One by one we filtered into the warm, welcoming atmosphere of Three Springs, Pennsylvania’s Pizza Star II. The smell of pizza, lasagna, and warm bread mixed with the bright colors on the walls and the joyous laughs of the staff. We came in many cars from the DC and Philadelphia areas, and gathered as long lost hiker friends to assess which vehicles would be stationed at the end of our 40 mile trek along the Standing Stone Trail on the dirt Jacks Mountain Road, and which ones would shuttle us to the start of our hike at Cowans Gap State Park. I asked the waitress if you she had read or seen the Hobbit, in which the dwarves trickled in a few at a time for an impromptu feast at Bilbo’s. For the first time that weekend and that location, it felt like this beloved fictional moment – and on Friday we were actually presentable and dry.
I’m glad we picked our roughest four wheel drive vehicles to position our end point cars on Jacks Mountain Road because it was muddy and messy at the top. Even with our off-road capable SUVs we risked getting stuck and ruining the start of our weekend. But it worked out. Soon enough the car shuttle was set, we retrieved the rest of the crew from Three Springs, and we were parked and poking around in the dark mists of Cowans Gap State Park to find a suitable place to camp for the night. We had to get a bit creative because it was difficult to find the exact tent site area at the intersection of the Tuscarora and Standing Stone Trails. But we had the park to ourselves, we had checked in earlier in the week with the Cowans Gap State Park authorities, and we felt confident nobody would mind us camping out for the night. And after all, we were up the next morning at 5:00 a.m. for an early start to our 25 mile day.
The creepy fog of the night before got even worse the next morning. It was like a delightful version of Apocalypse Now, in which swirling mist and shadows greeted our every move. Just like car headlights, our headlamps only seemed to make visibility worse in the dense fog. We stayed together and eventually found ourselves on the right side of the lake and on the Standing Stone Trail proper. Off we went and in normal veteran member DC UL fashion the first uphill climb split the group up for the day – which was the plan anyway since our meeting place later that afternoon was going to be Pizza Star II for another jolly reunion and meal. I was thankful that after the mists cleared around dawn we had an hour or so of sunlight to enjoy the ridge heading out of Cowans Gap State Park. It was scenically rocky, full of pines, and the perfect mid-Atlantic trail. Then the rain came. And came. And came. And came. Sure there were some light periods and there were even some dry moments over our 25 miles for Saturday. But there weren’t many. The final six miles or so came on some backcountry roads that would end us in Three Springs – and this coincided with some of the hardest rain of the day. I’d love to know what the cars thought passing a string of backpackers swaddled up in rain gear or holding hiking umbrellas. It must have been quite the sight.
And so Pizza Star II welcomed the gang for another evening. This time we were even more like the road-weary dwarves of Tolkien. Unfortunately, one of our group took a raingear ripping tumble early in the day and was able to get back to his car without much hassle. We were down to nine folks by the time the last of us made it to Three Springs around four p.m. As is becoming his heroic norm, Max! furnished a wooden box of Bordeaux he had been hiking with all day, and we washed our Italian food down with the best trail wine imaginable. The waitress also learned about the importance of the “!” in his name. I had picked Pizza Star II as our rendezvous point for the day for a number of reasons: 1) DC UL doesn’t miss a chance to eat at restaurants on the trail, 2) with different hiking paces it was a perfect place to allow for a multi-hour wait, and 3) as is the norm for many PA trails, we didn’t expect to find a very good campsite for the evening and used Three Springs as our merriment location. A bit later, we simply pitched shelters at the first flat-ish spot and went to bed after leaving town.
And so 5:00 a.m. came around on Sunday morning. It was misty and rainy again, and we hiked up and out of the town area on State Game Land in a burst of intense precipitation. Just like the previous morning, the weather let up around the most scenic area near Hooper’s Gap, and we enjoyed some pristine views and welcoming trail before getting wet again later in the morning. We gathered at the Butler Knob Shelter (in which an epic poster informed us that the Standing Stone Trail was the 2016 PA Trail of the Year) to regroup and then headed up and over the Hall of the Mountain King completely enshrouded in dense fog. What we lost in view we made up for in atmospherics. J.R.R. Tolkien himself would have appreciated the eerie backdrop to this famed spot.
We completed our final miles for the day and hoped the rainy weekend didn’t make a mud soup of Jacks Mountain Road for our journey home. It didn’t and our fine 4X4 steeds served their purpose. We thought ever so briefly of stopping by Pizza Star II for a third day in a row of feasting but thought better of it and decided to return when we next came back to finish the last 40 miles of the Standing Stone Trail.
A huge thank you to the Standing Stone Trail organization, and its many maintainers and supporters. The trail was in fantastic condition with almost no blowdown and few spots that were unblazed. Even in the rainy, misty, dark mornings we had little issue staying on the trail. And a special thanks to George, Kristin, and Peter for the helpful notes and charts as we planned our weekend adventure. We’ll be back to finish it soon!