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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail - Trip Report

Ok - so I haven't posted in a while.  I'm still doing all the running, hiking and geocaching that I love, but haven't spent the time to sit down and write about it.  To sum it up in a sentence:  There's been some casual hiking with the wife and dog, geocached a bit (but not nearly as much as I have in the past) and I've run a couple half marathons and maybe a 5K in there; for all the details (minus the hiking) see My Geocaching Profile, and my Strava activities.  Onto the story at hand...

This trail is 70 continuous miles from Ohiopyle and Seward, PA, marked every single mile with a small milestone:

I've had my eye on thru-hiking this trail for a little while now, mostly because the planning is easy being close enough to home and that I could complete the entire thing while only taking a few days off of work.  Not electing to take a summer vacation this year afforded me a few extra vacation days so I set out on the trail at 6:25pm on Tuesday night, 6/25 after a 1.5 hour shuttle from Wilderness Voyageurs.

The term "highlands" is relative to Pennsylvania, being mostly between 2000' and 3000' in elevation, this trail is some of the highest terrain in the state.  At both the northern and southern terminus, the trail is roughly 1200' above sea level, but quickly rises to 2000' + feet and rolls along for the majority of the miles, only gaining and losing a few hundred feet on subtle climbs and drops.

At the southern terminus

Day 1: Southern Terminus to Ohiopyle Shelters, 6.3 miles

After grabbing a few batteries from the extremely well stocked Wilderness Voyageurs, I set out for my roughly 2 hours on the trail for the first day.

There were two short, but challenging climbs within the first few miles, offering some views of PA Canyons, as well as some wildlife:

Looking back at these photos, it's amazing to see how the scenes changed over the next few days, even the next few hours...

Around mile 4.5, I began to hear thunder in the distance but didn't think it was coming my direction.   I'm sure you can imagine what happened next...yep, roaring thunder approaching and over a mile to go to shelter.  Having considerable energy from sitting on my ass in the office all day, I booked it, trying to beat the storm and settle in for a good first night's sleep.  About 3/4 mile from the shelter I passed what appeared to be a father and son backpacking team, just walking along...but I had different ideas.

Upon reaching the shelter area, apparently I just barely beat the rain, by just around 5 minutes and scampered around for the "Shelter #1" that I'd reserved for the a $4 charge a few weeks prior.  Luckily I found the correct one and as the rain came pouring down, I sat in solitude, munching on my footlong subway I'd grabbed on the way out to Seward.  The ranch dressing was a messy touch, but I had no issues downing the entire sub, plus the 3 bonus cookies right afterward.  Overnight was sticky, literally, being the first night spent on my Thermarest z-lite shirt-less using my sleeping bag as a blanket.  Every move over night was like slowly pulling off a band-aid.

There were a few other strange occurrences overnight, including something within 100' that sounded like flapping of a metallic sheet, almost like getting air into a trash bag, but stopping after a second or two and not starting back up after a few minutes.  The other fun encounter overnight was what I think was a curious mouse in my shelter.  Other than that, I got a good 6-7 hours sleep while the rain poured on.

Day 2: Ohiopyle Shelters to Turnpike Shelters, 31.9 miles

After packing up in the morning, I headed out in the ever-so-slight sprinkle to refill water from the well at the shelter area.  Although it was marked NON POTABLE, I figured that just meant it needed to be treated or filtered.  But as I was beginning to set up my filter, a young guy passes by on the way to the bathroom and lets me know I should get water from the nearby stream since there's "chemicals in this water".  OK then.  Over to the stream, then up the hill...

Starting off the day with a substantial climb is fairly normal, but it was pretty gradual so I didn't mind plus I found a geocache at the it was all good.

Typical LHHT

One of the many rock outcroppings along the trail

Rock hallways!

Beautifully still lake around mile 11

I was making good progress and by around the 15th milestone I decided I'd update my shelter reservations from the Route 31 shelters at mile 32 to the Turnpike shelters at mile 38.  I'd plan to stay just north of the Turnpike bridge on Wednesday night, then hike out 32 miles to the northern terminus on Thursday.  Although I'd never backpacked a 30 mile day before, having 15+ hours of daylight makes it really easy to simply "walk all day" at an easy pace, take a few short breaks and make the distance well prior to sunset.

At mile 19ish, the trail crosses Route 653 and the park headquarters are located just a few hundred feet (trail) east along the road.

There are only 2 locations "along the trail" where potable water is available:  the first is at the park headquarters, and the other is just before Seven Springs Resort.  Knowing this, I elected to take the road walk, only to find a closed office with a number to call to change reservations.  At the maintenance shed, I located a water spigot and refilled under the heat of the midday sun.

Being mostly along the ridge line the entire hike, I actually had a faint cell phone signal most times I checked, and I was glad that just as I got back on the trail at Rte. 653 was not an exception.  A quick call to the office and I got my reservations switched, and even saved 4 bucks on my cancelled shelter for the following night!

Rock hallways with Rhododendron hair!

Blazes galore.

These sections never get old!

Recharging the Fenix with my Voltaic battery pack

After finding a couple more geocaches along the trail, I arrived at Seven Springs, a ski resort with a few outdoor offerings in the summer time.  Not a whole lot was open on the top of the mountain where a restaurant sits, but I managed to find a soda machine with cold Pepsi inside for the steep price of $3.  The trail then heads down the slopes, and to the only spot where I questioned my direction along the entire 70 miles.  There's just too much open space on ski slopes to mark trails.  After walking about 100' in a few different directions, I spotted the familiar yellow blaze and continued my way away from civilization.

Seven Springs

Seven Springs Lake and lifts

The trail goes right along the lake

Then down the slopes!

Apparently there's a 5K held up here

Interesting trail scene

Chug it and enjoy the view.

I managed to swiftly move along the next 10 or so miles, passing by the halfway point, as well as finding a fairly old geocache with its original logbook.  Shortly after that point, I crossed the PA Turnpike with a strange sense of connectedness back to other people, but still feeling the detachment that you have when hiking solo.  The trail during my time spent on it had very few southbound hikers, so I only ran into 1 or 2 people per day, until the shelters.
Laurel Summit, along Route 31

Original logbook.  Rock on.


PA Turnpike Bridge

That's quite a wide footbridge!  (It's also open for snowmobiles)

Turnpike view (east)

Ian with the state cop
After the turnpike crossing, I only had about a mile and a half of trail before my home for the night and as usual, the critters are out around sunrise/sunset.  During this 30 minute or so period, I came across one of the many Red Efts I would encounter along the way, as well as a young buck.

There was some mountain laurel still in bloom

Another ferny forest shot

Little dude

Yay!  Made it!

There were some rowdy teenagers in one shelter who luckily settled down once the sun went down and I once again got some decent sleep before my final big 32 mile day to finish up the LHHT.

Day 3: Turnpike Shelters to Northern Terminus, 31.8 miles

The day started off great, bright and early and on the trail by 6:30am.  The goal for the day was to get done while hiking in the least amount of rain possible.  Given that I can only control half of those, you can pretty much gather how the story went.

Separate bathrooms in the middle of nowhere!

Distance to Turnpike Shelters from trail.

More Rhodo's growing out of rock
The rain began around 8:15am and only got harder, and harder as the day went on.  By around mile 8, I would consider the rain to have been a steady "yellow" on the radar.

At this point the hiking simply turned into a game...could I make it to "this" mile by "this" time?  With the steady rain, there's no views, and being afraid to take my phone out for pictures, this is pretty much what you do for entertainment.

The first goal was to accomplish a classic thru-hiker morning goal: 10x10 (10 miles walked by 10am).  Even though I was finally stirring up some "business", there was a task at hand that I don't think I've ever accomplished.  Just as I passed mile 48 at 9:59am, I celebrated with a little "woot!" then began to scan the forest for a good spot to get off trail and dig a cathole.  Without getting into all the details... pouring rain + TP = a wet mess.

Back on the trail, there wasn't much to do but continue to play time/distance games and by this point, it was to try and get 16 miles in by noon.  The only problem, I had 2 miles to go and it was 11:37am. we go:  two miles in 33 minutes, in ankle deep water and pouring rain (radar RED by this point).  Bring it on!

And what do I run into at 11:56?  Two guys doing weed whacking trail maintenance with ear protection on, going the same direction as me so it's incredibly hard to get their attention from behind.  With some trekking pole waving and banging, I was able to alert them of my presence and they politely let me pass, allowing me to reach my second goal of 16 by noon.

Feeling like a Sith Lord
Finally, the rain let up a bit to a drizzle for the afternoon and I no longer had to slug through water up to my ankles.  There were some amazing little sections in this final 20 mile bit, including a hemlock forest with a beautifully soft trail path of fallen needles.  The other really cool spot was around mile 56, one of the best "rock hallways" on the entire trail.

Another little guy
The last couple of miles offered some really neat scenery, very reminiscent of the descent in Northern PA on the AT coming down from Mt. Minsi into Delaware Water Gap.

Gorgeous rhododendron tunnel during the final couple of mile descent.


Feeling very satisfied with completing the entire trail within 24 hours of "on trail" time, I changed into the only dry clothes I had available: my work khakis and polo shirt from Tuesday.  

Some final thoughts about the journey:
  • The trail overall was extremely flat, with just a few rolling hills.
    • This was sort of expected based on research on the elevation profiles before hand, but also a real change since most of the Appalachian Trail that I'm used to hiking has much larger elevation gains and drops.
  • There really weren't many good vistas.
    • Apart from a couple during the first third, there really weren't any.  On the guide it notes some coming down the final descent, but even without fog/rain, I think you'd have to wait till winter for views here.
  • The abundance of wildlife (almost) makes up for the lack of vistas.
    • Due to the trail being much less traveled than the AT for instance, the opportunity to see wildlife is much more frequent.  The birds I heard and saw were numerous, as well as the red efts, deer, turtles, and so on.
  • My gadgets, while fun to play with, were more of a hassle than necessary.  Trying to track every step of every day while in the rain and trying to keep charged was such a PITA.  As you might be able to tell, I REALLY enjoy being able to analyze all of the data afterward, but I need to figure out a better system for recording it, as well as photos.
  • The milestones are a burden and a blessing.
    • It's nice to know where you are along the trail, but at some point it just becomes a game of "are we there yet?"
  • The State Park Staff was extremely helpful and knowledgeable when making reservations.
  • Apart from the last overgrown 10 miles or so, the trail is very well maintained.  Almost every water crossing is bridged and the shelter areas are like no other (that I've experienced, at least)

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