Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2004

Historical Hiking on the Thousand Steps Trail

by Ben Cramer

A very unique hiking experience, combining history with a real physical challenge, can be found just outside of the town of Mount Union in Huntingdon County. A stairway constructed of native stone ascends a cliff above the Juniata River, leading to extensive views and some fascinating visual evidence of the area’s manufacturing history.

Just west of Mount Union, the Juniata cuts a very impressive gap through Jacks Mountain, leaving a canyon barely wide enough for the passage of Route 22. In historic times, goods and services being transported to and from a wide area of had to squeeze through this narrow passage, also known as Jacks Narrows. The top of Jacks Mountain far above the north side of the canyon was later found to be an ideal quarry for the sedimentary rock ganister, which was used for making bricks and lining furnaces.

By the early 20th century, a narrow-gauge railway ascended the extremely steep mountainside to reach the quarrying operations. A far cry from modern heavy-gauge railroads, these narrow tracks allowed a few cars at a time to “switchback” up and down the mountainside very slowly. Each hairpin turn in the railroad grade featured an adjacent spur, where the locomotive would stop, shift into reverse, then travel to the next switchback. Here the train would be put back into forward motion for the short journey to the next turn, and so on.

This railroad journey was as much vertical as it was horizontal. Switchbacked, narrow-gauge railroad grades of this nature were once quite common in Pennsylvania, mostly used in the logging industry (and evolving into a great many modern hiking trails). In fact, Altoona’s famous Horseshoe Curve is basically a more solidly designed version of the same concept, without the turnarounds. But this grade at Jacks Mountain is an extreme example of railroad engineers conquering a less than ideal location for a track.

Workers in the quarrying operations, which were scattered across various locations on the top and sides of Jacks Mountain, were originally required to walk up the zigzagging railroad grade to their worksites. This was a ver inefficient journey that was much longer than it had to be. In the 1930s, workers constructed a stone staircase straight up the mountainside, ascending nearly one thousand feet, and utilizing more than a “thousand” steps. The stairway was constructed from rocks found on location at Jacks Mountain, and crossed the railroad grade several times on its way straight up the steep hillside.

By the end of the industrial era the railroad and quarrying operations in the area had ceased, leaving the Thousand Steps as a popular local outdoor destination, both for weekend hikers and serious exercise enthusiasts. The tract of land on the side of Jacks Mountain containing the staircase was acquired by the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Keystone Trails Association, helped in part by an innovative fundraising campaign in which donors could buy individual steps in the stairway. Later, the Thousand Steps were incorporated into the Link Trail, a 72-mile backpacking route that connects Pennsylvania’s Mid State Trail at Greenwood Furnace State Park with the Tuscarora Trail (and by extension, the famous Appalachian Trail at Cowans Gap State Park.

The Thousand Steps now offer a very unique hiking experience for those with a historical bent, and also for those looking for outstanding scenery and a rugged outdoor adventure. In either case, the route is nearly continuous climbing and is quite demanding. Plenty of water, along with proper footwear and hiking poles, are recommended.

From Route 22 outside of Mount Union, a blue-blazed access trail leads away from the highway to a junction with the orange-blazed Link Trail. This junction features a memorial to the donors who helped save this unique site, and a bit of history about the industrial operations and the men who built the stairway.

During the strenuous and seemingly endless climb up the stairs, the hiker will find that the rocky surface of the hillside is slowly moving over time, pushing the stone steps out of alignment. Nearly continuous maintenance by local volunteers is necessary to keep the steps usable. About halfway up the mountain, a side trail leads to a spectacular view of Jacks Narrows, the town of Mount Union (which is partially hidden behind an intervening hill) and the valleys beyond. Back at the main stairway, the climb continues to Dinkey Shed, one of the few leftover buildings from the industrial days. This building housed the locomotives that were used to haul ganister up and down the track.

Above Dinkey Shed, the climb continues past several obvious quarry sites and borrow pits, and offers a few more great vistas over the nearby mountains and valleys. At the top of the Thousand Steps, when the hiker feels like significantly more than a mere 1,000 stairs have been climbed, one can return down the mountain or continue ahead on the Link Trail. Now at the top of Jacks Mountain, the trail leads to several more vistas and many more abandoned quarrying operations and railroad grades.

The Thousand Steps hike is an outstanding opportunity to combine history, natural beauty, and a demanding workout into one relatively short day hike. The stone steps allow people of all levels of ability to climb them at their own pace, and everyone from leisurely amblers to Stairmaster fanatics can have an enjoyable adventure.

If You Go: The Thousand Steps Trail is accessed from US Route 22, about two miles west of the traffic light at the northern end of Mount Union, at the junction of PA Route 747. Parking is available in a wide area on the north side of the highway, where flea markets are occasionally located. Watch for the small “Thousand Steps” sign. From State College, take US 322 east to Lewistown and then US 22 west/US 522 south to Mount Union; or take PA 26 south to Huntingdon and then US 22 east to Mount Union.

Ben Cramer is a freelance writer, outdoor enthusiast, and graduate student living in State College. He is also a local group committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. The Moshannon Group owns step #184 at Thousand Steps, and will be hosting a public hike at the site on April 17 [2004]. See the Outings page for details.