Hills, Hollows, and Beyond: Backpacking the Susquehannock Trail System

April 14, 2014
Hills,-Hollows-and-Beyond
Brian HorstClimbs, descents, camaraderie, and wildlife highlight an 81-mile trek around the Susquehannock Trail System.

Like many hikers, I spend a great deal of time staring at maps and dreaming of the possibilities of adventure and escape they evoke. For several years now, I have come back to maps of the Susquehannock Trail System (STS) in north-central Pennsylvania—and not just because I hiked the trail system for my new book, AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic.

The orange-blazed STS makes an impressive 81-mile loop—and links to other remote trails—atop the massive Allegheny Plateau. Over the millennia, hundreds of creeks and streams have cut deeply into the plateau. Hiking here involves descending into dark, close valleys or “hollows,” only to climb again to the sunlit forests above. This environment, so different from the ridges and valleys of Virginia, Maryland, or southeastern Pennsylvania, offers some of the best hiking in the region.

For me, the STS has come to represent the distilled essence of backpacking Pennsylvania. I enjoy many other trails in the Keystone State, but I fell in love with the STS because of the varied sense it offers of rambling over the Pennsylvania countryside— the deep and verdant hollows, the high plateaus, the stream valleys with scattered hunting camps, and the memorable passage through the little trail town of Cross Fork.

A fresh start
On Memorial Day Weekend last year, I brought a group of nine enthusiastic backpackers to do the STS in its entirety. Five men, four women, and one dog, we all hailed from the D.C.-Baltimore-Philadelphia metro area and knew one another through our shared interest in ultralight backpacking. (There was not a toothbrush handle among us.) We all went by our trail nicknames during the hike. There was Shamrock, who gained her moniker for a love of McDonalds’ Shamrock Shakes, and La Bamba, so-named for his resemblance to actor Lou Diamond Phillips, star of the 1987 movie La Bamba. All of us were eager to slough off our busy professional lives for a long weekend’s walking.

We set off from the STS’s northern portal, not far from the town of Coudersport, Pa., on a Thursday. A gentle rain began falling, but we were too busy dreaming of the stress-free journey ahead to be bothered by it. For several hours we strolled through lush forests of ferns and peeked through gaps in the foliage at misty views of the countryside. Near Lyman State Park, darkness fell, and we quickly made camp, ready for a long, rainy night.

Cardiac Climb and Ole Bull
The next day, the rain gone, we broke camp early to savor what would be the first in a series of days with perfect bluebird skies. We quickly learned why hikers in this part of the country like to say, “The mountains don’t get any higher, the hollows just get deeper.” Climbing out from these sunken hollows can be an almost spiritual experience as you struggle to leave behind the darkened creek bed and reach the light of the relatively flat and heavily forested plateau.

We conquered the aptly named Cardiac Climb—a sign along the way taunted us, “Almost halfway!”—and continued climbing past Ole Bull State Park. The park takes its name from Ole Borneman Bull, a Norwegian violinist who had founded a colony here in 1852 for 150 of his fellow countrymen. The colony was short-lived, but Ole Bull’s name has remained. Up high, we gazed out at the surrounding land laid out like a rumpled rug, the plateau itself cleft by hollows eaten away by innumerable creeks.

Chilling in Cross Fork
On Saturday, we passed through the southeast section of the STS, where other trails link up with the Black Forest, West Rim, and Mid-State trails to the east. A skilled backpacker with a penchant for studying maps could easily vanish for a few weeks on this extensive trail system. In the afternoon, we dropped down into Cross Fork on Kettle Creek, where the folks at Deb’s restaurant graciously allowed us to take over the back patio, spreading our gear out to dry in the brilliant sunshine. We tucked into what turned into a three-hour meal.

As twilight came on, we struggled up from our chairs, miles still to go before our next campsite. By the time we descended along the Elkhorn Branch, a tributary flowing into the Hammersley Fork, we were all more than ready to camp. Soon I was falling asleep to the music of the nearby creek.

Through a wild area
In 1968, the newly formed Susquehannock Trail Club, working with pre-existing trails and with the help from the Susquehannock State Forest District Office, built and blazed the STS. Many of the trails the STS follows retain their original names, such as the Twin Sisters Trail or the Elkhorn Trail. We were now entering a particularly special place along the STS—the Hammersley Wild Area.

At 30,000 acres, Hammersley is Pennsylvania’s second-largest wild area (Quehanna is first) and the largest piece of the state without roads. Like much of the East Coast, the land that would become the Hammersley Wild Area was clear-cut around the turn of the 20th century. The logging company that owned the forests sold them to the state in the 1930s but retained mineral rights.

In the ’30s, this part of Pennsylvania was a hive of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) activity, with 10 camps scattered around the area. The CCC helped re-establish the forests, control wildfires, and build roads and trails. In 2004, the state finally acquired the land’s mineral rights and formally established the wild area. About 11 miles of the STS—mainly following the streambed of the Hammersley Fork—pass through the wild area.

Bear encounters
When the sun rose on Sunday, we walked north along the Hammersley Fork, soaking up the wonderful solitude of this rare stretch of wilderness. Early in the day, I spotted a black bear on the far side of the creek. Little did I know I would soon have a much closer encounter.

Having left the wild area behind, we strolled along the rural country lanes that follow Sinnemahoning Creek and took a dip in a swimming hole beneath a small bridge. Then we pressed onwards through some of the more difficult terrain the STS has to offer, due to its quick succession of ascents and descents. At a well-deserved break, Shamrock exclaimed, “Something smells good … Oh, it’s me!” We all assured her that, after 60-odd miles, she was mistaken. Later, hiking alone temporarily, I was reminiscing about the time on my first hike on the STS a year earlier when a thunderstorm had struck suddenly on the very stretch of trail I was then walking. The clap of thunder had burst so close that I had fallen to my knees, half stunned. Distracted by this memory now, I rounded a bend and wondered who could have their big, black dog on the trail without a leash. With a shock, I realized I was not looking at a dog but at the furry posterior of Ursus americanus. The bear was perhaps 20 feet away. More startled than I was, it took off at a dead run in the opposite direction. A little rattled—that bear was fast—I vowed to pay more attention.

When at last we reached Ford Hollow, our final stream crossing of the day, we were ready to call it quits and camped in a grassy meadow. After a merry campfire, we retired to bed, only to be kept awake by the riotous baying of a pack of coyotes, which serenaded us through the night.

A bittersweet end
Monday morning, we started early, with only a few miles of hiking left to complete the loop. As we drew near the trailhead, we felt mixed emotions. Of course, we were satisfied with finishing (and thereby earning the coveted circuit-hiker patch from the Susquehannock Trail Club), and after four days we were keen to get back to civilization. But, too, we had enjoyed a perfect long weekend of camaraderie, and after 80-plus miles on the trail, we had refreshingly distanced ourselves from the outside world.

Such returns are bittersweet, and, typically, it’s not long after such a trip before I catch myself once again poring over my maps, thinking about the green spaces I did not explore, the side trails I sidestepped, the swimming holes I left un-swum. Numerous paths link up the highlights of the Allegheny Plateau, and I’ve not walked them all. Yet. Of course, the STS is only one of many inspiring backpacking treks in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Here are few more favorites from my book:

  • GIANT WILDERNESS  |  New York
    Veteran 46ers—those who have climbed all 46 Adirondack peaks above 4,000 feet—speak with reverence about the trail from Route NY 9 to NY 73, through the Giant Mountain Wilderness. It’s not easy, with 5,300 feet of climbing followed by a bone-jarring 3,100-foot descent from Giant. But this beautiful alpine route takes you over Bald Mountain, Rocky Ridge Peak, and Giant itself before bringing you to the picturesque pond of Giant Washbowl. En route you’ll enjoy huge views of Lake Champlain to the east and the High Peaks to the west.
  • ASSATEAGUE  |  Maryland
    Here you can backpack 28 miles along an Atlantic barrier island and camp among the dunes. The surf will pound on your left while wild horses frolic on your right. Starting from the Barrier Island Visitor Center on the Maryland side, you’ll have your choice of six backcountry campsites as you head south. Take your time to explore the dunes or swim in the bioluminescent surf, then head to the more isolated Virginia side. Camping is prohibited here, but you’ll walk along pristine beaches. You’ll complete the trek at Tom’s Cove, Virginia.
  • TRIPLE CROWN  |  Virginia
    This 34-mile line combines three Appalachian Trail (AT) highlights— McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth, and Tinker Cliffs—with the much more isolated North Mountain Trail. From VA-311, backpack in a few miles to set up an early morning climb of McAfee Knob with its transcendent views. Then head north to Tinker Cliffs before leaving the AT, crossing Catawba Valley, and trekking south on the North Mountain Trail. You can camp up high with splendid views in all directions. Then you will re-gain the AT, scramble to the top of Dragon’s Tooth, and enjoy 15 miles of pastoral walking to return to 311.
  • ROARING PLAINS  |  West Virginia
    As beautiful as its neighbor Dolly Sods but more rarely visited, the Roaring Plains Wilderness offers backpackers a chance to get off the beaten path. In exchange for a little route-finding, you’ll enjoy the breathtaking West Virginia highlands and boundless views of the Alleghenies. Starting from FR 19, climb the Boars Nest Trail to reach the plateau and the unique spruce-dominated environment of the sods, which most visitors liken to Canada or even Alaska. After a quick bushwhack, you will walk the Canyon Rim Trail, which offers some of the best scenery in the Mid-Atlantic.

LEARN MORE: THE FRACAS ABOUT FRACKING

Although the Hammersley Wild Area is protected from drilling and mineral extraction, many other forests in Pennsylvania face threats from natural gas development, specifically hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking” involves drilling wells and injecting water, sand, and a number of toxic chemicals at high pressure to cause shale rocks to release natural gas. The negative environmental impacts of this process may include the contamination of ground and surface waters, noise and light pollution, and forest fragmentation through the creation of new roads and pipelines.

Compared to other states, Pennsylvania has a permissive environment for petroleum companies seeking to drill in state forests. But the cause for conserving such wild lands has recently crystallized around Anadarko Petroleum Corp.’s plans to drill near the Old Loggers Path, a beloved hiking and backpacking route in the Loyalsock State Forest. Anadarko is an especially bad actor: Pennsylvania has issued the company no fewer than 246 violations between 2009 and 2013, and its record of water pollution is among the worst in the state. If drilling is allowed to move forward, dozens of drilling pads, along with the roads and pipelines that accompany them, will seriously impact the forest surrounding the Old Loggers Path.

AMC encourages concerned citizens to educate themselves about this issue. One of the best ways hikers can help is by documenting the effects of fracking on the natural environments they cherish. If you are a frequent visitor to the area, you can visit our website to describe your visits (“Share your Marcellus Shale Story”), send your report to our partners at FracTracker (“Report Trail Impacts”), or read AMC’s policy on natural gas development (“Learn More”). FracTracker’s own website offers an excellent resource for those seeking to help. -MM


FURTHER READING

  • Download a map of the complete STS circuit, pulled from Michael Martin’s new guidebook.
  • For expert backpackers seeking an off-trail challenge along the STS, see a description by Michael Martin (with help from Chris Bell of the Susquehannock Trail Club) of a roughly 20-mile loop in the Hammersley Wild Area, complete with bushwhacking, map/compass/GPS work, and lots of exploring decades-old, disused CCC paths.

 

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Michael Martin

Michael Martin is author of AMC's Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to 30 of the Best Multiday Trips from New York to Virginia (AMC Books, 2014).