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Susquehanna Life

5 Best Backpacking Trails in Pennsylvania

Black Forest Trail promises steep climbs.

By Dave Gantz

Dozens of official backpacking routes were established decades ago during a push for outdoor recreation. Luckily many of these trails still exist, and are being rediscovered by people looking for a way to unplug from the digital world.
Pennsylvania offers a range of opportunities to ‘get away from it all’ backpacking, but which trails are the best? Here are my top-five loops.

Pine Creek Gorge, as seen from the West Rim Trail. Nicholas A. Tonelli.


1. West Rim Trail: Two common prerequisites for a great trail are stunning vistas and beautiful water. The West Rim Trail in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon offers these qualities and more. This moderate 30-mile linear trail generally parallels the west rim of Pine Creek. Although the trail begins and ends along the shores of Pine Creek, most of the route is high above the gorge. Sweeping views from the edge of the canyon rim make this a favorite 2-3 day backpacking weekend for many adventurers. The northern end of this trail hosts most of the spectacular canyon views, while the southern end boasts blueberry bushes and cascading mountain streams.

When you go: Check water levels: some sections of this trail can be dry during certain seasons. Also, Pine Creek Outfitters offers a shuttle service (call ahead).

Headwaters of Yellow Dog Run, along Old Loggers Path. Nicholas A. Tonelli.

2. Backpackers don’t need to set up a shuttle ride to complete the Old Loggers Path. This trail, also rated easy to moderate, is a 27-mile loop in Loyalsock State Forest near the small town of Ralston (north of Williamsport). Aptly named, this route generally follows centuries old logging roads that have now become single and double track walking paths. Most of this loop is easy, but a few steep climbs and descents keep the trail interesting! Although some sections of trail and surrounding roads were decimated by flooding in Oct 2016, local foresters along with PA Outdoor Corps have been working hard to restore the trail and make the backpacking experience even better. Two new shelters were built along this loop in 2017, which add to several great pre-existing camping areas. A popular camping area at the confluence of Yellow Dog Run and Rock Run is a favorite for many visitors.

When you go: As of 2017, the best access to the trailhead in Masten (an old ghost town in the forest) is through Ralston on Rock Run Road.


3.The Black Forest Trail presents a serious challenge. Widely known as the 'hardest backpacking loop in PA,' this trail offers 44 miles of intense hiking and stunning vistas surrounding Route 44 north of Lock Haven. This trail and others in the area were designed and built by Bob Webber and John Eastlake. Webber and his wife Dottie lived in an off-grid cabin along the Black Forest for decades after retirement. Although Bob Webber has passed, his hiking legacy lives on as hikers endure steep climbs and descents through ravines within the plateau surrounding Route 44. This trail is saturated with dozens of gorgeous mountain streams and an average of one spectacular view per mile of trail!

When you go: Bring along a good map that shows all of the cut-off trails available along this route. These trails are essential for hikers who prefer an easier route (yet still plenty of great views!).
Blueberries and Meadows on Quehanna Trail. Dave Gantz.

4. The Quehanna Trail offers backpackers remote trails with plenty of wildlife. While the main loop is a whopping 75 miles, cross-connector trails throughout this area allow backpackers to complete the whole trail in segments. The western cross-connector loop (19 miles), eastern cross-connector loop (roughly 40 miles), and central cross-connector loop (roughly 45 miles) are the most well known routes. Physical features include streams (that eventually dump into the West Branch Susquehanna River), valleys, river crossings, and open forest meadows. The trail crosses through PA’s largest wild area (Quehanna Wild Area, 50,000 acres), and several other preserved lands. Local residents include the PA elk herd, snakes, bear, coyotes, fishers (first reintroduced here in in 1990’s), and more.

When you go: Prepare for solitude! Moshannon State Forest is underutilized, meaning you will probably see more wildlife than humans during your trip.

Susquehannock Trail. Dave Gantz.


5. Not everyone has time for weeklong backpacking trips. The 85-mile Susquehannock Trail System is comprised of 63 separate trails (plus plenty of cross connector trails) that together create one long loop. Backpackers can spend several weekends hiking sections of this trail in Potter County with the long term goal of completing every mile. Hammersley Wild Area, the largest roadless area in PA and the second largest Wild Area, is the main highlight of this trail. Black Cherry Trees tower over the lands of this area and create a well-shaded canopy for hikers. Multiple, newly constructed trail shelters allow hikers to escape the elements without having to pack a heavy tent.

When you go: contact the local Susquehannock Trail Club to inquire about shuttle services.

What To Pack:

Cell service is limited along backpacking trails in PA. Be sure to bring everything you may need to get bye for a few days in the woods, including:

  • Maps and guides for the local trails and forests
  • First aid kit (including prescription and allergy medications)
  • A water treatment system such as a chemical solution or a filter
  • Quick drying clothes (avoid cotton) and a waterproof outer layer

How To Handle Unwanted Visitors

Hikers in PA are more likely to encounter forest animals rather than humans. Luckily, these animals don’t usually bother hikers, but they are curious about hikers’ food and gear. Keep animals out of camp with these tips:

  • Practice Leave No Trace ethics and pack out all of your trash.
  • Cook and eat at least 200 feet away from camp (preferably downwind).
  • Use a Bear Bag: put all ‘smellable’ items (including toiletries) in a food bag and suspend this bag from a tree branch; out of reach from any forest wildlife.
Dave Gantz is an avid hiker and backpacker.

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