Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2007

Exploring Pennsylvania Wilds on the Chuck Keiper Trail

by Ben Cramer

North-central Pennsylvania contains over two million acres of pubic lands, mostly contained within State Forests and this sparsely-developed region is larger than Yellowstone National Park. These lands extend from approximately I-80 to the New York border, and from roughly Allegheny National Forest in the west to Tioga and Lycoming Counties in the east.

These natural lands have been grouped into the Pennsylvania Wilds program, which was created in 2004 for the promotion of recreation, and to encourage proper stewardship of the region’s natural offerings. Via a plethora of new nature-oriented maps, widespread parking areas and access points, and the Elk Scenic Drive which twists through several different counties, the PA Wilds program is connecting citizens and visitors with north-central’s vast opportunities for conservation and outdoor adventure.

The PA Wilds region features many officially protected Natural Areas and Wild Areas. According to state regulations, a Natural Area must have no human habitation except for primitive camping and backpacking, no access for motorized vehicles, and no resource extraction. Natural Areas are often small parcels that protect very specific pristine ecosystems, averaging a few hundred acres. Meanwhile, Wild Areas feature similar protections but can include some tourist-oriented infrastructure, including paved roads and parking lots. Wild Areas usually cover much larger regions that offer general outdoor adventure.

Pennsylvania residents seeking extreme solitude, at a level surprising even for the PA Wilds region, would be fascinated by the remoteness of Sproul State Forest in southwestern Clinton County. Natives of the industrialized American Northeast might be flabbergasted by the lonely PA Route 144 as it rambles out of northern Centre County. This state highway does not pass through a single town, and hardly any permanent residences, in more than thirty miles between Moshannon and South Renovo, making it arguably the most remote road in Pennsylvania.

Just north of the county line, between DeHaas Road and Hicks Road (themselves only used very rarely to reach remote hunting camps), Route 144 passes through a spooky area of low, stunted forest and oddly open views of the high Allegheny plateau. This area suffered a destructive forest fire that wiped out a large parcel of forest in 1990. The forest is regenerating quite well with densely packed young trees, but due to the area’s harsh weather and high (for Pennsylvania) altitude, the young trees are growing slowly.

Continuing northbound on Route 144, the explorer reaches a stupendous overlook of several canyons that lead dramatically away from the high plateau traversed by the highway, just before the road plunges off that plateau and into an imposing system of treacherous hollows that lead down to the Susquehanna River at Renovo.

Backpackers and adventurous day hikers can explore some of the most remote and secluded areas of Sproul State Forest on the Chuck Keiper Trail. Named after a district forester who worked in the area for more than 20 years, this long-distance backpacking trail provides access to some very special Natural Areas and Wild Areas, plus a wealth of scenery and solitude.

The Chuck Keiper Trail is laid out as a double loop centered at the aforementioned overlook on Route 144. The East Loop is about 22 miles long, and the West Loop is about 33 miles. There are some access points on or near Route 144 that make day hikes possible, while fans of rugged backpacking could take up to a week to complete both loops of the trail.

Highlights of the East Loop are the Cranberry Swamp and East Branch Swamp Natural Areas. These small but valuable parcels are rich examples of the very unique swamp ecosystems that can develop in the high and isolated areas of the Allegheny Plateau. Both of these areas can be reached fairly easily via short in-and-out hikes from nearby dirt roads.

For the intrepid long-distance hiker, the West Loop of the Chuck Keiper Trail leads to several intriguing areas that are unique even for the state forests of the PA Wilds region. For example, south of DeHaas Road are the remains of a large and well-preserved splash dam. This type of structure was utilized in a quite dangerous fashion throughout Pennsylvania during the logging era, in order to create artificial floods that would carry logs downstream.

The southwestern corner of the West Loop features an outstanding waterfall on Yost Run, while the southeastern portion of the West Loop traverses the forest fire zone. This offers the hiker a rather melancholy but all-around fascinating hiking experience — though beware of sunburn.

The greatest highlights of Sproul State Forest are two large Wild Areas that are also reached via the West Loop of Chuck Keiper Trail, to the north and west of the Route 144 overlook. Fish Dam and Burns Run Wild Areas are two especially immense and secluded areas contained in major hollows that plunge dramatically off the plateau and slither great distances to the remote canyons of the Susquehanna near Keating. These are supreme locations for both natural solitude and some of the most rugged outdoor adventure available in Pennsylvania.

Sproul State Forest is a very unique slice of the natural wonders of north-central Pennsylvania, and the Chuck Keiper Trail provides access to areas of supreme solitude and beauty — at a level that will be surprising to many natives of the more settled parts of the state.

If You Go: By car, most of the region discussed here is less than two hours from State College. This segment of Sproul State Forest is traversed by PA Route 144 in southwestern Clinton County and the far northern edge of Centre County, between the towns of Renovo and Moshannon. Some of the precise locations discussed here can be accessed by hiking the Chuck Keiper Trail away from short dirt roads that branch off of Route 144. These roads are usually accessible to most vehicles except in winter. The Chuck Keiper Trail also crosses Route 144 three times, though parking is not always available. The easiest access points are near the Route 144 overlook and on DeHaas Road or Penrose Road. For more details on all of these access points, consult the public use map for Sproul State Forest or the hiker’s map for the Chuck Keiper Trail, both of which can be obtained from state forest personnel.

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 hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail.