DC UL Backpacking Trip Report By Yours Truly

This was a fun trip to plan.  Sharon, Karan, and I looked closely at maps of the Mid State Trail (MST) and Standing Stone Trail (SST) confluence in Rothrock State Forest a few weeks back and designed a loop with no car-shuttling required to make for an epic little return to one of our favorite hiking areas of Pennsylvania.  Then we assembled a fine team of DC UL veteran members, took proper COVID-19 planning precautions into consideration, and launched our three-day 53 mile “Mid-Stone Loop” on Thursday night, June 18.

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We hope this loop gets some use in years to come.  It removes the need to car shuttle, which is endemic when hiking the end-to-end MST and SST.  It also puts together some really great sections of trail, complete with excellent camping options for groups willing to arrange a motorized campsite permit and state park reservation.  Plus it’s only three hours from DC.  For our particular adventure, an early dramatic driving challenge, a powerful Friday afternoon storm, and the surprise inclusion of several family members on our final, festive night together made for a memorable time.

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We arrived separately (for the most part) to our prearranged campsite for the evening not far from Hunter’s Rocks in the Rocky Ridge Natural Area, a popular climbing location resplendent with groovy rock formations.  To make sure we camped legally and comfortably, I called ahead to the ranger station a few weeks prior to arrange a permit for “Motorized Campsite #7.”  It should have been a no fuss first night.  Google maps intervened to present a little water hazard, however.  Most of us were routed to a dirt road with a swollen stream running across it.  Others found another road to the campsite.  I decided to test the water-crossing skills of my Jeep Renegade.  It started fine with only a few inches of water.  I dropped into low four-wheel drive and slowly made my across.  Dramatically, the stream deepened by a couple feet in its final few yards and I found myself pushing through water that splashed over the hood.  Fears of what my wife would say about this misguided decision aside, the Renegade pulled through with high marks and no issues.  Phew.https://video.wordpress.com/embed/3PE3ENcJ?hd=0&autoPlay=0&permalink=0&loop=0

Once at Motorized Campsite #7 at the end of Frew Road, we greeted each other warmly and settled in for the night.  Greg, the only hiker I hadn’t met prior to this adventure, was the accidental recipient of a full, normal handshake from me.  It was the first such greeting of a stranger for both of us in months.  It was not planned nor wise.  It just happened.  Karan had a lovely fire going.  Even more amazing, Sophie pulled out a 40 year old bottle of whiskey (seriously) and cupcakes to mark the 40th birthday celebration she had intended to surprise me with in late February before the world fell apart.  The team even sang.  Let’s say a bit more about this 40 year old bottle.  When Sophie first said she had it, I thought 1) she must be kidding or 2) I hope she didn’t spend $10,000 on such a bottle.  Turned out that Sophie had procured from her father-in-law’s spirits collection . . . a bottle of Tullamore Dew purchased in 1980.  It was an excellent relic of another era of labels and just as good as when it was acquired.  We capped the night with some classic midsummer traditions such as leaping over a roaring fire.  Brian jokingly decided it was “a weekend of bad ideas.”

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I yelled us awake at 5:30 a.m. the next morning with a full-throated “Make DC UL Great Again!” and off we went for our day of hiking.  We hiked northbound on the SST through the Rocky Ridge Natural Area and marveled at the rock formations and blooming mountain laurel for a couple miles.

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We turned off of Frew Rd on Martin Gap Rd.  Thus began our 10ish miles of road walking across a couple narrow valleys to connect with the Stone Valley Recreation Area and Lake Perez.  (Full route:  https://caltopo.com/m/D02L)  We feared featureless highways and a sun baking our will to live.  We actually got scenic rolling farmland hills and cooler than expected weather.

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Nearby the street intersection with the actual Standing Stone Road we invited a local on her porch to join us.  She politely declined.  A particular highlight for us was Brian’s memorized rendition of Dr. Seuss’ the Lorax while we walked along and caught up with each other.  We enjoyed a lovely scenic view next to to a Penn State Experimental Forest area working on blight-resistance American Chestnut.

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We rolled into Lake Perez earlier than anticipated and settled in for a couple hours of lounging by the water and avoiding a few drops of rain by snacking in one of the pavilions.

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We then picked up the Ironstone Loop trail and excessively hydrated as we hiked up the ridge in increasingly hotter afternoon sun.  Shane dropped back and surprised us with an announcement when he caught back up that he was lugging seven liters of water.  We intended to camp dry on the ridge and he wasn’t taking any chances.  The final ascent to the MST and Tussey Mountain ridge was up a somewhat vertical climb on a stone step slope nicknamed the Indian Steps.  Thunder rumbled ominously across the heavens as we completed the climb.  At the top I rejoiced, happy to finally be on the MST again after a few years away from its rocky, quirky beauty.  Tussey Mountain welcomed us back with rocks galore and even a rattlesnake rattle in the nearby bushes.

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The thunder, unsurprisingly, ushered in a few drops of rain that cooled the late afternoon.  Then it steadily picked up and had most of us scrambling for rain gear or an umbrella.  Then it really picked up.  Trees were blowing sideways, rain was coming from all directions, and for about 15 minutes we endured a pummeling blast of wind on the ridge.  In the end, the timing of the storm at the conclusion of our approximately 22 miles of hiking was fortuitous.  If it had hit while setting up camp or even after our shelters were already up, it would have been tough to keep our belongings dry (particularly for me and my spartan tarp/bivy combo).  But it didn’t.  And though it would rain steadily for the rest of the evening, everyone was able to set up on and make dinner under our tarps.  No fire, sadly.  But still a bit of camaraderie as we chatted over dinner.  The last thing I remembered as I drifted off to sleep was Greg yelling out for a patching kit for his punctured air pad.  The always ready and reliable Shane offered up a spare set within seconds but Greg was not able to salvage much of his pad.  The rocks of the MST had struck again.

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5:30 a.m. came around again and greeted us with a misty landscape.  So misty that we were inspired to play Misty Mountain Hop as we packed up and hit the trail.  Unlike the road walk of the day before, this day was all about the MST and the SST.  This section was why we picked these trails for the weekend.  Most of us had hiked all or part of the MST as part of DC UL’s various section hike weekends a few years prior.  We reminisced and enjoyed familiar terrain.  Unfortunately, Jo Hays Vista and several other viewpoints were pretty clouded in but the surrounding landscape was still lush and worth it.  When we reached the other Ironstone Loop intersection with the MST we noted a pretty magnificent campsite.  (Were someone to hike this loop again and didn’t mind skipping part of the MST by staying down on the Ironstone Loop or instead continuing on to lengthen the day’s hike by a few more miles, this would have been a better site than on the rocky ridge.)  We followed the MST off the ridge for a few miles and then back up and eventually to Little Flat Fire Tower.  There we enjoyed some leisurely time together under the spruce glade at the foot of the tower.  On the way up Greg said to laughter that he “would do yoga for love.”  It actually was an appropriate comment for our conversation.  But I guess you had to be there.

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We paid our respects at the Tom Thwaites memorial, thanking him and all the many trail maintainers for the amazing Mid State Trail.  We strolled on and enjoyed hiking through the Thickhead Mountain Wild Area and Bear Meadows Natural Area.  Eventually we descended off the ridge and made our way down to Detwiler junction and the intersection with the SST.  It was sad to say goodbye to the MST after so short a reunion (28 kilometers total).  We met a day hiker and a couple thru hikers and wished them well as they turned left on the MST and we turned right to hike southbound on the SST’s Greenwood Spur.

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When I last hiked the Greenwood Spur as part of my section hike of the SST in 2018, I noted then that I longed to come back.  The deep rhododendron and hemlock of the Alan Seeger Natural Area were just as amazing the second time for me.  We took another long break by a perfect stream site and made sure to refill our water containers for the afternoon’s final climb and miles.  And what a climb it was.  The ascent up to Greenwood Fire Tower was our longest of the weekend at one of the hottest times of the day.  Lest we feel particularly proud of our little march up, a mountain marathoner lapped us a couple times going up and down the slope as he did his training rounds.

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At the top, Greg and Karan scampered up the tower and the rest of us took a break.  We were able to marvel at both the serene landscape around us and also the gaggle of shirtless 20-something dudes setting up tents and carrying in large coolers of beer.  Interestingly enough, Bryan (Wolverine) and Shane were nowhere to be found even after our second long break of the afternoon.  We figured they’d be fine and began our descent into Greenwood Furnace State Park, our destination for the night.

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The miles were pleasant, idyllic even, and we finished the day with fields opening up around Greenwood Lake.  I had promised the gang a place to swim at the end of our day.  Though it had been kind steamy at points, it ended up not being quite hot enough for a particularly pleasant swim.  Brian and I jumped in for a quick dip anyway.  While lounging by the pond and waiting for Bryan and Shane to show up, several amazing things — planned and unplanned — unfolded.

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First, Uncle Ed showed up with ice cream sandwiches and other tasty treats.  Uncle Ed, you see, is Greg’s uncle and a definite friend to the woods and hikers as an outdoorsman himself.  His appearance was a planned trail magic surprise.  He might have even visited us the evening before on the ridge had it not been for the storm.  We enjoyed his provisions and companionship throughout the night, including his assistance in helping us haul some purchased firewood to our forested tent site far in the back of the park’s camping area.

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Second, Brian’s laugh caught the attention of a completely serendipitous family walking by, and soon enough Brian celebrated an impromptu encounter with his sister and her family, who live two hours away and had no idea that Brian was even in PA for the weekend.  They joined us off and on throughout the evening, including at our festive fire area later that evening.  Shane and Bryan eventually showed up too.  Shane had made a wise personal decision to road walk around the Greenwood Tower climb when he realized he was behind.  Bryan was a bit beat up from the day of summer hiking and needed a night to refresh and recuperate.  He would be fine come morning.

It’s not normal for DC UL to avail itself of a campground in place of the rustic woods themselves but Greenwood Furnace State Park ended up being perfect.  We all had pleasant places to set up our shelters and enjoy the evening together with family, fire, and food.  As the previous night’s bed of rocks to sleep on reminded us, this area of PA is great for trail but not necessarily equipped with tons of adequate group backcountry campsites.  I would recommend it — and tent site 18B — to any future hikers.

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5:30 a.m. again.  This time we could smell the barn.  We sauntered out of Greenwood State Park in the early sunlight and nearly ended up turned around before Brian nudged us in the right direction southbound on the SST.  We enjoyed the jaunt up to Stone Valley Vista, where Sophie shared some catchy TikTok music, and then continued on the increasingly rocky trail.  This part of the SST is gorgeous.  Hemlock, ferns, mountain laurel, mulberry, beech, ash, maple and birch were all around.  This part of the SST is also rocky.  Really rocky.  The views throughout, particularly from the hawk viewing platform, were worth it but our feet were definitely taking a little extra damage after a weekend of marching out dozens of miles.

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We decided in the end to not re-hike the Rocky Ridge Natural Area on the SST and simply continued down Frew Road to our cars to complete our 53 miles for the weekend.  We even walked past the same day hiker we encountered on the MST the day before (different day hike for him) and noted how lucky he was to live in such a great place to enjoy the woods.  We nicknamed ourselves Frew hikers as we concluded our final road walk and journey.  I had to admit to a little bit of apprehension about whether my Jeep would turn on but it started up without an issue.

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We celebrated the Mid-Stone Loop the only way one should:  with a trip to O.I.P. in Huntingdon.  There we ordered entirely too much food and made ourselves at home under their outside porch.  Bryan spied a Taco Bell across the street and even helped himself to a walk-thru drive-thru taco while his pizza cooked.  A weekend well-hiked and a trail I’d certainly do again.  We recommend this adventure to anyone looking for a PA hiking experience that doesn’t need a car shuttle.  Give the Mid-Stone Loop a try.  Join us Frew hikers!

*Addendum:  Despite using Permethrin on my clothes prior to the hike and using normal tick prevention checks on the trail itself, I pulled two itty bitty buggers off me on the Tuesday following the trip.  They were so small they could only be identified after partially filling with blood.  The doctor prescribed a one-time dose of Doxycycline for good measure.  I’ll be on the lookout for any Lyme symptoms.*

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