Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, May 2008

Day 2

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Overnight I was awakened three to four times, maybe more, by trains in the valley below. The muted noise from their rumbling engines and the shrill sound of their air horns cut through the foggy, cool night air and reverberated off the mountains on each side of the tracks. Even though the trains woke me several times I quickly faded back to sleep as I listened to the lonely sounds fading away in the distance.

I woke up this morning around 7:00 a.m. and lay in my sleeping bag until the alarm on my watch chimed one-half hour later. The temperature probably dipped into the low to mid 40's overnight and it had rained for a while as well. It was still pretty cool and damp as we made our final preparations and packed away the last pieces of gear. We draped the tent and rainfly over some branches hoping it would dry out a bit before it was relinquished to the trunk as it would not be going on the hike with us. In order to reduce some of the weight in our packs we chose to leave the tent behind. We knew we would not be using it during the week because in order to use the shelters I had to call several weeks ahead of time and reserve one for each day of our hike.

Low-hanging gray clouds blanketed the morning sky as we conducted a final walk-through of the campsite for misplaced items or garbage. Satisfied that everything was in order we jumped into my car and within minutes were driving through Ohiopyle in search of the Wilderness Voyageurs building. The plan was to follow their vehicle out to the Route 30 parking area, leave my car in the lot and then get a ride back to the storefront which was just down the road from the trailhead.

We checked in at 9:00 a.m. but had to stand around for an hour while they located a driver. During our short delay we were entertained by a group of junior high school students who showed up for a whitewater rafting field trip. I say entertained because we got quite a laugh out of watching them, especially the females, as they ran around, all giddy-like, preparing for their trip. First they had to locate an appropriate sized wetsuit from several racks of suits located outside at the rear of the store. With wetsuits in-hand, it became even more comical as they struggled to don the protective gear. The students laughed, giggled and good-heartedly complained about the cold, wet conditions of the suits as they contorted their arms, legs and bodies in various poses while tugging and pulling up the tight rubber suits. I didn't know the temperature of the river water, but with the cloudy sky and temps between 45-50 degrees it was safe to assume they'd all be pretty cold once they hit the water.

At 9:55 a.m. I finally was introduced to the shuttle driver who I followed for roughly the next 40-45 minutes until we arrived at the Route 30 parking lot. The drive was easy and relaxing as miles and miles of rolling hills, farms and distant mountains passed before my eyes. Just before arriving at the parking lot we passed Walat's Tavern. I had read a trip report on the internet that mentioned the awesome lb burgers available at this local watering hole. As it turned out, Walat's was only a very short distance from where my car would be parked as well as from our last night's shelter.

After parking my car I jumped into the Wilderness Voyageurs van for the ride back. The vehicle was occupied by Ben, the driver, and his small black and white dog. He was a nice guy and we had some good conversation on the way back during which he educated me on the area's history and local points of interest. On the way back to the business we passed by miles of old houses, manicured yards and split rail horse fences. Apparently, much of the land in the Ligonier area is owned by "old money" families such as the Rockefellers, Melons, Carnegies, etc. When we began the drive out to Route 30 the clouds had cleared out to reveal a sapphire-colored sky sprayed with occasional wispy layers of white clouds, but by the time we returned to the outfitter the sky had once again clouded over.

After returning to Wilderness Voyageurs at 11:40 a.m. we ate a quick sandwich and geared up for the start of our hike. We headed toward the trailhead which was only a 2-minute walk down the road behind the Wilderness Voyageurs storefront. The beginning of the trail was clearly marked by a common state park-style sign; a brown plank with engraved lettering highlighted by yellow paint. At 12:00 p.m. we walked off the roadway and into the wilderness via a short climb up some old weathered log steps set into the side of a small hill. The first mile to mile and a half passed quickly and although the trail was rather muddy it was, nonetheless, pretty darn level. The trail ran parallel to and just up the hill from the railroad tracks that pass through town, and just like the previous night, they were busy with the rumbling iron behemoths that frequent this habitat. Every few minutes we passed by seemingly random-placed boulders roughly the size of buses which occupied areas on both sides of the trail. The vegetation surrounding us consisted of maple and tulip trees and the regular forest dwelling ground foliage.

By the time we reached our first 600-foot climb the temperature was probably about 50-55 degrees, but even though it was still cloudy and cool it didn't take long to work up a sweat. We took a couple very short stops to catch our breath on the way up and to let some of the lactic acid burn in our legs diminish. As the trail crested we were left standing on a rocky precipice overlooking the now puny river and train tracks in the valley below. The surrounding panorama looked as though the landscape had been hastily covered by a large green shag carpet without the creases and wrinkles having been smoothed out. It was an awesome view, and one we guessed we would see many more times in the next couple days.

From here the trail leveled out for a while before making a steep descent of roughly 400 feet. We watched every stride as we stepped on and over the rocks in the trail, careful not to make the wrong move which could potentially lead to a disastrous, trip-ending injury. As the trail plummeted further downward we realized this descent was quickly devouring all the elevation gain we had just made, and we were being set up for our next climb further down the trail. Shortly before the three mile mark we passed a single male hiker traveling in the opposite direction. His ultra-light load consisted of only a hydration pack strapped to his back. We spoke only long enough to exchange the typical trail greetings and to learn that he was almost finished with his 8 mile out-and-back hike. After passing this guy I couldn't help but think of the people who participate in the annual Laurel Highlands Ultra every year. While doing my research I had come across a couple websites related to this race. It is run every year on the second Saturday in June. The object is simple, like any other race you want to be the person and/or relay team to cross the finish line with the quickest elapsed time. The race begins in Ohiopyle and ends 70.5 miles away at the opposite end of the trail. Just hiking the trail over several days seems like it will be somewhat strenuous, so I couldn't imagine how difficult it would be to run this entire trail over several hours. As it turns out, the winner of the 2007 Laurel Highlands Ultra, Adam Lint, completed the entire course in 12 hours, 11 minutes and 24 seconds! The pictures I saw on one website showed some monster blisters on the author's feet after running this race. Even the photos looked painful.

We crossed a small stream (Rock Spring Run) near some waterfalls at roughly 3.25 miles and took a short break to take in the sights and talk with two other hikers. One of the guys said we had picked a good trail to hike. He said he had backpacked quite a few Pennsylvania trails and the Laurel Highlands Trail was definitely his favorite. We mentioned that we had only hiked in Michigan before this trip and that we had been to Isle Royale several times. He said he wanted to hike there the following month, but it didn't look like the trip was going to work out.

We continued on and immediately began another steep climb. At about the 4.5 mile mark we entered a clearing overlooking a valley, river and mountains directly across from us. While we watched, the sun appeared through a tiny slice in the clouds. As the clouds shifted above us, the sunlight moved across the landscape and illuminated details in the valley below, like the beam from a lighthouse cutting a path through a dark night sky. Shortly after we passed the mile five marker the trail began another steep descent and crossed another river, Lick Run. Within a few minutes we passed the 6-mile cement marker and finished our day with a .3 mile climb to the shelter area.

We entered the shelter area around 4:10 p.m. only to discover the place deserted. Shelter #5 was at the opposite end of the camp and only 30 feet from a small babbling, stream. At the same time, however, it was uphill and as far away from the wood pile and water as it could be. We left the packs in the shelter and promptly began searching for firewood. The main pile didn't contain much wood that was dry and suitable for burning so we scavenged the leftover wood from several of the surrounding shelters. After today's hike the last thing we wanted to do was exert more energy lugging several armfuls of heavy wood back to our shelter, but we made rather quick work of the job and then went to get water from the pump. The water was tinged brown and contained a little sediment but I'd had worse.

It was now roughly 5:30 p.m. and we were pretty tired so the sleeping pads and bags were unrolled and we rested for a while. I took a half an hour nap but was awakened by a cold sensation where my shirt had come untucked and exposed my back to the cool air. The temperature was probably about 50-55 degrees. I wrote in my journal for a while and then reviewed the map for tomorrow's section of trail.

Prior to this trip we had never hiked an area where we had a genuine stone-built fireplace right at our site so this was quite a treat. It wasn't extremely cold but the fire definitely helped take the chill out of the shelter. It's amazing how something as simple as a small fire, especially while in the wilderness, can magically lift your spirits and put you in a better frame of mind. We started cooking our beef stroganoff dinner around 7:30 p.m. A short time later we were dining on a tasty meal in front of a warm, crackling fire and recounting the highlights of the day's events. We'd collected enough firewood to last us all night and we strategically stacked the wood at the edge of the fireplace. The idea was to use a stick as a poker to reach out from the shelter and push a new piece into the embers when the flames began to die down, thus allowing the fire to continue throughout the night.

Even though the sun played cat-and-mouse with the clouds all day we still had very comfortable hiking weather. The temperature was supposed to drop down to 43 degrees overnight and hit approximately 62 degrees during the day tomorrow. The forecast also called for rain on Wednesday (the day after tomorrow) which we hoped would change as time progressed. The bugs were virtually non-existent today except for a couple small winged creatures in the shelter area, but they weren't bad and better yet, they weren't mosquitoes! Along with not encountering any bugs we also did not see any rattlesnakes, bears or signs of bears like one of the internet postings had mentioned. Finally, we did not have a mouse infested shelter like I had read about. This was excellent news!

Before I knew it the time was 10:50 p.m. and I was ready for bed. By now the well-fed fire had been blazing steadily for three and a half hours so the bricks in the fireplace were searing hot and radiating a healthy dose of heat into the shelter. The occasional crackle and pop of the burning wood, mixed with the constant white noise of the stream had a narcotic-like effect on my psyche and eased me into a deep, restful sleep.

Final count for the day: Three other hikers, a few deer prints in the mud, a blue jay and an unidentified yellow and orange bird.

Miles Covered Today: 6.3
Total Trip Miles: 6.3
Elevation Change Today: 3600 feet
Total Elevation Change: 3600 feet

Day 3

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:26 AM