What an amazing journey. When I planned this trip, I thought the 20-mile days would be fairly easy to accomplish, but with fresh snow almost every day and temperatures that rarely climbed above freezing, it was not as easy as I thought to complete the trip according to the intended mileage splits. That said, I’ve learned so much from DCUL over the years, and I brought along the right things to ensure a safe and successful traverse of the 138 mostly snow-covered miles (222 km) of the Mid State Trail from Blackwell to Little Flat Fire Tower, near State College.
Logistically, the trip was straightforward, especially given the gracious assistance of the Mid State Trail Facebook group. In response to my post requesting advice on setting up the car shuttle, two people quickly came forward offering to transport HeavyD and I from the end to the beginning of our trek. Then all we had to do was hike back to the car. Simple, right?
Day 1 – Blackwell to Big Run – 3 miles
I picked up HeavyD on my way out of the DC area and met up with our “trail angel” Pete in the parking lot at Galbraith Gap. This was a couple miles from the Little Flat Fire Tower, but there was no guarantee that the road to Little Flat would be open. Even if it were open, it might take longer to drive it than to walk it. On the two-hour drive to Blackwell, Pete gave us some excellent pointers about great campsites and side trail conditions, many of which I referred back to during the trip. He dropped us off at the Miller’s Store in Blackwell, with it’s gracious proprietor and generous supply of Moxie soda.
Around 4pm, we were on our way up toward Gillespe Point. Once we descended to Big Run on the other side, we found a small but decent campsite, made dinner under the falling snow, and called it a night.
Day 2 – Big Run to Little Pine State Park – 23 miles
We woke up to another couple inches of snow on the ground, which almost ensured wet feet throughout the day, but the snow didn’t seem to slow us down much. Although we started just after sunrise, the 23-mile day took all the way until sunset to cover. The route included an early stream crossing with no bridge or rock-hopping option, so the shoes came off in the 30 deg F air, probably the coldest stream crossing I have ever experienced. (I hope not to break that record. Ever.) There were two nice views in the morning, and some interesting rock formations in the afternoon, but I sheepishly admit that the highlight of the day was the Happy Acres Restaurant. The people were wonderful, the food was scrumptious, and the beer list was long. Satiated from our meal, HeavyD and I stumbled to a campsite nearby and conked out for the night.
Day 3 – Little Pine SP to Gamble Run – 17 miles
I greeted HeavyD with a “Happy Birthday” shouted through tent walls as we completed our morning routine of breakfast and strategic packing up inside the tent, allowing us to emerge from our tents almost fully formed, “like from a cocoon,” as HeavyD described. For his birthday, Mother Nature treated HeavyD to the most glorious weather of the week. There was no fresh snow, and the temperature even crept up above 50 degrees briefly (gasp!) about the time we stopped for a break at a beautiful overlook north of Ramsey. We also saw a group of about 10 trail runners, which would turn out to be the only human interaction on the trail for the entire week.
We passed through Ramsey and crossed the picturesque railroad bridge over the big Pine Creek. At some point during the day, HeavyD confided that he was unsure about his foot, which was giving him a little trouble. We stopped a few miles short of our originally planned destination (Woolrich) and selected a very comfortable campsite along Gamble Run. It afforded convenient water, flat ground, and plenty of downed trees that made for comfortable places to sit while making dinner and chatting about the random things that we think about along the trail.
Day 4 – Gamble Run to Ravensburg State Park – 20 miles
By morning, HeavyD was confident that he wanted to play it safe and get a ride to a bus station from McElhattan. As luck would have it, the very first person we encountered as we were walking into town asked us where we were headed and offered HeavyD a ride to the bus station six miles away. (I love trail people.) After an indulgent break at the truck stop in McElhattan (hot coffee, chicken tenders, and clean bathrooms make for a giddy backpacker), I was on my way back into the wilderness solo, wondering how I would do, mentally, on my first few days of solo backpacking.
After a few miles of road walking, I reentered the woods clueless about the volume of snow that I would encounter in the four days ahead. This turned out to be the most challenging part of the trail. It was snowing heavily, and there were so many trees down that I felt as thought I was navigating an obstacle course. As I got closer to Ravensburg State Park, the sun was starting to go down, and trees blocking steep portions of the trail made for slow going on the final descent. I made it just in time, cooked dinner in a pavilion, and found a nearby place to camp for the night while the snow kept falling…and falling…
Day 5 – Ravensburg SP to R.B. Winter State Park – 21 miles
Because of the slow pace and the fresh snow, I decided to get an earlier start. I was up and ready to go before sunrise, but after the pre-dawn light preempted the need for a headlamp. Once I reached the top of the first hill south of Ravensburg, the sun came out and glistened on the snow, reminding me why I do this. It was around 20 degrees, and my hands were cold, but the scenery was stunning. I had to take care when passing under snow-laden branches, because inevitably the shower of snow would make it into every possible opening in my jacket, including down the front, which seemed to defy the laws of physics. I passed the halfway point during the day, reminding me that I got this, even though my ankles telling me they weren’t so sure.
Because of the heavy snow, I was once again rushing to make it to my desired campsite location before dark. The trail was briefly knee-deep, but I couldn’t complain about heading westbound into the sunset as I approached R.B. Winter State Park. I took the opportunity to look for an open bathroom and was greeted with (*choir of angels*) a bathroom with heat, real toilets, and hot water! I was incredulous. The park was exceptional, albeit empty. Mr. Raymond Burrows Winter, PA is truly honoring your name.
Day 6 – R.B. Winter SP to Poe Paddy State Park – 24 miles
Given the intended mileage for the day, I got an even earlier start, heading out in the dark. The temperature was below 20 degrees, making me thankful for the typical early morning climb, which warmed me up as it always does. The route to Hairy John’s was pleasant and uneventful. Along the way, I passed by one of the best campsites I saw all week, along the little Pine Creek, just outside of The Hook Natural Area. By the time I reached Hairy John’s, it started snowing again, and the rest of the afternoon was cold, overcast, and windy.
The remaining miles to Poe Paddy included some of the most technically challenging, rock-hopping along the ridge of Thick Mountain. It seemed like an eternity just to cover 50 yards across a rock scramble. Afterwards, the route was frustratingly flat at a time when the cold wind made me wish I were climbing. (Did I really say that? Yes. Yes I did.) Regardless, I made it through the tunnel and into Poe Paddy with plenty of daylight to spare, which was my goal. I delighted in the routine of putting on my luxurious, warm, dry sleeping clothes, ate a breakfast meal for dinner (*grin*) and called it a night.
Day 7 – Poe Paddy SP to Detweiler Junction – 24 miles
I greeted the next morning with enthusiasm, in part because I knew that in one more day, I would be sitting at a Sheetz, drinking a hot cup of coffee and eating a build-your-own, double-egg breakfast sandwich. (Is that so wrong?) The day was consistently overcast, and a rain-snow mix haunted me throughout the day, but I managed to stay dry and make it to what would be my favorite campsite of the entire trip. Thanks to Pete for pointing out the site just a few minutes walk down the Greenwood Spur, because it was perfection. I’m not certain fires were allowed—I read and heard different dates—but everything was so wet that I opted to build a small one and basked in the warmth as I made my dinner and studied the map for the next day.
Day 8 – Detweiler Junction to Little Flat Fire Tower – 6 miles
On the day I headed back to my car, I decided that whenever I was up, I would hit the trail. As usual, nature called by 5am, so I was moving in the dark by 6, more than an hour before sunrise. I didn’t bother with hot breakfast, and I didn’t completely finish my morning coffee-and-Carnation-Instant-Breakfast mix. Within an hour, the coffee mix had developed ice crystals that made it taste blissfully like a frappuccino. I cannot explain the feeling of anticipation as the predawn light started to creep in, like the minute hand of a clock, too imperceptible to notice the movement. It turned out to be the clearest and coldest morning of the trip, dipping below 20 degrees. I wanted to take so many photos of the PA vistas, but my hands could only stay outside my mittens long enough for a quick snap before I had to put them back into their down-laden hovels.
As I reached my holy grail for this trip, the Little Flat Fire Tower, I snapped a couple photos to document the success, and headed back down towards my car with a puffed-up sense of accomplishment. Did I just do 138 miles in the snow? Did I just spend four days in the wilderness by myself? Yep.
Random post-hike thoughts:
I don’t listen to much on the trail, other than the sounds of nature, so I’m usually alone with my thoughts for the vast majority of the time. I will never remember all of the random quips that pop into my head, but this one stuck with me: If a backpacker walks through the forest for a week without a shower and no one is there to smell, does she stink?
As I drove past the trail crossing under 322, recognizing the landscape by sight, I laughed out loud when I imagined what the drivers must have thought as they saw me navigating down to the culvert or clambering out of it.
I have now completed sections 3 through 7 of the DCUL MST sections. I’d like to knock out sections 1 and 2 by the end of April. Who’s with me?