Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — December 2005

John P. Saylor Trail Commemorates Wilderness Pioneer

by Ben Cramer

In the mid-twentieth century, an influential conservation group, the Wilderness Society, started a campaign for the protection of America’s wild areas. Ideas for federal legislation were drafted by Wilderness Society member and Pennsylvania native Howard Zahniser, who was from the small town of Tionesta in the aptly named Forest County.

One of Zahniser’s key political allies during the struggle to pass the wilderness legislation was John P. Saylor, a Republican congressman who represented Pennsylvania for 24 years until 1973. The hard work of Zahniser and Saylor, and their love for the outdoors, culminated in the monumental Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson.

Since then, millions of acres of undeveloped wilderness (or areas that were previously developed but are being allowed to return to their natural state) have received statutory protection. Wild tracts have been protected across the nation, and all subsequent presidential administrations have added to the acreage of federal Wilderness Areas. In the surprisingly elegant language of the legislation, courtesy of Zahniser, “a wilderness is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

In addition to his work on the Wilderness Act, Congressman Saylor also helped pass the National Scenic Trails Act. Outdoor lovers of Pennsylvania, and throughout the nation, have many reasons to thank Saylor. Hikers in central Pennsylvania have been rewarded with a great backpacking trail named after Saylor, in northeastern Somerset County near Johnstown.

The John P. Saylor Trail is a loop traversing a mostly flat area on top of the Allegheny Plateau, which is a surprise because the vertiginous rise of the Allegheny Front is just a few miles to the east. The trail is long but easy, making it an excellent resource for beginning backpackers or those looking for a long and relaxing day hike.

The entry point for the trail is in Gallitzin State Forest, at the Babcock Picnic Area on PA Route 56. From the signboard in the picnic area, the hiker can go either left or right on the John P. Saylor Trail, and eventually return to this spot if the entire loop is completed. The main loop of the trail is approximately 12.3 miles around, but the terrain is almost entirely flat and the walking is easy. A hiker of average ability should be able to complete the loop in five to six hours, not counting breaks to admire the scenery.

About halfway around the main loop, a side trail leads over Clear Shade Creek on a wildly swinging suspension bridge. At the end of this bridge is a slightly more rugged secondary loop for the John P. Saylor Trail. The intrepid backpacker, who wishes for a relaxing overnight trip, could complete the main loop and the secondary loop as a “figure eight” of about 17.5 miles total.

Shorter in-and-out hikes are also possible from Babcock Picnic Area. Turning left (or east) from the parking lot, the John P. Saylor trail parallels noisy Route 56 for a while, but eventually veers away into the depths of Gallitzin State Forest, and a delightful ecosystem of meadows along Clear Shade Creek. The pleasant open meadows are probably the result of old beaver dams, in which the beavers’ artificial lakes filled in with silt over time, resulting in flat areas with few trees. This phenomenon is rather common on the Allegheny Plateau, but the John P. Saylor Trail takes you to some of Pennsylvania’s best examples of this type of wilderness.

Meanwhile, turning right (or southwest) on the trail from the picnic area, in just over a mile the hiker will reach Wolf Rocks, a massive outcropping of boulders that offers fun rock scrambling and even a few caves. Unfortunately, due to the area’s proximity to Route 56, Wolf Rocks is also a party spot for the local teenagers, and the boulders are heavily vandalized with graffiti. But rest assured that these giant rocks will still remain long after nature has removed the graffiti, and the graffiti artists.

Another excellent backpacking resource in this area is the Lost Turkey Trail, which also starts at Babcock Picnic Area. This long-distance backpacking resource, named after an inside joke among the original trail builders, leads 26.3 miles northeast to Blue Knob State Park south of Altoona.

At first the Lost Turkey Trail is deceptively easy, ambling through the flatlands of the plateau. But then the trail plunges precipitously down the Allegheny Front, and then climbs almost to the very top of Blue Knob, which at more than 3,100 feet is the second highest peak in Pennsylvania. Of historical interest along the Lost Turkey Trail is a backwoods memorial to two pioneer children who died mysteriously in 1856, plus the headwaters of the Conemaugh River, not too far upstream from the broken dam that caused the 1889 Johnstown Flood.

The Lost Turkey Trail is more for experienced Pennsylvania hikers, but the adjacent John P. Saylor Trail, despite its imposing length, is suitable for more casual hikers who don’t mind a long day of walking. The reward will be a relaxing outdoor experience amidst some of Pennsylvania’s most pleasant ecosystems, while commemorating one of America’s greatest conservationists.

If You Go: The access point for the John P. Saylor Trail is Babcock Picnic Area, which is on PA Route 56 about 10 miles southeast of Johnstown. The John P. Saylor Trail passes through the grassy area to the left of the access road, opposite the restrooms. This is also one of the starting points for the Lost Turkey Trail, which begins on the other side of Route 56, across from the end of the picnic area access road (the other end of that trail is at Blue Knob State Park). A detailed map featuring both trails can usually be found at the signboard in Babcock Picnic Area, or at the nearby field office for Gallitzin State Forest, about 1.5 miles east on Route 56.

Ben Cramer is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout Central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).