Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — September 2008

A Fall Ramble on Pennsylvania’s Wildest Trail

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Cool, crisp days put many in the mood for hiking and one of the best hikes in the Centre region is along the Mid State Trail (MST) on Tussey Mountain. The Mid State Trail is Pennsylvania’s longest and wildest footpath. When completed, this wilderness footpath will stretch from Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland to New York State, joining with the Green Ridge Trail and the Finger Lakes Trail, respectively. Currently, the Mid State Trail only makes it as far north as the northern terminus of Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon (Pine Creek Gorge), but it does reach the Mason-Dixon Line.

A monument erected in 2003 near Little Flat Fire Tower marks the Mid State Trail’s 1969 birthplace. Volunteers from the Penn State Outing Club, and many others led by the Mid State Trail’s founder, Tom Thwaites, headed out of town and up Tussey Mountain to clear the trail over the rocky ridgetop. Thwaites set out to build a trail that bisected the state after he found signs of an early 20th century trail system through the state forests. Students pitched in to help him construct the Mid State Trail, using those old trails as a starting point. Unfortunately, some portions of the trail had become neglected, so much so that the Keystone Trails Association designated it as an Endangered Hiking Trail in 1982 because maintenance of the already constructed areas had fallen behind over the years. Currently the trail is maintained by volunteers who adopt trail segments for regular maintenance. Tom Thwaites still serves as the Mid State Trail’s State College Regional Manager.

Under the leadership of Outings Chair Ben Cramer, the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club last spring adopted the most challenging and scenic segment of the Mid State Trail, 3 rocky miles on Tussey Mountain from the Little Juniata River to Colerain Road in Rothrock State Forest. About a dozen Moshannon Group members, ranging in age from 14 to 66, assisted in painting orange blazes, clearing downed logs from the trail, and making sure that the footpath was clearly visible to hikers. After several work sessions, the trail was deemed satisfactory by the Moshannon Group volunteers.

Known for its great views, this portion of the trail is an outstanding hike for fall foliage lovers. The segment between the Little Juniata River and Colerain Road can be hiked as a “challenge” or “more of a challenge.” The “challenge” way would be to hike from Colerain Road south, with a descent to the river at the endpoint. The ‘more of a challenge” would be the ascend Tussey Mountain first and then proceed northward along the relatively level crest of the mountain toward Colerain Road.

Make sure you have sturdy hiking boots, plenty of water and snacks, because, although this trail segment is only 3 miles long, it is a tough hike due to the sandstone outcrops and rocks that make up the knife-edge top of Tussey in this area. Also bring a camera because your chance of seeing charismatic fauna such as bears and rattlesnakes is very good, and because you will have some excellent views of the surrounding landscape.

To hike the “challenge,’ park one car at the Little Juniata Natural Area parking lot in Rothrock State Forest near Barree in Huntingdon County. Then drive another car to Colerain Road, parking at the crest of Tussey Mountain, where the Mid State Trail crosses Colerain Road.

Your hike south along this Mid State Trail segment will follow the ridgetop, so, even if you somehow miss the frequent bright orange 5 cm x 15 cm blazes that mark the trail, you will easily find your way again. The entire ridge is dominated by chestnut oaks, with white pine, hickory, and red maple adding variety. You’ll not notice any significant change in elevation for the first 2 miles, but you will be treated to several excellent views of forested Round Top and the McLain Run valley to the east, even being able to see Jack’s Mountain most days.

Fabulous views along the Mid State Trail

Fabulous vistas are easy to find along the Mid State Trail

The best view, and a fantastic place to stop for snacks or lunch, is at the large talus slope that marks the beginning of your descent into the Little Juniata River gorge. This rocky outcrop provides you with a panoramic view to the south, west and north. To the south, you'll see Tussey Mountain stretching onward as it makes its way toward the Old Line State. Just west of the mountain you'll see the wooded hills that border the Lower Trail, following the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. Agricultural Canoe Valley, through which Route 22 runs, borders Canoe Mountain, the ridge that you will face as you look to the southwest, and which stops at the northern end of Sinking Valley. Immediately below you, at the foot of the mountain, are the Little Juniata River and its attendant railroad tracks winding through a wooded valley stretching westward to the Brush Mountain/Bald Eagle Ridge junction. Beyond that ridge looms the Allegheny Front, which is dominated by State Game Lands and the Moshannon State Forest. And to the north is the southern end of Nittany Valley with its mixture of forest and agricultural fields.

After taking in lunch and this spectacular view, continue following the orange blazes downward and southward, toward the river. You will see evidence of old quarrying operations, now being reclaimed by the forest, and you'll be treated to some dizzying views from high above the Little Juniata, perhaps getting eye-level photos of the ospreys that are now migrating through our region. The descent is gradual and you will soon be at the Little Juniata Natural Area parking lot and your car, having enjoyed the most interesting segment of the Mid State Trail. Don't forget to pick up the vehicle that you left at Colerain Road!

“Why do large numbers of hikers venture into the wet, wild woods with biting insects and stinging nettles, on trails lined with roots and studded with rocks? There is something different and deeply appealing about hiking in the out-of-doors. The wilder and more beautiful the land, the better the hiking. Clearly, these experiences are spiritual. It is the deep, but bright, secret of hiking. Spiritual experience is essential to our well-being, so hiking remains popular.”
— Tom Thwaites

If You Go: From State College, follow Route 26 south through Pine Grove Mills and over Tussey Mountain and turn right onto the first paved road, Charter Oak Road. Follow it for 6.1 miles and then bear right onto Route 305. Follow Route 305 for 7 miles, passing through Petersburg. Continue on Route 305 for 0.7 miles beyond the metal bridge over Shaver’s Creek in Petersburg and, where Route 305 makes a sharp left turn, instead go straight, following SR 4004 for 2.5 miles, where you’ll turn right onto Mountain Road. Follow Mountain Road for 0.6 mile to its end, a gravel parking lot in the Little Juniata Natural Area. Park one vehicle here for your end shuttle and drive the other vehicle back along Mountain Road and back along SR 4004 to the first asphalt road on the left, Teaberry Road, a Rothrock State Forest road. Follow Teaberry Road to a “T”, turning left onto Tram Road. Follow Tram Road to Colerain Road, which will be on your left. Drive up the eastern flank of Tussey Mountain via Colerain Road and park at the crest of the mountain. The Mid State Trail follows the crest. Walk south along the Mid State Trail toward the Little Juniata Natural Area.

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Stan Kotala is the Wildlife and Endangered Species Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club.