Laurel Highlands has striking views, comforts for hikers

70-mile trail along ridge heavily used, well marked

Trips: road trips, regional events

March 04, 2004|By Bob Downing | Bob Downing,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

OHIOPYLE, Pa. - The beloved Laurel Highlands Trail stretches 70 miles along a ridge top in southwest Pennsylvania.

The trail - it's the No. 2 most-used trail in Pennsylvania, behind the Appalachian Trail - has its southern terminus at Ohiopyle State Park.

The yellow-blazed trail runs to the northeast to the village of Seward on the Conemaugh River near historic Johnstown, the site of the famed 1889 flood, and follows forest-covered Laurel Ridge, serving up a healthy dose of wild and rugged back country for hikers and backpackers.

Much of the trail lies in Laurel Ridge State Park with its 13,625 acres in five counties: Cambria, Fayette, Somerset, Westmoreland and Indiana.

The park, mainly a green corridor atop the mountain, is maintained as a natural area with limited development.

Hiking is generally easy to moderate because the trail follows the ridge top, and side trails are marked with blue blazes. No horses, mountain bikes or all-terrain vehicles are permitted on the trail.

The trail is heavily used, well marked and well maintained. There are obelisk mile-markers along the trail, which can be crowded with Scout groups in the spring and summer. The trail's mileage runs from zero in the south to 70 in the north.

Views are outstanding, with high-altitude vistas of the white-water Youghiogheny River and the surrounding Laurel Highlands. In addition, the trail winds through rhododendron hills or thickets, hemlock forests, mountaintops covered in mountain laurel and maze-like rock outcroppings of sandstone. There are waterfalls, wildflowers, spring-fed streams and shaded hollows.

Visitors can see mountain laurel blooms in June and the rhododendron in late June and early July. The fall color typically peaks in mid-October.

The elevation along the trail ranges from 1,200 feet at the northern and southern ends to 2,950 feet at the highest point on the ridge.

The Laurel Highlands Trail, which ties together state parks, state forest and state game lands, also serves up some comfort: three-sided Adirondack-style shelters with stone fireplaces, cleared campsites, well water, cut firewood and toilets for backpackers every eight to 12 miles along the trail.

The water is safe but unfiltered. Bears can be frequent campground visitors, so suspending food in bags is recommended. Rangers are on the trail frequently.

There are seven trailheads between Ohiopyle and Johnstown, all along major roads. The trailheads are:

State Route 381, north of Ohiopyle.

Maple Summit Road, east of Bear Run.

State Route 653, east of Mill Run.

State Route 31, east of Donegal.

U.S. 30, west of Jennerstown.

State Route 271, west of Johnstown.

State Route 56 at Seward.

The trail, which passes through the heart of Seven Springs Mountain Resort, was devised and designed in the 1960s by volunteers from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and state personnel.

Laurel Ridge State Park gets about 75,000 visitors a year, of whom 67,000 are hikers and backpackers.

Some of the best scenery is at the southern end in the rugged 11.22 miles between Maple Summit Road and Ohiopyle.

The 11.8-mile stretch from state Route 653 to state Route 31 leads to the trail's highest peaks - with a steady uphill climb for several miles.

The 10.4-mile stretch from state Route 31 to Beam Rocks offers wildlife, wildflowers, waterfalls, great scenery and a chance to wave to motorists on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It may be the most varied and best day hike along the trail.

Hiking the entire trail can take four to seven days.

In general, the ridge is cooler and gets more precipitation than surrounding valleys.

Advance reservations are required for overnights. The fee is $3 per person per night or $11 for groups of four or more per night. Call 724-455-3744 for overnight reservations. Backpackers cannot stay a second night at the same spot. You must move because of the reservation system.

No pets are allowed along the trail.

Recently, the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Trail was added to the prestigious Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail.

For more information

Write to Laurel Ridge State Park, 1117 Jim Mountain Road, Rockwood, PA 15557; call 724-455-3744. You can also visit www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/parks/laurelridge.aspx.

A handy guide is "A Hiker's Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail" (Sierra Club, $6). It is available at P.O. Box 8241, Pittsburgh, PA 15217.

Getting there

Take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Somerset (Exit 10), and then depending on the trailhead you want, watch for signs for U.S. 30 to Jennerstown or Route 31 west to Bakersville or Route 281 south to New Centerville, then Route 653 west for 6 miles. All the trailheads are atop the ridge, either at the crest or on the western face. Parking areas are marked with brown signs.

For more regional trips, see Page 37.

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