Lord of the Flies: High highs and low lows on the Black Forest Trail

This is a trail I’d been looking forward to doing for a long time–it carries a mythical persona amongst fellow DCULers. Karan had to bail on the trip so I stepped in to lead a strong crew of veteran hikers. We all fought our way through DC, MD and PA traffic, weaving and bobbing from interstate, to state highway and back until we arrived at the trail head. Sophie was the only one to arrive in the light, and we all trickled in in the dark after that.

I started hiking at about 9:40pm and my car told me it was 35 degrees out. Boy was it windy too! Shortly after that it began to lightly snow as I quickly hiked the 1mi to the first marked campsite; there I saw Sophie’s tent and confirmed that most of the others had hiked further down the creek to the next site about a quarter mile away. I proceeded down there to get a headcount on everyone and establish a plan for Saturday before bed. When I arrived Zak, Jonathan (Shenanigans), Mark (Brightside), and Alex were all set up in camp and Reza was planning on sleeping in his car and seeing us at first light.

After a cold and windy night with a bit more light snow, we awoke before dawn and were hiking by 6am with Reza swiftly passing through camp as we all finished packing up. With 27 miles planned for the day, we were all motivated to get an early start. Additionally, I had alerted the crew that at mile 23 we would be passing by Hotel Manor which had food and beer if we could arrive before 5pm. This kick started a morning of accelerated hiking in us all as we moved through what we would later conclude was the easiest part of the loop. Hiking with Jonathan and Mark, our goal of 10 by 10 was shattered as we passed 10miles before 9am. Mark and Jonathan have both hiked the PCT and clued me in on another legendary goal, 20 by 2pm!

We took in the beauty of the plateau in the northwest corner of the loop and began our hopscotching back and forth across County Line Branch Run–Jonathan accepting wet feet and trudging through, Mark avoiding getting his feet wet at all, and myself getting a little wet on several of the crossings. We crossed PA 44 and briefly found ourselves off trail but recovered quickly. We passed another group of backpackers who were hiking the loop as well at the base of Red Run–they had just started their day and were heavily loaded with gear.

The first real challenge of the trip was the rocky climb up Red Run, but I think everyone took it in stride as it was nice to encounter some “difficult” terrain after a morning of cruising along at about 3mph. At the top we were graced with our first real overlook showing the valley we had just climbed out of. This part of Pennsylvania is incredibly beautiful but photos just don’t do it justice. Much of the landscape is untouched and without a unique feature or landmark, many photos lack the sense of scale and awe that you can capture in person. We proceeded along the plateau for a few miles and gradually began our descent into the community of Slate Run and Hotel Manor. Along the way, we shattered our goal of 20 by 2, and completed 20 by 12!

As we got closer to Slate Run, we started seeing more and more slate formations. Large slate boulders, small slate piles, and intricately stacked slate formations abounded. Our descent got steeper and steeper as we descended until we were physically towering over Hotel Manor and we finally crossed the bridge over Slate Run. Zak, Mark, Jonathan and I arrived at Hotel Manor around 1:20 and all desperately needed a break–we had perhaps been a bit overzealous in our pursuit of real food and beer. Little did we know that the 23 miles we had done were far and away the easiest part of the loop and the challenges that lay ahead of us.

Alex rolled in a short time later and we all indulged in burgers, sandwiches, pizza and fried food and enjoyed spreading out on the grassy lawn along Pine Creek. It was a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. Plenty of others were enjoying the sun too–we saw families with dogs, hunters, fly fisherman and many others taking in the day. After an hour or so Zak, Jonathan and Alex crossed Pine Creek to see if the general store across the way had ice cream–they weren’t disappointed! Sophie arrived, and we all wondered where Reza could be. He had started the day out in front, Alex had seen him briefly after he had made a wrong turn, but we all worried he may have missed us spread out on the lawn behind Hotel Manor and kept hiking on.

At about 4pm, we had all had enough of a break, and the looming 4 mile climb (and food!) weighed heavy on us. We followed Slate Run Road for a while, then proceeded on an old road grade just below the road before finally climbing up and crossing it. Then began a steep rocky ascent in the hot afternoon sun. And this is where things began to fall apart. Arriving out of nowhere were clouds of gnats that began to swarm each of us, with the light breeze doing little to stop them from flying into your mouth, eyes and face. As we proceeded up the roughly 1000ft climb in just under a mile, any break to catch your breathe was ruined by these swarms of gnats. Finally arriving at the top near the back of the pack, I passed by a hunting camp and heard the sounds of a lively party taking place. To my horror, our campsite at the small blue pond was directly next to this ongoing shindig. The group was nice with offers of beer and ribs later on, but it was clear this was going to be a loud party going into the night.

Reza had indeed passed by us and had set up camp as had Jonathan, Alex, and Zak before Mark and I arrived. Mark and I made the executive decision to press on to an upcoming trail junction where we knew there was another campsite; worrying us though was the group of backpackers we had passed this morning were just ahead of us and headed for the same spot. Mark, myself and the other group arrived at the junction to find the site already occupied by another group. So much for this being a “not that popular” hike. The other group knowingly or unknowingly descended down the yellow blaze trail on the guidance of the campers that another site lay a half mile ahead. They also advised Mark and I than another mile down the BFT was another campsite; all that lay between it and us was another 500 foot climb.

Atop the climb we crossed a forest road and found a fire ring and a couple of tent sites. As we scoped out the area for a for more sites, Jonathan, Zak, Alex and Sophie arrived having decided that they weren’t too keen on the pond-party campsite either. Reza, tired from a long day, and already midway through dinner, decided to stay at the pond for the night. He later told us that the party sort of burned itself out after another loud hour or so. Zak, in a stroke of genius followed the trail another few hundred yards and found us a great campsite in a slightly damp pine forest. It was huge! And had a fire ring! And a lot of gnats! Tents and tarps were quickly setup and we hoped to get a nice smokey fire going to scare off the gnats. The leaves and twigs were all just a bit too damp to really start a fire, but in a stroke of luck, some rotting birch logs were not more than 20ft away from us. Despite their advanced state of decomposition, their bark was plenty dry and makes an excellent firestarter. We quickly had a glorious blazing fire and no more gnats. None of us except for Sophie had any room for dinner but we enjoyed the fire and apart from a brief moment of sprinkling rain had a lovely evening.

Overnight it dropped to only around 50 degrees or so and we awoke at dawn and were hiking by 6am again. It was clear that today was going to be much hotter than the day before, and we had about 4000ft of climbing to do over 14 miles compared to about the same gain yesterday over 27 miles–we all knew we had our work cut out for us. After a pleasant few miles we descended into Little Slate Run, only to then immediately climb out of it. It was pretty; but not quite lose 500ft, gain 1000ft pretty. We spent several miles along a forest road that had many beautiful vistas just a couple hundred feet off the road on either side, and the trail detours off the road briefly to capture a beautiful overlook from the canyon rim of Pine Creek Gorge which is called the “Grand Canyon of PA.” Although I’m sure its true, its a similar situation to calling UTSA the Harvard of southern Texas.

We descended down into Naval Run which was beautiful, and fortunately this time we got to walk along it for a bit before climbing back out. I would have loved to hike further along it. At about this time as well, it had finally gotten warm enough for the gnats, and they were back with a vengeance on 1100ft climb out of Naval Run.

Even along the ridge high above Naval Run, there was no peace to be had from the gnats. We descended down to a junction with the aptly named Cutoff Trail. This saves maybe 4 miles, but more importantly an 800 ft descent down Callahan Run (shout out DOC!) and what ended up being a particularly brutal 1100ft climb out in the hot sun and gnat clouds on legs I think we can all agree were toast. Mark decided to save himself from the gnat-pocalypse and took the cutoff trail. I passed by another hunting camp that had two guys on the porch who seemed shocked to have had so many people walk by in a row. Finally, after another pretty forest stretch and a bit of gravel road walking, I was back to my car and the Black Forest Trail was completed. Mark let me know that Alex and Zak had finished and headed out, and Mark did shortly thereafter. Jonathan and Sophie arrived and departed as well. No one had seen Reza all day, so I stuck around to make sure he finished. After a while, Reza emerged victorious and I headed out as well.

Overall, the Black Forest Trail was beautiful–I would happily hike it again, although hopefully at a time when there are no gnats. I would also say doing the loop in what was essentially 2 days lives up to its storied history as the “Dumbass Version.” I was on trail for about 38.5 hours, and hiked what my watch called 43 miles in the span of about 30 hours. Everyone on this trip deserves kudos for making it through unscathed. We had beautiful weather, but the mileage and elevation (and gnats!) were no joke.

Final Splits (per Garmin):
Friday: 1 mile (+0ft,-472ft)
Saturday: 28.4 miles (+4880ft,-4650ft)
Sunday: 15.3 miles (+4150ft,-3900ft)

Caltopo: https://caltopo.com/m/EKGV

Google Photos: https://photos.app.goo.gl/SdqHTeiYhUzv9ZoM6

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