Back at it with DC UL — Adventures in the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania

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Photo: Karan

Cross Posted from

You might ask how I accidentally ended up with a DC UL Backpacking crew. In this case, what started as a Purple Lizard map hike that I intended to do as yet another solo adventure in this time of socially distancing ended up being shared by email to a few backpacker pals just in case someone wanted to join me. The OG plan was to form a “pod” and car shuttle together for a point-to-point 50 mile trip along Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek gorge, the so-called Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. Brian said, “Sure!” Sophie too. Michael and Jen were all of a sudden free for the weekend. Heck, Kylie and Karan decided to stop by to camp Friday night. Claudio planned to join for Saturday. Things went from solo to a pseudo-DC UL group outing in the blink of an eye. Turned out that Pine Creek Outfitters preferred to shuttle our cars for us — rather than physically transport us as hikers. This meant we could all ride up on our own, keep our distance in the woods, and not even risk proximity by cramming in a van together. We just needed to have faith our cars would magically be transported . . .

(Once I thought of “Accidentally DC UL” on the trail, I couldn’t get my Gen X ear worm of Counting Crows out of my head. You’re welcome.)

You might also ask what a Purple Lizard map hike is.  The amazing folks of Purple Lizard stepped into the information void of the Mid-Atlantic by producing detailed trail maps, mostly of Pennsylvania and West Virginia so far.  With exhaustive maps like this, it’s easier than ever to creatively link established trails and notable areas to form extended outings.  The first such trip by me was our June “Mid-Stone Loop.”  For this trip, I realized that the 10-mile Golden Eagle Trail could be connected to the 30-mile West Rim Trail by hiking 11 scenic miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail.  Et voila, a Purple Lizard map hike. We joked about calling it the Eagle Pine Rim Trail. Trademark pending.

On Friday evening we made our way separately after work to a campsite Jen reserved near the Black Walnut Bottom camping area along Pine Creek. It was just a short drive from the Golden Eagle Trail parking area, where we would leave our cars for Pine Creek Outfitters to deliver north the next morning. Brian and I arrived late and randomly shared a beverage with a dad in the parking lot who happened to be biking past me as I offered a beer to Brian. (“I’ve had a few already but why not!” said Chris, our new friend.)

With the DC UL crew snoring already amongst the pines, Brian and I successfully roused Karan for a night cap before bedding down. Karan broke the news to us that he had recently suffered a freak shoulder injury and would not be able to do the whole trail with us, just the Golden Eagle loop in the morning.

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The whole gang, albeit briefly

We got up early and parked our cars with keys carefully left according to instructions negotiated with Pine Creek Outfitters. Claudio appeared after having driven overnight. In true Tarzan fashion, he had already made himself a full breakfast in the back of his pickup with a portable grill and shook off his two hours of sleep. He laughed when he saw me and realized I didn’t have any phone signal overnight. He had — now ironically — left me a stream of messages over whether or not he would make it. We all set off on the gorgeous Golden Eagle Trail, a ten mile loop known for being one of the best of its kind in Pennsylvania — thanks no doubt to views extending into the Pine Creek gorge. We met a day hiker who joined our group for the morning and encouraged her to become a DC UL regular. Sadly, after completing our ten miles it was time to say goodbye to Claudio, Kylie, Karan, and our new friend. But not after a beer together in the parking lot! Our cars had yet to be whisked off.

Golden Eagle Trail Photos by Karan

Jen, Michael, Sophie, Brian, and I started north on Pine Creek Rail Trail, a 62 mile former railroad along Pine Creek. Our 11 miles on it took us past lovely scenery, sandwiches at Wolfe’s General Store (where Kylie, Karan, and Claudio yet again stopped by for lunch), and the Cedar Run Inn. Bikers passed on with smiles every few minutes. Though 60 miles of flat terrain would be a bit much to backpack, sharing this short segment felt perfect. We like deep woods but we love Pennsylvania rustic hospitality. In the late afternoon we finished on the rail trail and hiked into the forest to camp for the evening and start the West Rim Trail the next morning. I grabbed some water from Pine Creek itself. Seemed appropriate to drink some of it if we were going to be either walking along it, staring at it from lofty heights, or otherwise experiencing its geological impact all weekend.

Our campsite was spacious beneath a thick grove of pines. Sophie had a bit of a shock, however, when she realized her tent poles had begun to snap. Jen and Brian helped her MacGyver a fix for the evening with some tape and a trekking pole. We got a little roaring fire going and enjoyed our whiskey supplies whilst catching up with each other. Come the morning, Sophie realized our fix had made things worse: her rain fly was now punctured. Expecting some rain for our final night on the trail (thanks to Cheryl, who relayed the weather report to me through my Garmin GPS satellite connection) we made notional plans for Sophie to sleep under Brian’s hammock tarp if we couldn’t patch her tent up.

The West Rim Trail, one of the jewels of Pennsylvania’s hiking crown, is a 30-mile point-to-point hike that follows the Pine Creek gorge. On a long holiday weekend in peak foliage season, we anticipated it would be crowded. It was. But by us starting it northbound on Sunday rather than Saturday with our unique itinerary, we both smiled at other southbound groups on the trail as we passed but otherwise still felt as if we had the place to ourselves. The only folks hiking our direction were a pair of day hikers who started at 7:00 a.m. with us and kept catching up with our crew when we took breaks. The five of us enjoyed grand vistas of autumn gold and orange. All of the red sugar maple leaves, unfortunately, had just fallen. I guess this is what was meant by “starting to fade.” The red forest floor was pleasant enough of a contrast.

The Eye Of Sauron (apparently)

At our mile 14 for the day, we regrouped at the Bradley Wales Picnic Area, a spot that promised a water pump and bathrooms. The two day hikers finished up behind us and were done for their day. When I walked up to the picnic area, Sophie was chatting with two other backpackers waiting for a ride. They had accidentally left their keys behind and needed a friend to come shuttle them. Despite their mistake, they were friendly and full of smiles as we hung out together and discussed living in Pennsylvania. Sophie informed me glumly that the water pump was locked. I was a little sad — even mad for a second. I thought it irresponsible for the forest service folks to lock a water pump during such a dry time of year in which water sources on the trail were few and far between. I walked over, noted the lock attached to a side pipe on the rusted pump, and then started to pump. Oh hey, it wasn’t actually locked after all! The pump itself, pulling water from 250 feet below (per the sign), was a doozy. My little arms weren’t quite up to the task on their own so I had to do a little jumping action to put my weight into it. The water was delicious.

Sophie decided to use the serendipitous meeting of the two backpackers waiting for keys to call an early end to her hike. She was worried about her shelter in the coming rain and would simply hail a ride and go back to her car to drive home. We said goodbye and the four of us finished out our final four miles for the day to camp at a high and dry vista site. I was now the only ground shelter of the group. I set up on a nice patch of moss. Michael, Jen, and Brian slung their hammocks in the trees. In no time, a fire was roaring again. Twilight fell in the lovely Pine Creek gorge. Sadly, our lengthy evening the night before had drained our whiskey reserves a little more than desired. Michael declared it “The Great Whiskey Shortage of 2020.” I felt personally responsible as the party member nicknamed Whiskey Fairy. Usually I bring a lot so folks can share. But in this time of social distancing I took half my normal amount and was unable to provide golden libations for our crew.

As Cheryl had accurately relayed through my Garmin, the rain started up in the middle of the night. Though threatened as Hurricane Delta remnants, all that reached northern Pennsylvania was a light drizzle. We packed up in a pleasant mist and enjoyed the clouds throughout our final 12 miles of the day. Near the end we had a little dance party at Barbara Rock.

We met a couple pairs of backpackers from DC on the final stretch. Turns out the DMV is well represented in the north woods! We finished out our hike with a road mile or so from the northern terminus of the West Rim Trail to Pine Creek Outfitters itself. We were relieved to see our cars right where they were supposed to be.

I would say that this was yet another Purple Lizard map hike for the win. I think all of us took turns perusing our maps during breaks and dreaming up other trail combinations in the area. The Mid State Trail, Black Forest Trail, and other notable day hikes are resplendent in greens and blues on the high quality map. We got a great lead from a local trail maintainer (hi Peter!) for a side trail to a little gem of a backcountry spot nicknamed “Little Italy” to inspire some future ideas. Next time, PA.

“Come on, come on
Hike a little faster
Come on, come on
The world will follow after
Come on, come on
‘Cause everybody’s after trails . . .”

-Accidentally DC UL

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