Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2006

An Eagle’s Eye View from the Allegheny Front

by Ben Cramer

On a topographic map of Pennsylvania, a very dramatic feature is the Allegheny Front. This abrupt uprising in the landscape marks the boundary between the parallel valleys and sharp-backed ridges of the aptly-named Ridge and Valley Province to the south and east, and the high jumbled hills of the Allegheny Plateau to the north and west. The Front, which is a key component of the Appalachian Mountain system, comes northeast-bound out of Maryland, looms over Altoona, passes one valley to the west of State College, then swings to the east past Lock Haven and Williamsport before merging into the Endless Mountains region in Sullivan County.

In this age of superhighways that leap tall mountains in a single bound, it’s hard to imagine that the Allegheny Front was once a significant barrier to the westward expansion of America. Pioneers had to go all the way around to the Cumberland Gap in Maryland or the Finger Lakes region in New York. Railroads didn’t conquer the Front until Altoona’s Horseshoe Curve was constructed, and to this day few major roads tackle the Front without series grades and dangerous curves.

The Allegheny Front constitutes a major change in elevation and geology, and a boundary between ecosystems and forest types. Passengers on commuter flights traveling eastbound toward University Park will see a gently rolling landscape plunging horrifically into Bald Eagle Valley. Pilots flying in the other direction face a steep forested wall, of dimensions seen in few other places east of the Mississippi.

One may expect such an escarpment to offer breathtaking vistas of the valleys far below. However, notwithstanding views from roads, there are few secluded spots on the Allegheny Front where outdoor lovers can enjoy the views in peace. Fortunately, the Allegheny Front Trail, in western Centre County, offers several vistas off the edge of the Front, which are some of the greatest natural views in all of Pennsylvania.

The Allegheny Front Trail (AFT) only follows its namesake Front for a short while, though it is an outstanding long-distance backpacking trail that visits many different ecosystems and landscapes around the area of Black Moshannon State Park. The AFT was built in the late 1990s with the express purpose of visiting both the park and the vistas along the Front. (The present writer recently completed the first precise ground-level measurement of the AFT, and found the total trail length to be 41.75 miles.)

Day-hikers who are willing to rough it a bit can tackle a short section of the AFT to visit the views off the Front. Be sure to save your hike for a clear day, because you really can see forever. Starting at a parking lot shared by the Allegheny Front Trail and the Rock Run Trails System, on PA 504 east of Black Moshannon State Park, begin walking southbound on the orange-blazed AFT. The trail soon becomes excessively rocky, as it follows the rugged edge of the plateau, and you can see the landscape dropping off into oblivion to the left.

A partial vista over the foothills at the bottom of the Front is reached in just half a mile. The first full vista is reached at a switchback at a little less than one mile, just before the AFT plunges into the even rockier Whetstone Hollow. Unusually, this vista is at an oblique angle to the Front, and looks directly to the south over Bald Eagle Ridge, a mostly hidden stretch of Happy Valley, and then Tussey Mountain. On a really clear day you can see the abrupt break in Tussey Mountain at the Little Juniata River, more than 25 miles away as the crow flies.

Between 1.8 and 2.6 miles from the parking lot, there are several different partial vistas off of the Front at right angles, to the southeast toward State College. These views feature a line of foothills at the bottom of the Front, behind which the lumpy but continuous Bald Eagle Ridge rises abruptly. The civilized Bald Eagle Valley is completely hidden somewhere below. Behind Bald Eagle Ridge you may or may not see various sections of Happy Valley, with Nittany Mountain erupting from the valley floor and marching off to the northeast, Tussey Mountain, behind Happy Valley, is always a straight line across your entire field of vision, reaching for dozens of miles in both directions.

The most spectacular views begin about three miles from the parking lot. A little side trail at a campsite leads to the left, to a spot called Ralph’s Pretty Good View, which some hikers feel is actually the greatest vista on the AFT. This vista offers more than 180 degrees of visibility. Far beneath your feet you can see Julian Pike weaving through the foothills, and behind Bald Eagle Ridge some fringes of State College are visible, below the abrupt beginning of Nittany Mountain. On a very clear day, to the left (northeast) you can see what appears to be the end of Bald Eagle Ridge, but this is actually where the ridge curves away from your line of sight, a few dozen miles from here in the Lock Haven area.

About a fifth of a mile further is Ralph’s Majestic Vista. The Ralph of these last two vistas is Ralph Seeley, a veteran hiking trail maintainer and local historian. Seeley was the driving force behind the construction of the Allegheny Front Trail, and the even longer Quehanna Trail to the north of I-80. Ralph’s Majestic Vista is the most extensive view over the top of Bald Eagle Ridge and into Happy Valley, with much of the State College metro area visible. To the left, behind the Nittany Mountain drop-off, the Tussey Mountain Ski Area can be seen on a clear day. As always, Tussey Mountain itself is an impenetrable wall at the back of the view.

Both of the Ralph vistas also offer, with a craning of one’s neck to the right, stark views of a giant brown gash near the top of Bald Eagle Ridge, over a downward stripe in the forest. The stripe is the current version of US 322 heading down to Port Matilda, and the brown gash is the site of the environmentally calamitous I-99 construction project. This is a rather unwelcome alteration to the great views off the Allegheny Front. But future hikers, who visit from dusk till dawn, may enjoy ghostly headlights improbably traversing a rocky and steep mountain ridge.

After Ralph’s Majestic Vista, the Allegheny Front Trail turns to the west, away from the edge of the Front. The hiker climbs through some rugged rock formations before descending gently to Underwood Road at 3.8 miles. That road is the end of this particular hike, though the AFT continues westbound toward the unique highland forests and wetlands of Black Moshannon State Park.

If You Go: The parking lot for the Allegheny Front Trail and Rock Run Trails System is on PA 504 at the corner of Tram Road, 4.5 miles east of the lake crossing at Black Moshannon State Park, and 7.2 miles west of old US 220 at Unionville. This hike ends at the AFT crossing of Underwood Road, which begins at PA 504 about half a mile to the west of the parking lot. The trail crossing is just to the south of the junction of Underwood Road and North Run Road. This is a one-way hike as described here, requiring a car shuttle to both end points. This hike also appears in the book 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania by Tom Thwaites.

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). Cramer is also the author of a forthcoming hikers’ guide to the Allegheny Front Trail.