Day One: 5 Night Miles to the Decker Shelter and 19 Miles to Rt. 30/Walat’s
When Claudio hit me up to join him on a complete hike of the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), I smiled. Just like him, I had the LHHT on my list of must-hike Pennsylvania trails. I had also been a little scared off logistically of taking a 8-10 person DC UL group of backpackers on the LHHT because of the need to make shelter area reservations, even for hikers with their own tents and hammocks. Claudio’s timing was excellent. I didn’t have anything planned yet for July and was itching to get a long weekend trip in to break the COVID monotony. Tarzan (Claudio’s a 2017 AT NOBO 2K thru-hiker who earned his trail name for crazy stunts and sounds in the woods) and I had last been on the trail together in an amazing Shenandoah National Park cabin hike, during which he showed up and made potato pancakes, bacon, hummus, and drinks for the whole team in one of the most generous and delicious displays of trail magic I had ever encountered. Why yes, I would happily hike with him again.
Claudio/Tarzan made our official LHHT shelter area reservations with PA’s Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR). We settled on three full days of hiking, capped by a bookend late night and early morning of hiking to finish off the two main climbs up and back down the Laurel Highlands ridge. Come game day on July 15, we drove ourselves out from Northern Virginia after work. We met initially at the southern trail terminus in Ohiopyle to drop my car off and drove ourselves up to the northern terminus near Seward, PA. Let the trail begin, we said to ourselves as we cheers-ed our first beers, packed a few more in, and signed into the trail register at 9:00 p.m. to begin our southbound hike.
Darkness fell and we hiked up the ridge and into the woods together. The coronavirus, work, family, and everything else faded away as the fireflies came out and the town lights twinkled 2,000 feet below. We completed our first five or so miles to reach the Decker shelter area at around 11:00 p.m. Along the way we took in a late twilight view at the first power line clearcutting and tried to figure out what power source the electricity plant down below was fueled by. Hydro seemed a good choice with the rivers in the area but we were also in coal country. We turned left off the ridge and the LHHT proper with its yellow blazes and stone mile markers and onto our first blue-blazed connector trail, careful not to disturb any sleeping hikers as we de descended into the shelter area. We realized that we had the entire place to ourselves after a quick inspection. Not too surprising for a Wednesday evening, we thought, but we hoped for more neighbors as the days went on. Tarzan and I are pretty social dudes.
Each shelter area on the LHHT consists of half a dozen or so 2-4 person Adirondack three-sided wooden buildings with close-up fireplaces designed to keep them toasty in the chillier parts of the year. Firewood was provided so no need to hack or disturb the forest. Seeing as how we were facing 80s heat for much of our trip, we were happy to grab tent spot reservations for our hike instead. The shelter areas were also luxuriously equipped with bathrooms, water pumps (despite being a bit rusty in coloration and taste), trash cans, and an abundant supply of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Look, this isn’t quite normal for trails we hike. But we would take it and we would appreciate it. Each night, we were all too happy to set our beloved UL shelters up. Tarzan rocked a new Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid (with inner net/floor). I opted for my Yama Mountain Gear Cirriform for my choice. Both, of course, are made out of Dyneema Cuben Fiber for weight-conscious folks like us who also want complete weather and bug protection. We should have gone straight to bed, seeing as how it was late and our plan was to be back up at 5:30 a.m. But no, we had beers and whiskey to drink. And some catching up to do. We hit the sack – quilt, really – close to 2:00 a.m. . . .
5:30 a.m. came around and we leapt up to greet the trail despite the lack of sleep. We were a bit nervous about water sources for the day and took advantage of an unknown trail angel who dropped some water bottles off at the LHHT intersection with the connector trail, which we had spotted the evening before. Once on the trail in our hiking groove, Tarzan was moving a bit faster than me but happy to stop along the way to let me catch up. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have seen him until camp each day. The ridge forest of the trail was a feast of fascinating sandstone rock formations, an expansive open fern understory decorated with sassafras and young bushes, and a wide-range of mature trees, including several oak and maple species, beech, and the towering tulip poplar. There was also the occasional ash, Cucumber magnolia, hickory, and young American chestnut (the latter destined to die as it grew thanks to the blight), as well as thickets of hemlock, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. It was all second/third/or even fourth growth forest, with some logging still going on in the area, but it was well-maintained and forested at this point in time. The trail itself was clear and well-marked throughout. Thanks DCNR!
We came upon our very first hiker on the trail mid-morning and discovered it was none other than Georgetta, an area local who is very active hiking and maintaining the LHHT. She had connected with Tarzan on the LHHT’s informative Facebook group page and came out to meet us out-of-staters in person. Trails in general are amazing places to meet like-minded people. With Georgetta, we went from complete strangers to friends in a matter of hours. Not all the virtues of backpacking in the woods are provided by mother nature. Good folks are tough to come by in general but easily spotted on the trail. Georgetta was an excellent ambassador for the LHHT. Her accomplishments on the trail include a three-day complete hike with gear and even a 36-hour fastpack version. After a dozen total miles or so, Georgetta said goodbye and hiked back to her car. Not before giving us some great advice to make sure we used the shelter access road that night to sneak over to a little bar on the side of the road a short distance from camp.
That same the morning we crossed paths with an extended family heading north for their hike of the LHHT – and with quite the story. They should have been high in the Alps hiking together on the Tour du Mont Blanc. But no, the coronavirus-ransacked world had other plans for them. The LHHT was their vacation runner up spot. They wouldn’t be the first or last to turn to it when grander plans fell through. A father and son we met on our last night should have been in New Mexico with the boy scouts.
Georgetta must have been our good luck weather charm. As soon as she left the sky grumbled with thunder and turned grey. Then the rain came, light at first but increasing in intensity. Tarzan wetted out his rain jacket in the heat and marched happily along in the storm. I pulled out my hiking umbrella and gave myself a little extra reprieve. I knew for sure that with summer conditions I didn’t want to put another layer on while continuing to hike, though I did pack a rain shell as important emergency gear. The umbrella was just about perfect for me.
We pulled into the Rt. 30 shelter area in the afternoon and, inspired by the idea of a bar, quickly set up our shelters and marched off along the access road. We saw one other group in a nearby shelter drying their gear and invited them to the bar but they politely declined (we are gentlemen and did not want to keep this information all to ourselves). Though we came out to the woods to get away from it all, we absolutely couldn’t dream of passing up a beer at a bar if the trail gods so desire to put one within striking distance.
We walked into Walat’s and had the time of our lives for a couple hours. Walat’s, you see, is a great old school biker bar with pool tables and the lived in feel that makes all such establishments welcoming. But Walat’s takes that up a notch or five with the liveliness and spunk of its owner/operator, Marty. We were welcomed into R-rated banter with Marty and the regulars at the bar within the first few minutes. I’ve been in more than my share of trail bars before. Walat’s is up there with the best of them. Claudio/Tarzan even attempted to eat the whole portion of one of their famous ham sandwiches and failed spectacularly. After several beers and shots, we said goodbye and went back to camp. There we took advantage of an empty Adirondack shelter to make a fire and dry our stuff out too. We figured if someone showed up with a reservation for that particular dwelling, we would simply welcome them with a roaring fire and head back over to our tents. But like the night before, the shelter area was mostly empty. The rain started again as we drank our trail whiskey, smoked cigars, and enjoyed the evening.
Day Two: 22 Miles to Grindle Ridge (And Bonus Evacuation Mile)!
5:30 a.m. again. Our longest trail day before us. Blessedly, this one also crossed a road with some drinking and eating options in the afternoon, which we would not pass up. Sure, this meant that I over-packed food for the trip (Tarzan was smarter about it and anticipated our stops). But it was sure bound to taste good by mid afternoon. On the trail we hit the amazing stone cliffs of Beam Rock mid-morning and began to explore a bit. We even picked up some trash left by some naughty day hikers. When departing the area, Tarzan spotted a side trail to the summit. In a major trail mistake, I urged us forward instead of going to the top. I should have known that you never pass up a summit opportunity on the trail. Ever. Yet there I was blowing it. And blow it I did. We found out later that someone had hiked up to the top with bagpipes around that very same time and played a little concert at the top. I shake my head now as I type. I cost us a summit AND bagpipes. Unforgivable.
We enjoyed the miles of the day, particularly some really gorgeous hemlock and rhododendron forest in bloom, and eventually crossed the aforementioned road and the Highlands Market in the high heat of the afternoon. While not a bar or restaurant per se, the Highlands Market was an upscale deli and store selling beer and wine for the nearby ski resort of Seven Springs. We got sandwiches and a few beers to enjoy in yard. I even packed some beer out for the evening too. I was more than happy to keep lugging extra food weight for such goodies.
With that, we hit the trail again and the several miles through the Seven Springs resort and ski slopes. This ended up being one of the most fascinating sections of the trip. Seven Springs has horse stables along the way, not to mention ski slopes themselves literally on the trail. It was pretty empty for our summer hike but I can only imagine how cool it would be to stroll through in the winter dodging skis and snowboarders. We took a little break at the top of the resort, at their “Lake Tahoe” and thought a little bit about jumping in for a dip, though signs warned against it. We ended up behaving and boringly chatting about whether or not we had kept up our Wilderness First Aid certification. Tarzan had. I needed to take a refresher course. We also noticed on our map that we were at the highest point on the entire trail. Good place for a ski resort!
We smiled and set off to finish our last couple miles of the long, sweaty 22-mile day. After being alone on the trail for most of the day, we bumped into two groups right before the shelter: a mother and son and a young couple from Pittsburgh both out for just a night or two. The young couple, I thought, gave us an odd look as we passed them. The mother and son, on the other hand, were gregarious and friendly from the start. We would all end up staying at the same Grindle Ridge shelter area that night, but not before a startling event that brought all of us together.
Tarzan and I spotted a body collapsed on the rocks on the steep slope of the trail heading out of the narrow Blue Hole stream gulley. We also saw a strange mechanical device next to him. We raced over, the oddity of us talking about Wilderness First Aid only an hour before flitting through both of our minds. We thought he was dead when we first got near him based on the awkward angle of his body plus his pale and still face. I was thankful to hear a slight snoring sound upon closer inspection. We woke him up and got him sitting up after a quick check. He was in full helmet and padding. If he hadn’t have been equipped like that, who knows what would have happened. As it was, he was in bad shape. He was pale, dehydrated, and clearly concussed. It took him about half an hour of talking before he stopped repeating himself. He also had no memory of his accident. The contraption turned out to be a Back to the Future-looking motorized skateboard that the guy himself had built. This trail was absolutely not made for such things and it exacted its revenge with some well-placed rocks to fling him from his board.
The mother backpacker went ahead after we got the injured guy’s father’s cell number. We debated whether or not to get rangers and medical professionals out to him but once we determined that we could walk him the mile or so to a nearby road we thought it probably better to get him to the hospital with family. The plan was to get reception at the ridge and call to arrange a pickup on the forest road. The young couple sheepishly noted that they had seen him on the trail before we got there (they had been coming from the shelter area direction on a day hike out and back) and just thought he was sleeping. Tarzan gave them a little grief for that, because it was more than obvious that he was not sleeping. But that’s for them to deal with and hopefully make a different decision in the future. They were young. I gave the injured guy my remaining water, charged his dead iPhone, and began to get him ready to walk out. Tarzan grabbed the heavy machine skateboard and I took the dude’s arm and kept his balance as we made our way out of the valley and eventually to the forest road. There we met his family and gave them details of how we found him. Our best guess is that he was unconscious for an hour after getting lost on hiking trails when they intersected the Seven Springs resort trails. It wouldn’t have surprised me if dehydration led to the decision making and crash. Tarzan made use of his time to check out the board. He confirmed that it had quite the zip to it.
Once back at the shelter area, Tarzan and I set up near the others on a couple flat tent spots and enjoyed our hard-earned beer and whiskey. Later in the evening we heard back from his father that he went for a cat scan that revealed the concussion but no serious or internal injuries. Lucky dude! A couple DCNR rangers stopped by as well to check camp reservations. Our papers were in order and we told the two rangers, who could have stepped right out of central casting with burly physiques and big beards, about the injury situation. They took his and our info to check in on him. One of the rangers was about to move away when he looked at Tarzan’s Duomid and said, “Is that a Zpacks shelter?” Close but no cigar! We informed him of the glory that is Mountain Laurel Designs and Yama Mountain Gear. He responded that he could talk gear all night. We know the feeling, ranger dude!
Day Three: 18 Miles to the Ohiopyle Shelter Area
Guess what? 5:30 a.m. again. We were a bit slower getting out of camp because of the trip totality of heat, extra miles, and extra sips. Also, we only had 18 miles for the day and no beer establishments to be rushing off to. In another surprise, we crossed paths with Georgetta again, who was out with a group of friends for the weekend but heading the opposite direction. Brand new in the area and already bumping into old friends!
We were greeted by our very first spectacular vista of the trip in the morning. This one was complete with scenic rock formations below and the sweep of valley and ridges out before us. The rock of the outcrop was even naturally molded by centuries of wind and rain into seat-like hollows to sit on. We excitedly glanced at our map and saw a couple more potential vistas later in the day marked with scenic picture markers. If they were going to be like this, we thought, we were in for a treat! As we hiked we passed a lovely pond that was just a bit too mucky for an appealing dip but worked for a quick break. It was right after an interesting bit of recently logged forest that was left with hand-selected trees to build back the area. I’ve become really fascinated by forestry lately and this definitely struck me as a well-done project.
We continued on in the elevating heat (our hottest trail day so far), eager to hit the view points on the map. Tarzan left me messages in the dirt to encourage my progress, including his new catchphrase I helped to supply him with: “Hey, I’m Italian!” But we were saddened in the end by the lack of actual viewpoints at the noted spots when we arrived there. Lovely forest, sure, and a bit of a slight view. Nothing to write home in the report, alas, nor a place to extend our hike and afternoon before heading into camp. We scooted along and hit the steep decline linking us with the Ohiopyle shelter area connector trail and settled in for a relaxing evening. We had plenty of whiskey on us, thank goodness. We also were excited to stay at a shelter area that we knew from other hikers was fully booked for the night.
The Ohiopyle shelter area had a good reputation, though maybe more for proximity to the scenic southern end of the trail than for anything else, but we struggled to find ideal tent spots despite being among the first backpackers there. The shelter area was dispersed along a creek valley that made for lovely ambiance but more sloped ground than is desired for most ground shelters. We occupied a couple central spots right on the connector trail and took over the picnic table. It was an excellent spot to greet fellow backpackers arriving over the late afternoon. We met a group of young guys from St. Louis, a couple father/son duos, and a pair of hammockers who had no issues with the inclined ground. Some were doing the entire trail heading north and just starting off. A few others were just out for the night. One walked over to Tarzan’s Duomid and said, “Zpacks?” No, we laughed. In a twist later, another asked if my hiking umbrella was made by Six Moons Designs (another fine UL company). We laughed again. Turns out that the umbrella WAS actually Zpacks. To be fair, all hiking umbrellas seem to be the same design.
Day Four: 6 Miles to Ohiopyle State Park and the Youghiogheny River Gorge. The End.
I won’t lie. As much as I like long multi-day hiking trips, I love short final days. The terrain of the final southern six LHHT miles were the most difficult of the trail because of high elevation gains and losses. Most of the rest of the LHHT, in contrast, was fairly flat for PA standards. But six miles is six miles. We finished up before 10:00 a.m. even while enjoying some rock vistas along the way. We also got lapped by a mountain marathoner sprinting by us. Once back down in Ohiopyle, we were reunited with civilization. Most of the folks we saw were getting ready to hit the river on rafts and kayaks. Others were enjoying a scenic trail town at the intersection of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage. From here, one could cycle or hike all the way to DC in the distance or finish up in the middle of Pittsburgh going the other way. It certainly appeared that Ohiopyle has something for everyone. Heck, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater home is right up the street.
Sadly for us, the bars weren’t open yet. We settled for delicious breakfast sandwiches and an amazingly refreshing dip in the fast, cold current of the river. I drove us the hour plus drive north to Tarzan’s car. Along the way we tried to find a beer but our booze luck wasn’t with us. Instead, we stumbled upon great “Southern Yankee BBQ” in Seward and got our meal to go so we could eat it back at our starting point on the LHHT at Laurel Ridge State Park. Good food and company could take the place of a beer in a pinch.
The LHHT was a great trail. Despite high heat forecasts for most of the region, it was pleasant at the top of the ridge. A cool breeze, tree cover, and 2,000 plus elevation took the edge off the sun. I would recommend our south direction and splits for other backpackers, though I would note that it wouldn’t have been hard to add the final six miles on to the third full day (or the first five to the first full day). A big thanks to Claudio/Tarzan for inviting me. I would hit the trail with him again any time. The only problem with him is that he regaled me with some truly inspiring AT thru-hiking stories on our trip. More than ever, I want to rush out to hike for four months instead of settling for four days.