Hike the Mid State Trail: A Spiritual Experience
By Carrie Pauling
The Mid State Trail, designated the Trail of 2019 by the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is recognized as a historic and versatile trail that “captures the essence of Pennsylvania’s abundant trail system,” and some even see it as spiritual experience. Anyone up for a hike?
Hike the Mid State Trail: A Spiritual Experience
At the edge of a vista called Indian Wells, Dr. Tom Thwaites sat down on a rock to eat a sandwich. He realized he might have to share his meager lunch with the visitor, a bear who had taken a seat near him at the overlook, gazing at the same sprawling view of Nittany Valley. Thwaites rose and moved slowly into the woods, checking behind him on occasion to see if his new friend had followed behind. The bear seemed content to sit and enjoy the view.
Thwaites, well known as a friend to bears, is best known as the father of the Mid State Trail, a hiking path that spans Pennsylvania, extends south to Maryland and north through New York State, and is part of a greater alliance of footpaths through nine states called the Great Eastern Trail. “Foot travel over a remote primitive trail brings an exhilaration,” Thwaites once said, “an aliveness that cleanses us of our worldly woes and restores our spirit.”
In 1969, Thwaites, along with members of the Penn State Outing Club, began clearing a trail along the ridge west of State College in Rothrock State Forest with a lofty idea that one day the footpath might take hikers through some of the state’s most beautiful and remote landscapes. Fifty years later the Mid State Trail is “Pennsylvania’s longest and wildest footpath,” and was voted the PA Department of Conservation of Natural Resources “Trail of 2019.”
Solitude and scenery
“Wildest footpath” is no hollow compliment. Hikers insist they’ve traveled kilometers at a time without seeing another human; that the trail gives the illusion of remoteness and solitude yet is rarely more than 2 km from the nearest road. At 526 km (327 miles) the MST (which Thwaites liked to say also stands for Metric System Trail—he was a scientist, a professor of physics at Penn State and an advocate for metric measure), exhibits all the scenic, majestic and therapeutic beauty Pennsylvania has to offer, from the Mason Dixon line to the Northern Tier and beyond.
“Although the Mid State Trail is a linear trail, because of an abundance of side and connector trails, there are many places along the way where hikers can put together satisfying loop hikes of various lengths,” said Ed Lawrence, president of the Mid State Trail Association, an all-volunteer organization whose mission is to manage the trail in sections and preserve it for future generations. The MSTA is the best place to start if you’re interested in hiking a portion of the trail, or becoming the next End-to-Ender—completing the trail in its entirety. There are currently 11 registered end-to-enders.
Accessing the MST
Passing over mostly public land, the footpath is unique for its scenic vistas and variety of terrain. It ambles through dense woods, along streams and creeks, past waterfalls and historic sites. It zig-zags up the sides of mountains and balances the ridge tops. It’s accessible for short hikes, day treks or overnight adventures, with options for camping along the way.
To hike a portion, or all of it, you’ll need:
13th Edition of the MST Trail Guide. This compact book details distances, parking, water, camping and points of interest along the way
Color topographic trail maps
Working knowledge of the metric system (1 km = 0.621 miles)
Visit the MSTA website (hike-MST.org), where you’ll find the most current information on trail updates, news and activities. The MST Trail Guide and three topographic maps are available for purchase online or in regional bookstores and outfitters. For abundant advice about hiking, check out the Mid State Trail group on Facebook, more than 1,500 members strong. The Keystone Trails Association (kta-hike.org) is also a valuable resource on hiking in Pennsylvania.
DCNR chose the MST as the “Trail of 2019” to recognize its history and versatility of terrain and scenery, saying the trail “captures the essence of Pennsylvania’s abundant trail system.” The trail’s founders and fans would agree. It’s so uniquely loved it even has its own song. The way a congregation cares for its church, the volunteer trail caretakers maintain the footpath, and many have said there’s a spiritual experience to being in the wild, walking through the woods on the MST.
Tom Thwaites led many hikes along his trail. Jean Aron, a longtime friend to Thwaites, fellow trailblazer (and writer of the Mid State Trail song), recalls one outing in particular. She and her husband were leading the group, while Thwaites and his wife Barb had anchor duty. When the pair didn’t arrive at the endpoint behind the rest of the group, Aron went looking. In the solitude, softly calling, “Tom! Barb!” she encountered a bear. Quietly she retreated down the path and waited. Not long after, Thwaites emerged from the woods where the bear had been. “Not only did he get along with bears, I think he is a bear. If you see one, it might be Tom,” she said with a smile.
Carrie Pauling is a freelance writer and frequent hiker who looks forward to trying her luck with the #Hike50MST challenge this summer.
In celebration of the MSTs 50th anniversary, the MSTA has launched #Hike50MST, challenging hikers to log 50 km (31 miles) from now until New Year’s Day (Jan. 1, 2020), hiking 10 km in each of the four regions of the MST, with the last 10 km anywhere along the trail, including side connector trails. No need to register until your hike is complete, but hikers are encouraged to use #Hike50MST on social media throughout their journey. Visit hike-mst.org to learn more.