Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — December 2003

Hiking the Mid State Trail

by Ben Cramer

Many Pennsylvania outdoor enthusiasts are unaware of an outstanding long-distance hiking trail that offers hundreds of miles of premier hiking and some of the best views in Northeast. The Mid State Trail (MST), much of which has been in place since around 1970, is projected to extend uninterrupted from Maryland to New York State, rambling well over 300 miles through the central portion of Pennsylvania. Planned connections to other regional trails in Maryland and New York will offer backpacking opportunities to rival the more famous Appalachian Trail.

Strangely, the MST is little known outside of Pennsylvania’s hardcore hiking crowd. For example, although the trail passes within 10 miles of State College, the Centre County Visitors Bureau has shown little interest in promoting the MST in favor of the much less wild, and far easier, Nittany Mountain tourist trails, according to longtime Pennsylvania hiking expert and activist Tom Thwaites (himself a major force in the ongoing construction and maintenance of the MST).

The MST is either a well-kept secret for hiking aficionados, or a potential outdoor sports and tourism blockbuster. In any case, it offers a unique, wild, and often extremely challenging hiking experience. The trail is almost always less than two miles from a road, passes near several cities, and traverses a dozen state parks and picnic areas, making it easily accessible and good for both day hikes and long-distance backpacking.

The core section of the MST (walking northbound) begins on Route 22 near Alexandria in Huntingdon County. After tackling a few intermittent hills and the Little Juniata River, the MST ascends Tussey Mountain, which it follows northeast for dozens of miles. The very sharp top of this long, snaking ridge offers mostly level but incredibly rocky hiking, which will test even the most rugged footwear, not to mention the most athletic knees and ankles. The Tussey section of the MST offers nearly continuous and spectacular vistas of the farmlands and cities of Happy and Penns Valleys. The trail bids farewell to Tussey Mountain in the aptly named Seven Mountains region east of State College, charging up and down probably all of the said ridges towards an overpass crossing of I-80 near R.B. Winter and Ravensburg State Parks.

Now traveling directly to the north, the MST offers two tremendous vistas in Clinton County, first encompassing bucolic Nippenose Valley, and then the West Branch Valley containing Lock Haven, Williamsport, and the gates of Pine Creek. After plunging down into this valley, the character of the MST changes dramatically as it follows a series of paved roads through the developed areas near Lock Haven, passes under route 220, and conveniently crosses the Susquehanna on a road bridge. This easy road walking soon comes to an abrupt halt as the MST reenters the backcountry, strenuously climbing up the Allegheny Front toward the wildlands of Pine Creek Gorge. The rocky ordeal of the southern parts of the trail is now replaced with almost continuous climbing of some of the steepest mountains in the state. The MST currently ends in Tioga County at the West Rim Trail, deep within the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania.

In the late 1990s a southern extension from Alexandria to Maryland was constructed. First utilizing the Lower Rail Trail, the new section of the MST mostly follows the southern leg of Tussey Mountain through the wilds of Bedford County, connecting with Maryland’s Green Ridge Hiking Trail at the state line. Meanwhile, a northern extension is being planned through Tioga County, which may extend from Pine Creek toward Tioga-Hammond Lakes through the very rugged backcountry along routes 287 and 15. The goal is for the MST to connect with the outstanding Finger Lakes Trail in New York state, which would then make it possible to hike from Maryland to New York by way of more than 300 miles of rugged Pennsylvania wilderness.

The Mid State Trail is the epitome of the Pennsylvania hiking experience and is only beginning to attract the attention it deserves. There is hardly a better way to experience Pennsylvania’s rugged beauty while never straying too far from civilization.

The trail is maintained by the hardworking Mid State Trail Association. Write to them at PO Box 167, Boalsburg, PA 16827 for detailed maps and their very informative guidebook.

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Ben Cramer is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, and graduate student living in State College. He is also a local group committee member for Sierra Club.