Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2007

The View above Pennsylvania from the Appalachian Trail

by Ben Cramer

The famous Appalachian Trail (AT) rambles nearly 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, with a substantial portion of its length in Pennsylvania. The midpoint of the trail is in southern Pennsylvania at Pine Grove Furnace State Park. As the trail stretches through the southeastern portion of our great state, it largely follows the top and sides of Blue Mountain, also known as Kittatinny Ridge. This imposing ridge stretches for hundreds of miles and towers over both Harrisburg and Allentown.

The AT has spawned a unique subculture of extreme backpackers and obsessive through-hikers, who have formed unique opinions about the trail’s rocky and demanding Pennsylvania segment. Travel writer Bill Bryson has quoted an AT through-hiker who described the trail in Pennsylvania as “where boots go to die.” Few visitors, or natives, expect the severe rocks that jut out of the tops of our ridges.

Pennsylvania outdoor lovers are surely aware of the presence of the AT, but local people don’t often consider the possibility of hiking a small portion of those 2,200 miles to see the best of our natural wonders. A great sample hike is found at Clark's Ferry Bridge, which carries US 22 and 322 across the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg.

The Appalachian Trail itself crosses this bridge, as the Susquehanna is by far the largest river encountered by the trail. After jumping off an exit ramp for PA 147, the trail crosses some active railroad tracks and charges up Peters Mountain, which rises about 900 feet above the river. Hikers willing to tackle a demanding climb and a four-mile circuit hike will be treated to stupendous views from the top of the mountain, which will surely earn the appreciation of the most jaded AT through-hiker.

After crossing the tracks, the AT (which features white blazes) jumps up a stone retaining wall and begins a switchback climb up Peters Mountain. In about one-third of a mile, the trail passes below several rocky outcroppings and then squeezes through them to continue the climb. You soon reached a signed junction with the blue-blazed Susquehanna Trail, which is now a spur trail but was a former route of the AT itself.

Turn sharply left onto the blue-blazed trail (this loop hike will return you to this junction later). The Susquehanna Trail continues your slow rise above the river, and then starts climbing vigorously up the mountainside after crossing a grassy jeep road. At the very top of the mountain, you find yourself at another junction with the Appalachian Trail. A short distance to the left (northbound on the AT) is a substantial backpacking shelter, and the top of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin is about a thousand miles beyond.

For this loop hike, instead turn right (southbound) and again follow the white blazes of the AT. You soon find yourself hopping along the extremely rocky knife-edged top of Peters Mountain. The adventurous hiker will enjoy exploring the rocky outcroppings, and the contortionist may find multiple views from the tops of the piles. Be very careful though, because there are some severe drops off the rock piles.

For all hikers, the trail leads to several full views as well. After about half a mile of sheer rock hopping, reach a vista to the right over Clark's Ferry Bridge. The cars look like ladybugs from up here. Continuing along the edge of the ridge, views up and down the Susquehanna become available in both directions off the ridgetop, because the river makes a broad semicircle around the mountain. Here you can see how wide the Susquehanna River truly is, while the frequent islands and riffles reveal that the river is also very shallow.

Eventually the AT swings back around the end of the mountain and heads back downhill toward the bridge. During the descent there are multiple views to the left over the small town of Duncannon on the opposite side of the river. You can also see the outlet of the Juniata River, another major Pennsylvania waterway that from here appears to be just a minor tributary of the Susquehanna.

About halfway down the mountainside you reach the signed junction with the Susquehanna Trail, where you turned earlier. Here, complete the loop hike by continuing downhill on the AT. Emerge at the railroad tracks and cross them carefully. During your hike you have probably heard more than one train chugging down these tracks.

The rocky nature of this hike requires adequate hiking boots, and do not attempt this hike during the winter or during rainy conditions.

For an overview of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, see the publications of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club. The hike described here is also featured (with slight variations) in the book Fifty Hikes in Eastern Pennsylvania by Tom Thwaites.

Also note that Peters Mountain has recently been suggested as a possible location for wind turbines, an idea that will seem both tragic and ridiculous to hikers on the demanding Appalachian Trail.

If You Go: The hike described here is easily reached via the US 22/322 bridge over the Susquehanna River north of Harrisburg, about 90 minutes southeast of State College via US 322. Traveling eastbound, immediately after the river crossing, take the exit for PA 147 and the town of Halifax. At the bottom of the exit ramp, turn left and pass under the bridge. Parking is found immediately at the side of the roadway. The Appalachian Trail also follows this bridge and exit ramp over the river, passes by an obvious trail sign, and continues up the hillside on the other side of the railroad tracks.

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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 editor of a forthcoming guide to Pennsylvania hiking trails, to be released by Stackpole Books in Spring 2008.