While there have been a few climbs, the time along the plateau added up miles quickly.

Deeper section of County Line Branch
One of many crossings 

Leaving the County Line Branch, the BFT faces one of its more challenging climbs.  Although it doesn't gain as much elevation as some of the climbs, the climb rises steeply and includes one of the trail's rougher section of rock.  The rock field isn't very long however and more overlooks at the top make up for the climb.  

Roughest section of rock on the BFT
Hiking through mountain laurel

County Line Branch drainage

Another long stretch along the plateau follows the climb from County Line Branch.  The trail crosses several open areas along this stretch over flat terrain.  A short drop along a stream breaks up the flat terrain, but the trail doesn't leave the plateau very long.

Hiking through a clearing

In summer I would think this is much brushier and full of ticks
You can see how flat hiking is over the Plateau

Nearing the end of the clearing

The trail enters an area burned at the turn of the twentieth century called The Barrens.  Upon entering the Barrens, the BFT passes a series of vistas.  The trail passed through colorful ground cover along the Barrens.  Less than a mile later another series of viewpoints is reached at Baldwin Point.  The trail finally begins a gradual drop below the plateau as it descends toward Baldwin Run.  

County Line Branch Drainage
Colorful ground cover

View from the Barrens
Nice layers of clouds

The color is faded in this ravine
Nice color over mountain laurel

Old pump house from 1880s
Trail through mountain laurel

A steep climb from Baldwin Run becomes more gradual as the trail approaches PA 44.  Beyond paved PA 44, the BFT utilizes a dirt road for a short distance and eventually reaches the plateau for another couple miles.  It's within this stretch that the BFT reaches its high point at an elevation of 2,145'.

Road walk along Trout Run Road
Nice texture in the clouds

One of the few landforms that looks like a mountain
in contrast to the flat plateau

Not long after the high point, the trail begins a steep descent for nearly two miles to Callahan Run.  I was starting to get hungry by this time as the day rolled into the 5PM hour.  Although I initially didn't plan on such a long day, the miles continued to fly by.  The descent into Callahan Run is followed by another long climb.  I decided to make my home for the night at Callahan Run.  I reached the trail's low point along Callahan Run about 530PM.  For a trail with a reputation of being challenging, I didn't expect to cover 27 miles, let alone so quickly.

The guide book indicated several small waterfalls near the campsites on Callahan Run.  The main branch of the creek with the falls was essentially dry.  I could see where the waterfalls stood, they just didn't have any water to fall.  The main branch had enough water to flow and gather water for cooking at least.

About an hour or so after I arrived, another hiker that I crossed paths with a couple times the past 7-8 miles arrived and camped nearby.  We exchanged hiking stories until we turned in for the night in the pitch dark around 730PM.  I always find it unusual going to sleep so early.  I woke up at one point and looked at my watch.  It was only midnight, but felt like it could have been 5AM.  A few times through the night a very loud barred owl called from its nearby perch.

Hiking through a tunnel of spindly coniferous trees
Camping along Callahan Run

Day 2
Callahan Run- Slate Run
16.45 Miles

In October, the sun rises late, especially when tucked in a deep ravine.  I rolled out of my tent just before 700AM in twilight. I felt quite refreshed from the long night of sleep.  The temperature felt like it was into the 30s with a good nip to the air.  I was back on the trail around 750AM.

Despite a good amount of elevation gain, the climb from Callahan Run remained relatively gradual as it followed a hollow to the plateau.  Back on the plateau, the trail started passing viewpoints.  One of the nicer vistas along the entire BFT is found at Hemlock Mountain.  The view takes in the Pine Creek to the south.  Fog rising from the valley added to the view

Fallen leaves obscure the trail
Easy climbing along the dry upper Callahan Run

More trail obscured by leaves
View Across Callahan Run drainage

Pine Creek from Hemlock Mountain
Fog lingering in the valley

Beyond Hemlock Mountain, the BFT begins another long descent toward Naval Run.  Since leaving the trail's high point after mile 25, the trail became increasingly tougher.  The BFT's reputation as tough was a little easier to see.  The trail's last 18 miles feature roller coaster terrain with more consistent climbs and descents.  The time on the plateau is much shorter with more dramatic elevation changes.  The drop into Callahan Run was the first in this stretch and the drop to Naval Run seemed steeper and longer with a few swithchbacks to take some of the edge off the challenging descent.

Hiking through hemlocks
Descending toward Naval Run

Upon reaching the deep valley of Naval Run, the air was noticeably cooler.  Along the run, the trail utilizes an old skid trail and shares a route with other trails.  The BFT crosses the run before climbing steeply out of the valley.  At one point a group of backpackers were sitting along the run but I didn't pay much attention. 

At this point, Scott, the other hiker that camped by me, was hiking along with me.  We started to question if we missed a turn since we only saw red blazes of the Naval Run Trail, not the orange blazes of the BFT.  The guide confirmed crossing the run ahead.  Sure enough a crossing of the run was just a few tenths of a mile ahead and a sharp left confirmed the BFT's course.  Soon we saw orange blazes again.  Within a couple minutes we descended to the run where the other hikers still sat.  Apparently, the BFT diverted off the skid path at that spot.  The BFT wasn't obvious from the direction we were traveling.  However, now we realized our mistake and the other hikers confirmed the route since they were traveling the opposite direction. We turned around and in a few feet saw the abrupt turn of the BFT climbing away from the run,  The blazes weren't visible from the other direction.  Either way we were back on course adding maybe a quarter mile to the hike.  

Nearly dry Naval Run

From Naval Run, the BFT climbs steeply toward the plateau over a series of switchbacks.  The vistas quickly follow as the trail gains elevation.  This section of the trail had one of the densest concentration of views on the entire trail.  Many of the outlooks had log benches to take a break.

View above Naval Run
View from plateau beyond Hemlock Mountain

Pine Creek 

For the most part of my hike, the foliage was mixed.  Sections of trees still held green leaves, many of the changed leaves fell in the wind, and other trees were in various stages of color.  The last eight or so miles, the trees seemed to hold more color.  Much of this seemed relative to the slope direction. and deep ravines.  The trail seemed to follow several north facing hollows and ravines which allowed the colorful leaves to hang on longer.  The bright, blue sky backdrop seemed to give the color extra pop.
Nice color

Easy hiking on the plateau
Good look over Pine Creek at 
Moss Hollow Lookout

Birch View Vista

The last few drops off the plateau seemed more gradual as the trail tended to follow the gentler slopes of the hollows.  The drops didn't lose nearly as much elevation as Naval or Callahan Runs.  Less elevation loss meant shorter climbs back to the plateau.  Some of the hollows were rather rocky with more leaves on the ground.  At times the rocks were obscured by leaves making footing a little tricky.

Gradual elevation change in the hollow
Descending a hollow

Leafy trail
Denser section of forest

Leaves just starting to turn
Fern-lined trail

The majority of the trail along the plateau was dry, except for a short stretch about six miles from the end of the loop that traversed a muddy spot.  A couple branches in the mud provided a spot to place your feet without sinking.  One of the branches abruptly shifted as I stepped on it.  I ended up with both feet in the mud up to my ankles.  A little of the moisture seeped into my shoes and socks.  Fortunately I only had a couple hours of hiking left.   

Ground cover starting to change color
Another easy hollow with leaves obscuring the trail

Looking at the forest canopy
Small Pond

Variety of trees in different stages of color change

The last major drop of the trail comes with the descent back toward Slate Run.  This felt like the roughest drop on the entire trail.  The trail descends along a steep spine with loose footing.  Steep slopes falls from either side of the spine.  Several good view points look down toward Slate Run.  The steepness finally eases when the trail drops to a hollow with a more gradual pitch to the valley.

View across Slate Run drainage
Slate Run drainage

Slate Run visible below

Finally the trail crosses a road and follows just above Slate Run on an old rail grade.  At one point the trail diverts from the rail grade on a short but punchy climb to another flat grade directly above the original path.  After leaving the grade for good, the BFT rejoins Slate Run Road for an easy downhill finish past the trail's start on pavement.  At this point you can see the parking lot on the opposite side of Pine Creek, another .2 miles away.

Old rail grade
Near the end of the loop

Crossing Pine Creek at the end of the hike

I arrived at my car about 2:05PM on Friday.  While the BFT had its share of steep sections, I felt the trail was much easier than anticipated.  I didn't find it significantly more difficult than the Loyalsock Trail or Susquehannock Trail System.  With the short October days, I thought I would struggle to finish the trail in two days.  The miles passed quickly thanks to the long stretches of easy hiking on the plateau.  My baseline for the past fifteen years of hiking has been the terrain of northern New England, the Adirondacks, and Colorado.  In comparison, the elevation changes on the BFT are modest.  That's not to say some sections weren't challenging, just that the gentle hiking of the plateau seemed to balance out the rough sections.

One of the countless views

I enjoyed the Black Forest Trail and would recommend it to others.  I appreciated the plentiful vistas.  Although the leaf color was not quite peak, the fall foliage enhanced my trip.  I was a little disappointed at the lack of water.  This was just a timing issue on my part.  Due to the dry summer, many of the plentiful creeks ran at a tiny fraction of their normal flow with many completely dry.  I enjoy the small creeks in Pennsylvania's forest and would have liked to have seen some of the waterfalls that were  marginally flowing or dry, at a higher volume.  Hiking in October not only gave me foliage, but also allowed me to hike without brushy sections that can be common in sections of Pennsylvania's trails such as ferns and stinging nettle.  I still managed to find a tick on my leg despite the lack of underbrush.  Hiking in October, I also missed out on haze and humidity common in summer.  Cooler temperatures made for comfortable hiking.

Nice red ground cover and blue skies

View over red ground foliage

Color among the green

Morning fog above Pine Creek

Leaf color in the ravines and northern slopes

Pine Creek 

For those planning to hike the Black Forest Trail below are a few useful links.  For the best info and details on the trail, I highly recommend the most recent edition of the Black Forest Trail Guide which includes a map by Chuck Dillon which can be found in the various links below.

Black Forest Trail, Slate Run PA- Facebook page dedicated to the trail and good source of trail conditions and updates.

PAHikes Black Forest Trail-Website dedicated to Pennsylvania hiking and there info on Black Forest Trail and info on the trail guide for the BFT.  (Trail Guide is available at other retailers)

KTA-Black Forest Trail-The Keystone Trails Association is a Pennsylvania specific hiking organization and the is their page for the BFT.

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  1. This was great and love all of the photos! I have done about 7 miles from Slate Run going counterclockwise on the trail. I am thinking of going clockwise from Slate Run on the next trip, so having your photos helps see what I'll be able to experience.

  2. Thank you for this very informative post. I've also read your posts describing your hikes on the Susquehannock and Loyalsock trails. I am planning to hike the Susquehannock Trail starting this Sunday. I have about 4-5 days to hike total. I'll be driving from Indiana. This was a fairly spur of the moment decision. I could instead hike the Black Forest Trail or the Loyalsock Trail. I hiked the Appalachian Trail for two months back in 1997, from Maine to Massachusetts, but have not had the opportunity to do any long distance hiking since then. I've put on a few pounds since then, but semi-regularly take a 3 mile hike over nearby hills. Any recommendation on whether I should do the Susquehannock, the Loyalsock, or the Black Forest Trail this coming week?

    1. Thanks for reading. 7 days seems to be a typical Susquehannock Trail itinerary. Given you are out of practice for backpacking, I’d recommend the Black Forest Trail or Loyalsock. The shorter Black Forest Trail would probably be better given the short amount of daylight right now. 5 days is fairly common timeframe for Loyalsock but short days could be limiting if you are not in shape. Hope that helps.

  3. Looksmuch more scenic than the NPT. Also looks like a better time of year for PA hiking, given that the ticks aren't jumping out every other step. 27 miles on that terrain? Having hiked with you, I'm not too surprised, but... wow.

  4. Troy- I made it, but ended up having some IT band issues that I am still getting over. I practically limped the last couple of miles. I still can’t believe you did 27 miles in one day; that is serious stuff. Thanks for the company on the trail; I enjoyed it. Stay well!

    1. Glad you made it but sorry about the IT issues. Hope you recover soon It was nice to have some company. Keep me posted of any future trips you take and check my website or FB page for the blog to read about any of my outings.