Outdoor Recreation: A Mountaintop ExperienceAug 31, 2021 05:00PM ● By Karen Hendricks
That feeling of being on top of the world? You can experience it—or at least Pennsylvania’s version—within a few hours’ drive. Mt. Davis—the highest point in the state—paradoxically just might be one of Pennsylvania’s most undiscovered gems.
Located in southern Somerset County, near the Mason-Dixon line, Mt. Davis soars to 3,213 feet. Compared to other states’ pinnacles—especially out west—our record-setting mountain is relatively petite. But its easily accessible: just know you’ll need to channel your inner Robert Frost, and enjoy taking some roads less traveled.
Into the forest
Mt. Davis is situated in the state’s Laurel Highlands region: let the name paint a picture in your mind.
“The landscape is what defines our region. ‘Laurel’ refers to our state flower, Mountain Laurel, and ‘highlands’ gives a nod to the topography,” said Anna Weltz, public relations director for GO Laurel Highlands, the region’s tourism bureau. “The GO Laurel Highlands region features wide open spaces made for exploring.”
If Mt. Davis is your recreation destination, chances are you’ll start out on one of the state’s highways. Then, you’ll need to switch to backroads—all well-marked, pointing the way to the top.
“As you drive two-lane, winding roads, you’ll pass rolling farmland, small towns and villages,” Waltz said. “And as you climb in elevation, the trees become taller and taller, the leaves more lush, and you’ll find yourself deep in the forest surrounded by stunning natural beauty.”
The forest she’s referring to is Forbes State Forest, one of the state’s 20 state forest districts.
“It’s comprised of large, wild natural areas with trails—over 300 miles of trails,” according to Edward Callahan, district forester for Forbes State Forest, under the umbrella of the state’s Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Forbes covers more than 60,000 acres in three counties.
Options for adventure
If you want to earn the claim to fame of summiting Pennsylvania’s highest mountain the old-fashioned way, by hiking, you have that option. About 12 miles of trails—footpaths through the forest—circle and climb Mt. Davis.
Or, you can actually drive very close to the summit: follow the signs, park and walk a short path to the top, where the terrain is actually quite flat. That’s because it’s a high, rock-strewn plateau; not a pointy mountaintop. Look for the bronze marker on the tip of a large rock—that’s the mount in “Mt. Davis.”
“It’s a little deceiving—people think the high peak of the state should be a peak, but it’s actually a mount—a little point on a larger mountain ridge that goes 30 miles into West Virginia and Maryland,” said Callahan.
Take it up a notch
The truly brave and adventurous can increase their altitude—and view—by climbing a 50-foot observation tower with stunning 360-degree views difficult to capture in a photograph.
“It was built in the ‘30s, modeled after fire towers at the time, so it’s like climbing a piece of history,” said Callahan. “It’s a rare day when it’s calm up there—it’s windy because of the way it’s situated on the ridge. And there’s been frost on Mt. Davis every month of the year. Temperatures dip to minus 30s in the winter.”
Bronze plaques and maps orient visitors at the tower’s top. One explains an optical illusion at play: as you drink in the view, it may appear that two other mountains are higher than Mt. Davis. To be fair, one is only 21 feet lower. With so much open space, your depth perception is a little off.
“There are trees as far as you can see,” described Weltz. “Some folks refer to it as serene, even humbling, when you see the terrain rolling out in front of you. And on a clear day, you can see into the depths of PA and into our neighboring state of Maryland.”
The surrounding lush green forests are what Callahan terms “mature second growth forests,” meaning the trees—mostly red oak—are primarily 90 to 110 years old, replacing forests that were cut about 100 years ago. Keep your eyes open for wildlife in the woods.
“You’ll see everything that lives in Pennsylvania except for elk,” Callahan said. “You commonly see black bear, bobcat, white-tailed deer, rattlesnakes—it’s a remote area where you’re going to find those big species.”
Mt. Davis is named for John Nelson Davis, a community leader, Civil War veteran, surveyor, school teacher and superintendent, ordained minister, farmer and naturalist who was fascinated with the Mount Davis area.
Today, growing numbers of visitors are discovering Forbes State Forest and Pennsylvania’s highest point.
“Last year, we had a ton of first-time visitors, and our numbers have remained high,” Callahan said. “We have a little different mission than state parks—we specialize in recreation, but our mission is low density. People who want to get out and see the wildest areas of Pennsylvania—that’s why people come to state forests.”
Callahan has worked in Forbes State Forest for more than 20 years, beginning as an assistant district forester. One of his favorite spots is an overlook, close to Mt. Davis, with views of High Point Lake.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful sights in the state,” said Callahan. “But there are thousands of acres of explore—I still love coming to work every day.”
Somerset Side Trips
Karen Hendricks is an award-winning freelance journalist based in the Harrisburg area.