The trail is implacable: the terrain is what it is, the mile markers are at their appointed places, and no amount of tears, complaint, or wishful thinking will change either. - maevwyn's trail journal, 16 Sept. 2021
He drove himself, not madly, as one who did not know his limits, but as one who did, and thought he might pass them by a margin. - C.J. Cherryh, The Faded Sun: Kutath
The Laurel Highlands trail is a 70-mile hiking trail that runs roughly northeast-southwest in southwestern Pennsylvania. Mile 0 is in Ohiopyle state park in Ohiopyle; mile 70 is on Rte. 56 near Johnstown. There are eight shelter and camping areas along its length with pit toilets and water sources along the route, spaced between 6 and 12 miles apart. Dispersed camping is not allowed: if you intend to stay overnight on the trail, you must reserve either a shelter or a camping space. The shelters are very nice: they're wooden lean-tos with a raised floor, some hooks and a shelf or two, and a stone-built fireplace just outside the open side, facing in. It was warm enough while we were on the trail, but I could see camping in one in cold weather and being quite cozy.
Overall, it's a very well-maintained and well-marked trail. Possibly even over-marked in places: there was at least one stretch where I think every tree for about a hundred feet had a blaze painted on it. Trail blazes are yellow for the main trail and blue for the connector trails to the shelter and parking areas, and there are signposts at the junctions. The one or two places where we had to stop and look around for a marker the trail either turned sharply, or we had been so focussed on our footing that we hadn't looked ahead at all. It also has mile markers, short concrete pillars with the mile incised and painted yellow.
At some point in the last two or three years, having seen pictures of the trail on a hiking forum, losthuskie and I took it into our heads that we should hike it. It is a very beautiful trail; the pictures entirely did it justice. Originally, we thought we'd hike half of it: 35 miles seemed doable. At some point, though, we realised that since we'd have to stop at the shelter areas anyway, we could just through-hike the whole thing in nine days. We chose to go southbound, starting at mile 70, which I think (and several of the reviews I've read agree) is the best way to do it, for reasons that will become clear. Both of us have done a fair bit of hiking and backpacking, and we've done shorter backpacking trips together, so we were pretty sure we wouldn't kill each other halfway through. So we dehydrated food, gathered gear, tested gear, went on a lot of hikes all summer (including climbing Whiteface Mountain in the Adirondacks, but that's another story), and on 10 September we set out. The following is drawn from memory and my trail journal.
Day 0, Friday 10 September
Straight after work, we left for the Last Homely House, S and C's place near Pittsburgh. The two of them run a hospitable and civilised house and provided us with excellent logistical support: transportation to and from the trail, hot showers and comfortable lodgings afterwards, a 3 1/2 pound bag of beef jerky from C's recipe, and a good breakfast to send us off with.
Day 1, Saturday 11 September
Endpoint: Rte. 56 shelters, mile 64.9
The first leg of the trail, from the Rte. 56 trailhead to the first shelter site, is only just over five miles, so we weren't too worried about getting an early start. S and C dropped us off at the trailhead around 12:30 or so, and we set off. It's 5 miles of pretty steady uphill climbing - which we expected; it is the Laurel Highlands, after all - and there are some spectacular views off the left side of the trail of the Conemaugh River valley. There's a lot of mountain laurel along this stretch, some of it so tall that it arches over and encloses the trail in a tunnel.
The water source at this first site is a reasonably modern spigot. This will not be the case further on. The water sources aren't potable, so we had two water filters along. There was a certain earlier incident where a trip got cut short due to filter problems, so this time we brought a backup and went armed with better troubleshooting skills.
Day 2, Sunday 12 September
Endpoint: Rte. 271 shelters, mile 56.9
Our first full day, eight miles on the main trail, not counting the half-mile (approximately) connector trail out from the shelters and the connector at the other end. More on that one later. This section of the trail is all fairly open hardwood forest, mostly oak, with the floor covered in ferns. I should mention here that the entire area is very rich in mushrooms - losthuskie is a mushroom forager, and they were fascinated by the fungus varieties growing along the trail. We had hopes of finding some edible ones close by one of our stopping points.
We knew that this would be a longish day, although not the longest of the trip. What we hadn't accounted for is that the second shelter area, at Rte. 271, is a full mile off the main trail (we clocked it the next morning on the Husky's pedometer app). As a result, we got to the turnoff to the connector trail, thought "Oh good, we're almost there," and then walked. And walked. And passed the turnoff to the parking lot, and walked some more. There ensued a fair bit of swearing, followed by the conviction that the shelters were a myth and we were just going to go around in circles. The shelters did eventually appear, however, and we got settled in. There is no water source at this one - there's supposed to be one at the parking lot, but there was no way either of us was walking all the way there to find out. There is, however, a stream, so we filtered water out of that.
Day 3, Monday 13 September
Endpoint: Rte. 30 shelters, mile 46.5
The second-longest day, at 10.4 miles on the main trail, not counting connector trails. We were better prepared this morning for the mile walk back up to the main trail, and soon after turning onto it found ourselves passing through some really impressive and beautiful rock formations. Here, and in several other places further along, the trail winds through deep clefts and cracks in the rocks. One could make a good 4-5 mile day hike out of that section, starting from the Rte. 271 parking area, going up to the main trail, and turning southbound. The rocks are within a mile of the junction with the main trail.
At the end of this day, we learned our second lesson about paying attention to the map. On first glance, the elevation profile for the entire trail is pretty straightforward: you go up from mile 70 to about mile 65.4, go along the top of the highlands until you get to about mile 7.5, then go down, over a couple hills, and get to the end. That's more or less true, but the top is a lot rougher than it looks, cut through by streams and runoff. The slope up from the delightfully-named Card Machine Run was longer and steeper than we had realised, going up about 300 feet in half a mile. After this, we made a point of closely studying the elevation profile for the next day every evening - I have college textbooks I didn't read as closely as that map.
This evening we also encountered the water sources that would be a fixture of the remaining stops: a vintage, if not antique, long-armed pump painted green. This one took a good 25 or more strokes to raise water from whatever deep aquifer it's tapped into, which after a while became somewhat desperate: there is no stream running through this site, we hadn't crossed one in quite some time, and had no idea how far the next one might be. The pump did (eventually) work, however, and as it turned out we crossed a stream not too much further down the trail the next morning.
Day 4, Tuesday 14 September
Endpoint: Turnpike shelters, mile 38.2
A little over 8 miles of comparatively easy terrain. This stretch is the first time we saw conifers - everything up to this had been all broadleaf forest, primarily oak and beech; today we found stands of hemlock and spruce. In the afternoon, we passed Beam Rocks, which are evidently a destination for free climbers, given the posted signs saying (paraphrased) that the rocks are in their natural state, climb at your own risk, no permanent climbing hardware allowed. They are impressive enough formations, building-sized, set into the woods a little ways off the trail, but for me I liked the places where the trail runs right through nine- and ten-foot clefts in the rocks better.
Another pump at the shelters: this one was easier to get water out of, but the water here is very mineral-heavy, especially iron - it's orange. The filters we have do a good job of with biological contaminants, but don't do much for minerals; we had several days of water that tastes like pennies. For future reference, filtering out of a stream when there's one available might be better.
Today also marked the longest the two of us have spent on the trail in a single trip - our longest backpacking trips previously were three days. We had started with an agreement that we were going to get at least four days in unless something completely catastrophic forced us to bail, and by the end of this day we were feeling pretty optimistic about finishing the trail.
That night (I think; the chronology in my trail journal is a bit confused) there were multiple barred owls in the area, including two that seemed to be carrying on an extended discussion about something.
Day 5, Wednesday 15 September
Endpoint: Rte. 31 shelters, mile 32.5
This was the midpoint of our adventure, both in time and space: the fifth day of nine, and the day we passed the 35 mile mark. We also crossed over the PA turnpike - the trail crosses a number of back roads and unpaved access roads, but the turnpike crossing has a big concrete bridge over the highway.
This was also one of the shortest days, only 5.7 miles on the main trail, but not necessarily any easier for it. We had warning that there were storms moving in that day, so we got an early start and planned on making the best time we could to the next shelter. The terrain along this stretch is fairly rough, with some pretty steep elevation changes near the turnpike. I was leading - while neither of us are fast hikers, we had discovered in the first couple days that I set a pace both of us can keep up all day, whereas losthuskie will not only leave me behind, they won't be able to sustain their own pace for too long - and we got into the next shelter before noon with the weather still clear. We settled ourselves in the shelter with clean water and a good stack of firewood: both of us carry multitools with saw blades, which did a good job of breaking up some of the larger deadfalls. The shelter sites also come equipped with log splitters, so we carried a couple log sections up and split those.
On the way into the site, losthuskie had spotted some very nice hericium (lion's mane) mushrooms and picked them. I was, at that point, deep into a very focussed state of "there are storms coming, we need to get to shelter", and was considerably less excited about this - I think the words were, "I'm sorry, I can't get excited about mushrooms right now." However, once we had acquired shelter and fire for the afternoon, they were very good buttered (we carried a tiny container of ghee for exactly this eventuality) and roasted.
After all that, the storms passed north of us and we got nothing more than some overnight rain, but at least we had a good afternoon resting and left the shelter well-stocked with firewood.
Day 6, Thursday 16 September
Endpoint: Grindle Ridge shelter, mile 24
This was, at least for me, one of the hardest days of the entire hike. Eight and a half rough, hilly miles, part of it through a ski slope, ending with one last climb up to the shelters.
Part of our planning every evening for the next day was deciding where the lunch break would be: we preferred to break slightly past the halfway point for the day, and would pick a mile marker intending to stop at the nearest convenient point to take off our packs and eat lunch. For this stretch, according to the map, the highest point on the trail - with a view - was just past mile marker 27. That meant hiking about 5.5 miles before lunch, with three more to go after. The previous day we hadn't stopped at all, and had covered the entire six-ish miles for the day before lunch, so this seemed reasonable.
Somewhere around mile 28, the trail passes into the Seven Springs ski area. Soon after, it ends up following the ski area's service roads for a mile or so. This was absolutely miserable hiking: gravel roads, which are uncomfortable to walk on in the best of circumstances, unrelentingly uphill, and - it being a clear, sunny day - in direct sunlight the entire time. This is the first time I can remember that I pushed myself so hard that I cried from exertion.
There is no marker for the highest point on the trail on the ground.
We got off the ski slope, back under the trees, and stopped on a pair of convenient rocks to eat lunch. There are some spectacular views off the ski slope, which I wasn't really in a good mindset to appreciate. And in the end, the final climb up to the shelter wasn't as bad as expected.
Day 7, Friday 17 September
Endpoint: Rte. 653 shelters, mile 18.5
The shortest day other than the first one: only five and a half fairly easy miles. Once again, we chose to hike straight through; there didn't seem to be much point in stopping for lunch in such a short distance. More ambitious through-hikers than us skip one or more of the shelter areas: we met someone at the Rte. 30 shelters who was planning on finishing it in five or six days, having already hiked the first 20+ miles on his first day. We did pause, though, just before mile marker 21, where there's a truly amazing view to the north off an impressive formation of water-worn rocks.
Whether due to good karma or beneficent trail gods, we found a good supply of firewood at this shelter. Since we had the time, we lit a fire to dry out: while it didn't rain, the entire week was humid enough that everything ended up perpetually damp.
This was the first time anyone showed up at the shelters to check on permits; we met a very friendly park ranger who verified that we had reserved the shelter we were in, and stopped to chat for a while.
Day 8, Saturday 18 September
Endpoint: Ohiopyle shelters, mile 6.3
The longest day of the hike, at 12.2 miles, and the start of the roughest section. Knowing that it would be a long day, we planned two breaks, one at mile 14 for second breakfast and another at mile 10 for lunch. For the most part, it wasn't a hard day, just very long. The last mile, though, is the beginning of the hardest section of the trail, and was fully as hellish as expected. It slants down the side of the ridge, drops about 1,000 feet in a mile - which puts it on a par with the harder Adirondack trails - and is entirely covered in ankle-turning loose rock. We made it down without mishap, though, and set up for our last night on the trail.
Day 9, Sunday 19 September
Enpoint: Ohiopyle trailhead, mile 0
This section of the trail, through Ohiopyle State Park, is known to be the hardest. Going southbound, it goes down further from the last shelter, up and over a hill, back down and then up and over another hill, before finally descending to the trailhead. If we had started from this end, I think we would have bailed out on the second day; the only thing that kept us going was knowing that we were within a few miles of the end and the only way out was to keep going forward. The trail here is much rougher than it is anywhere else, and almost washed out in a few places.
There was a forest fire in this area that closed part of the trail in the late spring, and the effects are still visible: there's a swath of charred trees and new growth.
We planned stops on both of the hilltops to rest - S and C weren't expecting to see us until midafternoon, and we knew it was going to be hard going. After the second, around mile 2.5, we started our way down the hill, and walked. And walked. And eventually, losthuskie said, "Do you think we missed mile marker 2? We should have passed it by now, right?"
"You know, I was thinking that, but I'm afraid to say anything in case we go around a turn and see it."
So we walked on a bit further, and found mile marker 1. Either we were so intent on our footing going down the hill that we never saw marker 2 (which is possible), or it fell down the slope (which is also possible, given how washed out sections of the trail are).
We reached mile marker 0 right around 3pm. S and C were waiting for us at the Falls City Pub, which is a couple hundred yards from the end of the trail, right by the parking lot. I think it's a good restaurant, but at that point anything that wasn't dehydrated was going to taste good.
So, was it worth doing? Absolutely. It was an amazing experience. I was not sure that I could hike for nine days straight and close to 13 miles in a day, and I found out that I can.
Would I do it again? Absolutely not. We're both agreed that nine days on the trail is too long. 5 - 7 days is the limit we're willing to consider, and there are lots of places left on the list.