Not too many DCUL’ers have made it out to the Laurel Highlands in Western PA, and I was looking forward to introducing people to one of my favorite hiking spots when I lived in Pittsburgh. We had a great time and enjoyed all the different landscapes (pine forests! rhododendrons! boulder fields! ski slopes!) and the layers of crunchy ice on the trail.
Brian, John, and Erik met up at Forest Glen, and drove out to the Rt 30 trailhead where they met me, improbably arriving within just a couple minutes. We dropped a car and headed down to the Rt 653 trailhead, meeting up with Zak (also perfect timing) around 10pm. We tossed on layers and quickly got moving, taking the access trail in to the LHHT and heading south for about a mile before turning off for the shelter area.
Even though it was in the low teens (and dropping) and windy, there was another person camping out there! He was already set up with a fire and the entrances to his shelter tarped, but he pointed us in the right direction for our reserved shelters (we picked two that’d be right near each other). Despite the hour and a pile of surprisingly wet wood, we persevered and built a roaring fire in our shelter’s fireplace, finally turning in a little past midnight.
Saturday, we were on the trail by 8 a.m. The windchill made for a brisk start, but we all did okay once we were moving. The trail was fairly flat, so we made good time until we got to the Seven Springs ski area and got a bit turned around. It seemed like the trail went straight down across the active slopes, but that didn’t seem right! After chatting with some helpful staff (and a heated bathroom break), we realized that yes, indeed, the trail did go right down the slopes. We got some strange looks from the skiers and narrowly avoided some kids going off a jump, but safely made our way down. A couple miles later, we paused at the Rt 31 shelter for lunch, trying to take our time so we wouldn’t get into camp too early.
As an aside: the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail goes for 70 miles, starting at Ohiopyle and heading north. We covered miles 18-46, approximately, and got to see the mid-point trail register. It’s *extremely* well blazed, although there was a surprising amount of blowdown across the trail. There are stone mile markers every mile, lots of good wooden plank bridges, and very clear signage for all the parking and shelter access points. There’s no dispersed camping allowed, but there are 8 shelter areas, each with five shelters, plenty of tent spots, water pumps, trashcans, pit toilets, and firewood. If you’ve taken I-70 out to Western PA before, you might remember going under a bridge with the trail name arching across the interstate.
We got to the Turnpike shelter around 4:30 p.m., meeting up with Ben who’d spent the day exploring other nearby trails. We immediately (well, after some effort) got a fire going, and spent the rest of the day snacking and keeping warm. We also determined that Erik is currently the undisputed champion of Chubby Bunny, with an impressive 10 marshmallow accomplishment. Brian and Zak made good attempts, but alas could not compete.
On Sunday morning, we reached Beam Rocks around 9 a.m. and spent about an hour enjoying the view and scrambling. John and Erik made it down from the top and back up twice, but the rest of us had a significantly lower risk tolerance and spent the time exploring some of the caves at the bottom. Where it was protected from the wind, the ice had formed perfectly smooth, glassy sheets over the rock; it looked like it had been dipped in glass.
We reached the cars around 11:30, reversed the shuttle, and headed to See-Mor for lunch. Slow service, but great milkshakes. The total trip was 29.5 miles, with splits of 1/20/8.5 (perhaps slightly lower if you don’t wander around Beam Rocks and Seven Springs). Total gain was about 2,900 feet (loss of 3,100), but we hovered within a +/- 300 ft range nearly the entire time so there really weren’t any super challenging climbs. In warmer weather, this could possibly be an LM despite the long day on Saturday. The entire trail would also be a great 3.5 day adventure, with NOBO splits of 6.5/26/24/13.5 (with easy access for people to join on the second night), or SOBO splits of 5/26/21/18.
Thanks, everyone, for joining me out in my old stomping grounds!