By Ben Moyer
In a way, it’s a wonder football has achieved such popularity. Watching the sport, indoors, occupies millions on gorgeous autumn weekend afternoons. That voluntary confinement is understandable in large cities or flat, featureless landscapes. But in our region, where blazing fall foliage burnishes tawny ridges, and where inviting trails probe hidden glades and court rushing streams, any hour spent unnecessarily indoors is, well, an opportunity missed. Still, there is a “win-win” alternative. Record the game, pack a snack, hit the trail and watch the Steelers, Lions, Panthers or Mountaineers later.
The journal of John Muir, the luminary American naturalist and philosopher, offers words that come to mind on such occasions: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out ‘til sundown,” Muir wrote. “For going out, I found, was really going in.”
Walking, or hiking for those more task- or destination-oriented, is the most natural of physical endeavors. Walking is also the least expensive and most versatile of all outdoor recreational pursuits. Little or no special equipment is required, anyone blessed enough to be mobile can do it and, around here, publicly accessible places beckon walkers and hikers to rewarding paths.
November is a fine time to go for a hike. It’s too late for swimming and too soon to ski. Unless you’re a winter-warrior, who welcomes the cold and biting wind, late autumn is the last chance to get out before winter. And don’t make the mistake of assuming the best fall foliage is gone for the year. You may follow a trail in the mountains that winds through an out-of-the-way stand of beeches and oaks, which hold their leaves until the ice beats them down, and marvel at a coppery-gold canopy.
From Uniontown, Connellsville, Morgantown or Greensburg, a potential hiker can look eastward and not realize the limitless possible routes, open to everyone, that course across those heights. From Somerset, Johnstown or Cumberland one can look westward toward yet more adventures. Following is a brief introduction to some possibilities. A little exploration of available maps and websites, opens even wider potential.
Ohiopyle State Park:
In many ways, Ohiopyle State Park’s 79 miles of trails are all you need for hiking in this region. Ohiopyle’s paths range from easy and level to challenging rocky climbs. They lead to stunning scenic vistas, secluded ravines, hidden waterfalls, and ancient forests.
For an easy hike follow the Great Allegheny Passage’s wide, level corridor along the Youghiogheny River. The McCune Trail which starts near Sugarloaf Knob and climbs through boulder fields to the crest of Laurel Ridge is more demanding. A nice compromise is the Mitchell Loop Trail which heads at the whitewater boaters’ parking lot off the Sugar Run Road in the park’s northwest corner. The trail is mostly level, well-marked and loops back to the parking lot on a pleasurable walk that takes about one hour to complete. For options, there are links along the way to the Jonathan Run and Sugar Run trails that present a longer, more strenuous hike if you wish.
Finding a parking space in Ohiopyle Borough can be daunting on nice fall weekends. But that doesn’t need to interfere with hiking. A park map reveals many trailheads that are well out of town. One possibility is to park at the large gravel parking area on Dinner Bell Road, just a few hundred yards south of the intersection with Rte. 381. From there you can explore the attractive trail loops that follow Meadow Run, passing by a waterfall that is more dramatic than the more famous falls on the Youghiogheny River. As part of the hike you can easily follow the trail past the Meadow Run Slides into town for food or shopping.
Call the Ohiopyle State Park office at 724-329-8591 for hiking tips and information. Or visit www.dcnr.pa.gov/stateparks.
Forbes State Forest
An amazing 250 miles of hiking trails vein the 60,000-acre Forbes State Forest. Try the Whitetail Trail that follows the crest of Chestnut Ridge south and east of Uniontown. The trail heads at the Lick Hollow Picnic Area, closed after Labor Day, but you can still access the trail from several state forest and state game land parking areas along Skyline Drive.
Numerous choices beckon the hiker to the forest’s Quebec Wild Area south of Farmington. You can backpack here or do shorter day-hikes out from parking areas. One popular parking area is on Skyline Drive south of Laurel Caverns.
You can access detailed maps of the Forbes State Forest’s various tracts at www.dcnr.pa.gov/stateforests.
National Park Service sites:
Fort Necessity National Battlefield at Farmington and Friendship Hill National Historic Site at New Geneva both offer pleasurable walking on well-marked trails. All trails loop back to the central parking and visitor areas. Try the inviting Outer Loop Trail at Fort Necessity for a varied walk. The path passes the fort then probes old-growth forest and brushy fields before returning. Deer and wild turkeys are often encountered.
Coopers Rock State Forest, WV
You could hike another entire autumn season on the Coopers Rock State Forest, just east of Morgantown in Monongalia and Preston counties, West Virginia. Fifty miles of trails network the crest of Chestnut Ridge on the lip of the Cheat River Canyon. Five parking areas are conveniently spaced around the forest just south of Exit 15 of I-68. From those lots, hikers can choose any of several loop routes around the forest, including stops at the famed Coopers Rock overlook, and return to their car. Even the names of trails hint at adventure. You just sense you’ll encounter something interesting along trails named Rock City, Eagle Loop, and Rattlesnake.
The Coopers Rock State Forest headquarters stands just north of I-68 at the same exit (61 County Line Drive, Bruceton Mills, WV 26525). Visit www.wvstateparks.com for more information or call 304-594-1561.
Garret County, MD state parks:
Maryland’s nearby western panhandle offers abundant public land and hiking opportunities within Garrett County. At Herrington Manor State Park (222 Herrington Lane, Oakland, MD 21550) 12 miles of trails loop through the forest around 53-acre Herrington Lake. One trail traverses the Garrett State Forest for 5.5 miles to Swallow Falls State Park.
At Swallow Falls (2470 Maple Glade Road, Oakland, MD 21550) a 1.5-mile trail leads hikers along Muddy Creek through an old-growth forest to Muddy Creek Falls, Maryland’s highest waterfall.
Maryland state parks charge a small per-car fee during summer weekends and other peak-use periods. November is not a peak-use time and according to the Maryland State Parks website (www.dnr.maryland.gov/publiclands), fees are not generally collected at that time. Call 1-800-830-3974 for Maryland state park information.
Greene County: Ryerson Station State Park and the Warrior Trail
Ryerson Station State Park in western Greene County offers 13 miles of easily discerned trails that mostly follow old woods roads. These walks lead through impressive mature oak forests and along the marshy shores of the former Duke Lake, which is now unique boggy habitat since the lake was drained.
This attractive park is somewhat “off the beaten path” and rarely crowded. All trails are accessible from the central park complex following Rte. 21 west to Wind Ridge, then turning east off Rte. 21 onto SR 3022 (Bristoria Road). The address is 361 Bristoria Road, Wind Ridge, PA 15380. Call the park office for detailed information at 724-428-4254.
More adventurous hikers might explore the Warrior Trail, a marked path traversing the Greene County hills and hollows from the Monongahela River at Greensboro on the east, to the Ohio River in West Virginia on the west. Several camping shelters dot the route.
It’s best to plan ahead for a long hike on the Warrior. For maps and more information write to the Warrior Trail Association, P.O. Box 103, Waynesburg, PA 15370
State Game Land 51:
State game lands are owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission and intended primarily for wildlife habitat and public hunting. So, they’re not conspicuously developed for other forms of outdoor recreation. Game lands are, however, open to the public free of charge, year-round for hunting, hiking, nature study, photography and other low-impact activities. Incidentally, no state tax dollars are spent to acquire or manage state game lands. The Game Commission’s revenue from the sale of hunting licenses makes these tracts available for public use.
State Game Land 51 atop Chestnut Ridge just east of Dunbar has 16,000 acres of wild rugged forest and endless options for hiking. Just don’t expect paint-blazes on the trees or obvious signs to point the way. This is ideal for those who like their hiking remote and self-guided. But it’s worth the effort. Rock outcrops, wildflowers, waterfalls and rare plants and birds make this a standout naturalist’s destination.
To view online maps of State Game Land 51 visit www.pgc.pa.gov. Near the bottom of the main page is are buttons for “maps” and “state game lands.” Search State Game Lands 51 in the Game Commission’s Southwest Region.
Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail:
It’s more than a cliché to say the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is the “crown jewel” of hiking in the region. The LHHT as it’s known in hiking circles is, literally, the crown, or top, of the region. The well-marked path winds its way for 70 miles along the crest of Laurel Ridge, courting 3,000 feet above sea level, from the Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown to the Youghiogheny Gorge at Ohiopyle.
Throughout its length the trail crosses different tracts of public lands including the Laurel Ridge State Park, Forbes State Forest, State Game Lands 42 and 111, and Ohiopyle State Park. Clusters of simple but comfortable lean-to camping shelters, each with a fireplace, are spaced every 8 to ten miles along the path. Reservations are required to stay in the shelters, and camping is limited to one-night stays.
It’s not necessary to embark on a 70-mile odyssey to enjoy the LHHT. Along its corridor, Rte. 271, Rte. 30, Rte. 31, Rte. 653 and the Maple Summit Road (SR 3003) all cross the trail. Parking is available at each crossing point, offering enjoyable day-hikes or hikes to the next road crossing if your party has two vehicles and plans to shuttle.
The trail crosses high over the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Donegal and Somerset on a footbridge bearing the words “Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail” for motorists from across the country to read, but there is no parking and no trail access from the ‘pike.
For information on the LHHT or to make camp-shelter reservations call 724-455-3744. Or visit on-line at www.dcnr.pa.gov/stateparks and search the site for Laurel Ridge State Park.