Trip Report: Early Winter Fun on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Karan and I were brainstorming trails to hike over the extended Veteran’s Day weekend and landed on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. Early Thursday morning, Holley, Kyle, John, Mark, Jonathan, and Alexander met us at Grosvenor. We piled into two cars for the three hour drive up to Ohiopyle. Mark’s car arrived first and they all grabbed rave-worthy breakfast sandwiches at the Falls Market Restaurant & Inn. Once everyone was full, we rendezvoused with Jason, the ninth and final member of our group for the weekend, in the Ferncliff parking lot.

PC: Alexander

Our shuttle driver arrived a short time later.  From Ferncliff, we had a very comfortable hour ride up to our starting point at Rt. 56. Our musically inclined members gave our shuttle driver 5 stars for his music selection.

Within minutes of piling out of the van, Karan snapped a starting photo of our group and we headed up the trail. It was pleasant (if slightly warm) hiking weather for the gradual climb. We had about 13 miles to cover for the day in 4.5 hours of daylight so we kept a steady pace. Most of us were less than pleased to discover that the shelter was about a mile from the trail. We were even less pleased to find that the water pump in camp was turned off and we’d need to backtrack half a mile back to a parking lot fill from a pump there. Jonathan got his arm workout in for the day by doing the majority of the pumping as the rest of us tried to fill the iron-rich water from the fountain overflow. It was a fairly ridiculous sight.

PC: Alexander

By the time we made it back to camp, Karan and Kyle had a fire going. All three nights we thoroughly enjoyed the massive stockpile of wood the state park delivers to the campsites in the fall and winter. The nine of us spread out among a few shelters and convened for dinner around the fire. 

That night it rained quite heavily. The wind occasionally misted into the shelters but luckily the precipitation stopped by morning. As we hiked up and away from the shelter, we were enshrouded in a mist but that eventually gave way to blue skies and sun. 

Friday was an altogether beautiful hiking day. The ups and downs on the trail were more substantial than they appeared on the elevation profile but the miles still passed fairly easily. The lack of water on the trail thus far had us worried but starting at Card Machine Run and beyond there were plenty of sources. 

PC: Karan

As the day went on, several of us took the opportunity to eat lunch on Beams Rocks and chatted with a local couple. It was the first real view of the day but eventually, the wind got the better of us and we moved on. A few miles later, Karan saw a message from Alexander that he wasn’t feeling well and had gotten himself off-trail.

Luckily, the side trail to camp that evening was much more reasonable. We enjoyed another nice central fire and then built fires in our shelters as the temperature noticeably dipped. 

Around 5 am that morning, it started to rain as expected (but dreaded). By the time we headed out of camp, it was just a light rain thankfully. That light rain then turned to a wintry mix and then to snow. 

PC: Kyle

A few miles later, we took a respite from the snow at the Highlands Market. Holley planned to bypass the market and Jonathon missed it due to poor directions he got from another camper the night before. The rest of us enjoyed the warmth, coffee, and breakfast sandwiches. Mark and Kyle packed out a sandwich for lunch and beers for camp. Karan bought a massive cookie to share with Holley and Jonathan.

The snow had really started to accumulate while we relaxed in the market and it showed no signs of stopping. We climbed higher up to Seven Springs Resort, which is where the real fun began. With no protection from the trees, the winded pounded us and the snow continued to come down. By the time we got back in the safety of the woods, Kyle had icicles in his leg hair.

PC: Karan

Within an hour, the storm stopped and left us with about two inches to tread through. Snow on leaves and rocks is a tricky combination, to say the least. It continued to be windy and chilly which made stopping for breaks pretty unappealing. Karan, Mark, and I did take a break at the last shelter before camp and even got a little fire going. 

From there, it was about 12 miles to camp. The climbs and descents on this day were milder than the day before, at least until the final descent. We dropped about a thousand feet from a winter wonderland to a golden hollow. We were unable to reserve shelters for this night so we set up shelters at the first campsite we could find. Holley did some accidental bonus miles but by about 5:30pm, we were all safe and sound in camp.

We made it through the night with very minimal precipitation and a few strong gusts of wind. In the morning, we faced a couple of rigorous climbs but with only 6.5 miles for the day, we were up for the challenge. We even got to enjoy a little more snow as it started falling a few miles from the end of the trail.

PC: Karan

Falls Market made the perfect post-hike meal stop. The breakfast sandwiches turned out to be all they were cracked up to be (the milkshakes too apparently!).

Thanks to all who joined us on this unexpectedly wintery Laurel Highlands adventure!

Google photos album: https://photos.app.goo.gl/BR9xNnqwrHggjZTB8

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