Intro. No more weekend warrior section hiking for us. We graduated to whole week warriors for the final 115 miles of the Tuscarora Trail — and threw on another 10 miles on the Appalachian Trail to boot so we could rock out with thru-hikers on our last night (and, you know, get back to our car). It was fitting that Claudio, Kyle, and I, or, as we signed at trail registers throughout the week, Tarzan, Water Dog, and Whiskey Fairy — the Three Shakes Gang — completed this section hike together. The plan: an 8 mile Saturday and 10 mile Friday to begin and end the trip, and five days averaging 20 miles to zip along the various ridges of the Pennsylvania Tuscarora Trail. The highs: near perfect weather for late May/early June, great trail camaraderie and drinks (schlepped, cached, and procured en route), and a fine selection of nature, history, and PATC shelters to lift the soul. The lows: slippery, torturous, slow-going stretches of rock at times and an occasionally overgrown trail snarling at our legs and sense of direction — that and a couple stretches where we had to carry upwards of 6-7 liters of water a piece. The end: a glorious week of hiking and a completion of our 2021 Tuscarora Trail section hike. [Our trip corresponded to sections 1-10 as organized in the PATC’s Tuscarora Trail guide.]
Tuscarora Trailing: Day One, May 29 – Little Tonoloway to Licking Creek on the C&O, ~8 miles.
We started our morning at the Hilton in Harrisburg because why the hell not. We figured a night of bar hopping — and two fewer hours of driving up from DC on Saturday — was the best way to get the distractions of city life out of our system before a week on the trail. Come Saturday morning, after fighting through the Hilton peewee soccer tournament crowd, we dropped Claudio’s truck off at the Hawk Rock parking lot in Duncannon (our end point for Friday, June 4). Then we made a stop at Waggoners Gap to cache water and three liters of wine (box, duh) for our final day on the trail; stopped at the very lovely — and hospitable to hikers — Path Valley Market in Spring Run, Pennsylvania to leave three boxes of resupply for our walk through there three days later; drove to the Little Tonoloway Recreation Area parking lot in Hancock, Maryland to begin our 8 miles of C&O Canal walking to start our adventure; and grabbed a late lunch and beers at the always amazing Buddy Lou’s.
A note on weather — or rather, the expectation of weather. Sure enough, on our drive up on Friday a torrential rain had settled in over the entire region. Some reports had the rain lingering through Saturday and Sunday, which had me a little worried about being wet and cold on the trail. I had packed a full Gore-Tex shell and rain pants (plus umbrella) but I didn’t have a ton of insulation layers for staying comfy in an all-day rain. I panicked a little in Hancock and bought a light fleece at a bike outfitter just in case. Claudio grabbed a new base layer too. In the end, it didn’t really rain on us. Not Saturday or Sunday, at least. And it didn’t get very cold either. Our original packing selections were spot on. I grumbled a tad bit at the UL-defying overthinking and overpacking of my late purchase. Oh well. The cool weather also helped with something else: cicadas. Though evidence of Brood X cicadas surrounded us throughout the hike — dozens could be found on individual branches along the trail — it turns out cool and wet weather slows them down substantially. No kamikaze flyers or screaming choruses for us this week.
Our easy miles on the C&O Canal were picturesque and full of locks of history. The highlight of this pleasant stretch was running into fellow Tuscarora Trail section hikers Amethyst and Mishap (check out their video series on their hike!), who sadly for us were hiking the opposite direction. Claudio and Kyle bumped into them first and were surprised when I strolled up as an “old” Instagram acquaintance of theirs. Hiking in the age of social media is not a lonely place. With our eight miles done for the day, we settled in as the only hikers at the spacious Licking Creek Hiker-Biker Camp on the C&O, pulled out beers and sandwiches we had packed in, and started up a roaring fire. Life on the trail was good. And our legs were still fresh.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Two, May 30 – Licking Creek to Reese Hollow Shelter, ~21 miles.
It wasn’t raining on us as expected but it was pretty cool and overcast for much of the day. Our first nine miles of the day were “country road” scenic and flat until we began to ascend the dry and rocky ridge that would be our playground for many miles. On the ridge we got our first taste of overgrown trail. I was happy to have rain pants to act as shielding. Claudio and Kyle smiled as they pushed through briar with bare legs. Our home for the night was the very pleasant Reese Hollow Shelter, whose only flaw was being located a mile off trail with a steep descent. It was a brisk 21 miles for our day total. We started a little shelter stretching routine for the week, complete with official calming Max Richter piece I played on my iPhone while we loosened up our calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and we even all pulled out matching Rawlogy cork massage balls to give our feet some love. Not a bad little tradition. We also celebrated with another roaring fire and whiskey. I got a little giggly and couldn’t quite maintain balance while sitting around the fire . . .
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Three, May 31 – Reese Hollow Shelter to Burd Run Shelter, ~21 miles.
Do you know why we love coming to Pennsylvania, even though the mountains aren’t all that high? Because the trails often take us to watering holes along the way. And by that I mean bars and lakes. Day three was one of those great PA days. The night before we realized that the Mountain House Bar and Restaurant was only about 7 miles ahead on the trail, not 11 as originally (over) estimated. So we slept in a bit to make sure we’d roll through as they opened. It was sunny and fresh throughout the morning, and we got epic views of McConnellsburg — birthplace of President Buchanan — from a hang glider launch site. Then we, ah, did a little extra road walking to get there instead of taking an easy-peasy trail cutoff. Whatever, it was worth it. We grabbed some beers and food and, though I wouldn’t say we blended as such, made friends with the bikers at Mountain House. We felt pretty damn welcome basking in the deck sun with beers until we made the mistake of asking for some help with filling our water flasks before we left. The manager gave us a grumpy comment about it “not being their purpose” and we were like, “Okay then, time to leave.”
After a few miles on logging roads, we realized how active logging operations were along the trail. First, two massive terraforming monstrosities lumbered by us on the “trail”, then we caught up to these two enormous vehicles and attempted to pass. One behemoth was essentially a massive claw picking up fallen logs by the bundle and plopping them in its voluminous cart. It was polite. It stopped operations to allow Claudio and me to scurry alongside it. The second was far scarier. It was buzz sawing trees right before our eyes, and even swung in our direction when we attempted to sneak on by.
We pounded out another number of miles over the gorgeous, mountain laurel-blooming ridge tops near Cowans Gap State Park before rolling through its rather crowded lake swimming area. I showed up a bit later than Claudio and Kyle (which was the usual — I think they were hiking a half-mile per hour faster than me throughout the week) and nabbed Kyle’s — and our group’s — last $5 in cash to grab a chili cheese dog. They snacked on Caesar wraps. We all swam a bit and enjoyed the scene. But, alas, we needed to push on a few more miles to reach our shelter abode. We were feeling pretty beat when we got there. Fire, beer, and whiskey flowed and helped, though. Of note for Burd Run Shelter: there was so much scattered fallen wood debris around the shelter and fire ring area that it was crystal clear it had been a long time since the last campfire there. There’s an unused beauty to the shelters of the Tuscarora.
At some point along the way, we realized that our little trio needed a group name as we signed into trail registers and shelter logbooks. Kyle got us laughing at Good Charlotte’s “Three shakes you’re playing with it again” lyrics and the Three Shakes Gang emerged as an inside joke to go along with our little adventure.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Four, June 1 – Burd Run Shelter to Rising Mountain Backcountry Site, ~21 miles.
Resupply day! Sure, we had got a little extra feasting in the day before but this was the day we picked up our food and whiskey for the second half of the adventure. We started the morning climbing back up high on the ridge and enjoyed a pretty epic lookout point over Tuscarora Mountain and the Pennsylvania Turnpike making its way through a tunnel 2,000 feet below us. Then things got a little tough. Claudio and Kyle pushed on ahead and I didn’t see them until Spring Run. The trail entered Tuscarora State Forest land. While I would have thought this was a good thing for trail maintenance, this would not be the case. The ridge was thick and overgrown with underbrush. Blue Tuscarora blazes were sometimes sufficient to stay on trail, but not always. This was the first section — but not the last, oh no — where I thought, “Yikes, this is not a trail for folks who don’t know what they’re doing on a rocky, difficult ridge.”
But after a couple tough going miles, the trail merged into a dirt, then asphalt, road as we dropped into the pasture lands of Path Valley and Spring Run. I took a different route than discussed with Claudio and Kyle to go straight into Spring Run along its quaint Main Street and avoiding the state highways. I even tried to scrounge at a couple stops before hitting Path Valley Market to try and find some cold beer. Not only was I unsuccessful, a UPS guy later laughed at my futile attempts in Mennonite country. Speaking of which, walking through these farmlands felt like walking back in time. Horse-drawn buggies tilled the fields. I got to hear one farmer belting out church hymns while working his farm. Claudio showed off some cow-wrangling skills as well when passing by another farm. (He’d fit right in as a Mennonite farmer, it seems. If they allowed him some beer.)
Claudio and Kyle had hit Path Valley Market a while before me and were chilling with our resupply boxes out front like the hobos we in fact were. I rolled up and eventually they went inside to order some food. After a miscommunication where I thought I said I’d wait with the stuff outside for them to order and then come back out, I got grumpy after ten minutes or so and went in after them, whining. I got a little unlucky after my silly mistake to stay with our stuff in a town that assuredly wouldn’t have touched a thing and ended up behind a large group ordering from the deli. I opted for some pasta salad and a cold drink instead. Seemed fine for me as the afternoon heat was inching up and I realized I probably didn’t need a big meal in me before heading out to hit a few more road miles and a climb back up the ridge.
We split back up after the market resupply because I needed to back track to where I left the trail and the other two to a different location where they had left the trail. I’d need to catch up with them yet again . . . or would I? When I did my extra stretch and came back to the trail/road, I bizarrely saw Claudio and Kyle right in front of me. They should have been long gone. But Claudio had forgotten his phone charging out in front of the market (proving nobody was going to steal anything there!) and had to run back to get it. It was a good thing we regrouped because the trail wasn’t always well-blazed on the road turns and then we ran into a bit of a water situation.
You see, after leaving the valley we needed to ascend a dry ridge up Knob Mountain and another nine miles or so to get to our one and only true backcountry, dry campsite of the week. This meant carrying lots of water. Did we get fresh, bottled water from Path Valley Market to make this easy? No, we did not. The spring on the side of the road that we hoped to grab water from was a swampy, muddy mess. The cow streams in the valley didn’t look much better either. Yikes, we thought. Then I looked over at a nearby house and notice they had a “Welcome” sign out front. “Let’s see how welcome they are,” I thought as I headed over to knock on their door to ask to use their hose. We seemed in luck as Sarah, the very cordial proprietor, promptly led us to the side of the house. All three of us filled up and we went our way up the steep ridge. It wasn’t until we took a sip of the water — and gagged — that we realized we weren’t as lucky as we thought. We didn’t think it was poisonous to us but Sarah’s water was pretty rancid. And poisonous/rancid or not, we didn’t have any other hydration options until the following morning.
Knob Mountain was pretty, actually. And despite a number of blown down trees here and there — that fell pretty recent as a result of the same big storm — was blazed well enough. But it did seem to go up and up for the entire nine miles, which made little logical sense for a ridge that capped out at 2,300 feet on paper. Emotionally, though, it kind of felt like a 46er. But in the end our campsite on adjoining Rising Mountain was lovely, Claudio got a great little fire going, and we enjoyed another evening of whiskey and recovery. Our stretching/rolling of our feet ritual was really paying off — or so we kept telling ourselves as our beat up bodies were doing their best to heal up each night.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Five, June 2 – Rising Mountain to Wagon Wheel Shelter, ~20 miles.
We noted in a shelter log book that a previous hiker scribbled “this section of trail is TECHNICAL” to describe why he was cutting his anonymous 2019 hike short. We wondered what he meant. PA hiking is nice and all but with 2,000 foot ridges “technical” didn’t seem like the right word to use for anything in the region. We woke at our little mountain campsite and made our way first to a stream we all had to use a little creativity to find (the hemlock glade was great; we survived Sarah’s hose water!) We ended up completing a few miles that were supposed to be part of the previous day’s route we decided in advance to cut short to avoid a 24 mile resupply day. I am more than glad we opted not to do these miles tired and at the end of a long march. Technical became a thing indeed. The path down into Fowlers Hollow was impeded by enormous fallen trees. I’m pretty sure they were gigantic Ash trees killed over the last ten years by the Emerald Ash Borer and then knocked down by storms but I couldn’t tell for sure. Either way, they were huge and they were in our path, forcing “technical” bouldering skills to go over or under. At Fowlers Hollow Shelter itself we were in for another surprise: a big porcupine had decided to call it home.
Speaking of altering routes, we decided to end this day’s march a little shorter than planned to take advantage of staying at the Wagon Wheel Shelter instead of heading up the trail another few miles to get creative finding a spot to sleep. Rain was likely overnight and we felt like using the seldom-frequented Tuscarora Trail shelters seemed like the right way to hike the trail and avoid setting up tarps on dubious rocky slopes. After more hefty miles up and around ridges, with a pretty steep descent down to where the trail passes by Colonel Denning State Park and then back up hard another ridge (after filling up on heavy water), we were thankful for yet another perfect shelter to camp. Claudio’s knee was starting to bark at him but a steady dose of Ibuprofen kept it from being an issue for the rest of the trip. Plus, we had some good habits in place. Stretching. And whiskey. And a big ol’ fire. We even saw a couple day hikers heading out to Flat Rock for sunset. You know it’s an unused trail when seeing day hikers was notable.
Tuscarora Trailing: Day Six, June 3 – Wagon Wheel Shelter to Darlington Shelter (AT), ~23 miles.
Sure, stopping short a few miles one day is all well and good. But those miles need to get added on somewhere. So we woke up and set out to do 23 miles on our last full day on the Tuscarora Trail. Sounds easy, right? Well, you see some of these miles were the most difficult of the entire week. After a lovely morning skipping alongside ferns, the trail got pretty rough. The rain of the night before — and some brief showers throughout the morning — made the rocks of the trail pretty slick for footing. And for several miles leading to Waggoners Gap and a few miles after it too, overgrown stretches of the trail combined with rocky, slippery footing to pose quite the challenge. Claudio and Kyle ended up far ahead of me as my pace slowed down dramatically to avoid smashing my feet into rocks or taking an unexpected tumble. I never fell per se, but my feet slipped and collided with a number of rocks, leading me to occasionally scream “red card!” to note my bruising displeasure. On more than one occasion I had to fully stop amongst the bushes and trees and look around me for several minutes to make sure I was on the trail. For a time, I fell into a Zen-like mantra of “stay upright, stay on trail” to push me through it. It was also an opportunity to remind myself that I took my only week of leave all summer to slam my foot into rocks as branches lashed my face. So I smiled in spite of it and kept on keeping on. Claudio and Kyle waited for me at the gorgeous Charlie Irvin Shelter (seriously, I don’t know of a better shelter with such a panoramic view) after the worst of the stretch to make sure I was still alive. I was. So were they. The only casualty ended up being one of Kyle’s trekking poles, which gallantly took one for the team shattering into many pieces to save Kyle from a fall.
Our mood picked up when we met up with our water and wine cached days earlier at Waggoners Gap, though we did have another 12 or so miles to go for the day. The trail eventually turned from a rocky mess back to a normal-ish trail. It even gave us another burst of fun ridge-to-town Pennsylvania enjoyment when it dropped into Sterrets Gap — including a significant descent down a powerline clearing — and forced us alongside a busy highway before eventually heading back up a ridge for the very final Tuscarora miles. After not seeing Claudio and Kyle since the wine cache, I was happy they decided to take a long break to dry their feet out and wait for me to catch up so we could finish the Tuscarora together. The final few miles were actually blessedly rock free along a pleasant grade. (We joked that someone starting southbound might smile with such a fine bit of trail and be in for a rude awaking on the rocky ridge waiting for them after Sterrets Gap.) What started for the three of us as a snowy, frozen slog in February ended as a sweaty, slippery mess in June. Which, in the mid-Atlantic, sounds just about right.
Some things really do come together nicely. We planned the daily splits for the trip around a few key areas: resupplying in Spring Run, hitting shelters when possible, and ending our final full day at the intersection of the Tuscarora and Appalachian Trail to stay near the Darlington AT Shelter. We knew we were likely to see a bunch of NOBO AT thru-hikers rolling through on their way to Maine — and we definitely wanted to hang with them and provide a little trail magic wine. Claudio, a NOBO AT 2017 thru-hiker himself, reminisced about the AT with folks as Kyle and I cosplayed and tended bar on a big stump. Our wine and whiskey were a hit. There were probably about a dozen thru-hikers and section hikers in or near the shelter joining the festivities. It was everything we hoped for. We met some great folks and had some fun conversations. (Note: talking about favorite snacks is a hit, but musing about Gen Z sexual predilections, not so much.) All was good, even though I inadvertently mixed whiskey with wine in Maverick’s cup while tending bar. I thought his titanium mug was empty!
Appalachian Trailing: Day Seven, June 4, Darlington Shelter to Hawk Rock Parking in Duncannon, ~10 miles.
Even though our 115 Tuscarora Trail miles were done, WE weren’t done. Our car was ten miles north on the AT in Duncannon. After being pummeled by rocks for days, the smooth tread of the AT was blissful. So was the rolling farmland we strolled through and the epic views of Duncannon and the Susquehanna we got at Hawk Rock before our final descent. I understand the AT gets pretty rocky north of Duncannon but this stretch was downright pleasant. The temperature began to skyrocket into the 80s, reminding us how lucky we were to do almost all of our miles for the week in cool 60s and 70s temps. As we finished up at Claudio’s truck, all that was left for us was a backtrack to Hancock via Spring Run and a successful search for a breakfast diner along the way after we realized that at 11:00 a.m. in Duncannon Goodie’s was already closed for breakfast and the Doyle didn’t open until noon. Never you fear for our hungry, thirsty team. We even found a final — and fitting — beer at Buddy Lou’s for the Three Shakes Gang. (There was a teensy accident involving me not closing my trunk before pulling out of the parking lot . . . but Kyle swears his backpack and bear canister survived the tumble . . .)
Hikers Few and Rocks Many
Endearing To Boot
Tuscarora Trailing, The Rest of the Story:
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