Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — November 2004

Quehanna Trail — Allegheny Plateau Topography

by Gary Thornbloom

Topography — the configuration of a surface including its relief and the position of its natural features: this is from Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. On the Allegheny Plateau running water, including the massive runoff from melting glaciers long ago, has determined the topography and continues to sculpt the landscape that the hiker walks through today. A hiker traveling up and down on the Quehanna Trail may find it surprising to learn that this is a plateau, but that is the case. The many small, and not so small, streams crossed by fording, rock hopping, walking across fallen trees, and the occasional bridge are often the same streams that have in their geological time cut and carved the Allegheny Plateau into the interesting landscape that it is today.

The section of the Quehanna Trail from where it crosses Lost Run Road, mile 19.2 of the Quehanna Trail, to where it crosses the Quehanna Highway at mile 29.6 provides an interesting 10.4 mile hike through a varied topography.

Begin hiking east on the Quehanna Trail where it crosses Lost Run Road. The trail soon winds through large picturesque rhododendron and moss covered rocks. The trail follows the rim above Mosquito Creek and offers numerous views through the trees. The mailbox that is along the trail contains a trail register where you can both register your impressions and see what others have written. I always check the registers to find out what wildlife trail users have been observing. This register includes observations of elk, deer, and howling coyotes.

One of the first open views that you come to is located on a long rim of exposed rock. The rock wall offers a tranquil, contemplative setting. Take some time to stop and enjoy a few of the many highlights of this hike, as there are other long flat portions of this trail where you can move along briskly. Shortly after the rock wall view the trail passes Wildcat Rocks, where there is a memorial stone that marks the spot where decades ago a hunter killed three wildcats. The natural topography is often accompanied by a human topography. The Quehanna Trail is no exception, and Ralph Seeley’s Greate Buffaloe Swamp includes many insights into the human activity once present in this now quiet corner of Pennsylvania.

After Wildcat Rocks the trail moves away from the rim and across a long, flat, straight and well marked stretch of trail. Here, you can move rapidly, or you can take time to gather some of the tasty teaberries that carpet the ground. As the trail again approaches the rim it cuts through a delightful stand of gray birch.

The trail follows a long finger that extends out between Gifford Run and Mosquito Creek. Views in either and at times both directions abound along the moss covered path. Ridge lines recede one after another in the distance. Interesting rock formations line the trail. This is a section of trail that invites lingering. The long walk along this narrow ridge ends with a steep drop at the end where the trail descends to a bench that is still well above the drainages that converge below. A fortress-like outcropping of rock lies below, defending this sky peninsula that you are descending from.

I was hiking this trail with a friend of mine, Alg, who, while native to Central Pennsylvania, was hiking in the Quehanna Area for the first time. Alg has spent a lot of time in the woods, but had limited himself to his backyard — primarily the Black Moshannon area. As we stood in awe admiring the rocks, the drainages before us, and, in mid-October, the fantastic mosaic of color, we both knew that we had severely limited ourselves by not spending more time hiking in this area.

As we descended we observed the clarity of Gifford Run, and then found that we were spared the reported harrowing, to some, experience of crossing Mosquito Creek on a 60-foot long cable bridge because it had been washed out. Our crossing was on a very firm, large yellow birch tree that had conveniently fallen across Mosquito Creek just upstream of the washed out bridge. While sitting along the creek and eating lunch we observed brook trout darting about in the pool in front of us.

After crossing Twelvemile Run the next section of trail reinforces a sense of the Quehanna topography as you follow an old wagon road up the 500-foot gain in elevation to the top of the plateau. The wide open area below was the site of the Corporation Dam. It was a splash dam, one of many in the surrounding drainages, and it was essential in moving logs down to the West Branch of the Susquehanna and then on to the mills at Williamsport. Numerous house-size boulders are along the trail, some sculpted in shapes that with very little imagination resemble ruins from an ancient civilization. Not only the interesting rocks, but the grade, also invites taking some time to savor the climb out. At the top the trail is wide, flat, and straight, and again lends itself to a fast pace. The surrounding hardwood forest is open and is characterized by the quiet beauty of a woodland road. Thick mountain laurel occasionally closes in on the path.

The gentle descent into Cole Run introduces another change of topography. The open meadow through which Cole Run winds was, in mid-October, a blend of shades of gold to brown and burgundy to russet punctuated by bursts of bright yellow autumn leaves, and was broken up by the green of bonsai like pines and small groups of mountain laurel. I had not expected the subtle beauty of this section of trail. White puffs of bog cotton lined the stream. The small mountain stream fell over logs damming it and into pools with white sand bottoms. Once again plump teaberries were abundant in a carpet spread throughout the clearing.

The trail continues along Cole Run and moves through white pines at all stages of growth, from small seedlings and pole-sized bushy trees to venerable old trees that tower above. Several open, pine needle carpeted areas beneath the largest of these trees and next to the small stream, offer the hiker who wishes to linger a soft spot to stop.

Within the next mile the trail pushes through a thick planting of fragrant balsam fir and out to the Quehanna Highway. Turn north and the parking area where you left your shuttle vehicle is a short way down the highway.

Whether you have enjoyed the Quehanna Trail many times or have not been there yet, the topography of the Allegheny Plateau and the streams that are the authors of its topography are only a short drive away. Each season adds its special character to this quiet corner of Penn’s Woods.

If You Go: North of Karthaus, at the junction of Route 879 and the Quehanna Highway (SR 1011), drive 5 miles north on the Quehanna Highway to just after the Quehanna Trail crosses the road. There is a parking area on the right with a Trail Register that sometimes contains maps of the Quehanna Trail. Maps can also be obtained by driving another 10.5 miles to the Forestry Headquarters parking lot where you can find free maps of the Quehanna Trail. Leave one vehicle here and continue 4.5 miles to the Reactor Road, turn left and drive 1 mile to Lost Run Road, turn right and drive 3.1 miles to where the Quehanna Trail crosses Lost Run Road. Park there and begin hiking east on the Quehanna Trail.

The Quehanna Trail has orange rectangular blazes and this section of trail is well blazed and is well maintained.


Greate Buffaloe Swamp — A Trail Guide and Regional History by Ralph Seeley offers an excellent guide to trails in the Moshannon State Forest and gives many insights into the history of the area. The book includes a map of the Quehanna Trail. Information on the Quehanna Trail and on purchasing Ralph Seeley’s book can be found at the Keystone Trails Association or the book is also available at local outdoor stores.

The DCNR Public Use Map for Moshannon State Forest gives an overview of the entire area, while the DCNR Quehanna Trail map covers the area of this hike in more detail.

Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of the Moshannon Group, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout Central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).