One of the best parts of living in Pittsburgh is that you’re never far from nature. One of the best parts about living in Pennsylvania is our well maintained State Park and Forest system. Sadly, I don ?t think enough yinzers take full advantage of what’s at their disposal. When they do, it ?s usually to the Southern Laurel Highlands and the area around Ohiopyle. There is a lot more hiking available to you with the seclusion that one generally is looking for when they head to the woods about an hour further north.
Moving forward, I ?ll profile ways to get outdoors, and some day hikes within an hour or two of downtown. I ?ll start with my usual spots. I live in Greensburg and the Ligonier / Route 30 corridor offers plenty of great paths. They center around the Laurel Highlands Trail, a 70 mile through hike that runs from Seward just outside of Johnstown to Ohiopyle. From it or near it spurs a number of side trails in the Laurel Summer, and Linn Run State Park as well as Forbes State Forest.
A few quick disclaimers. First, hiking isn ?t for everyone and you can get hurt or even die if you ?re not properly prepared. While I think it ?s great physical exercise, you need to already be in decent shape before embarking on a trip. If you ?re overweight, have a history of heart programs and health issues or are not in good enough shape to walk up steep hills in town without significant effort, you may want to check with doctor before you embark on anything too rigorous. Alltrails is a great resource to help you determine difficulty. Most of the stretches of the Laurel Highlands Trail in this area are easy to moderate, but there are some notably more rigorous sections.
Also, consider the length of your hike. If you ?re not in great shape or new to hiking, don ?t plan to backpack all 70 miles of the Laurel Highland Trail next weekend. You need to build up to it and consider a mile in the woods is more difficult than an mile on a sidewalk or crushed limestone rail conversion. I recommend going with at least one other person, preferably someone more experienced than yourself if you ?re a beginner. Also it ?s a great idea to take someone who you enjoy spending time with. You also need good shoes, with ankle support. The trails around here can get rocky at times, particularly in the eastern area. Ideally, you should use hiking boots, but you don ?t need to spend big to get a great pair. My boots came from the Columbia outlets and I got them for less than $50. Finally, observe any signs you see on the trail. They ?re not posted for fun. They ?re because someone probably got injured doing something dumb in that area.
The Laurel Highlands Trail isn ?t always the most picturesque, but it ?s not like you ?re hiking in the Cascades. Check your expectations, but in my opinion, you ?re never far from something subtle, but beautiful or interesting, like the bright orange fungus pictured below. I ?ve hiked all but a very small stretch of the Laurel Highlands Trail between PA 271 and the bridge across I-76. The flora shifts from fern carpeted, deciduous forest to evergreen groves to chutes lined on both sides by Mountain Laurel.
If you ?re up for a hike a little over seven miles, bring a friend and two cars. Park one in a lot labeled PW&S Parking lot just as Laurel Summit Rd bends to the right. Note the old railroad bed that goes up the hill as you ?re entering the parking lot. You ?ll need to make a right turn on to it when it ?s time to head back to you car and the end of the hike. It ?s not labeled, but it ?s about 20 yards after mile marker 39. Park the other car at the US 30 parking lot where your trek will begin.
Just south of the start point, you ?ll encounter a granite maze where you weave between twenty foot tall, moss covered boulders. Two miles on, you ?ll hit one of those laurel chutes I mentioned which opens into a series of mountain streams that heavy late spring rains have notably shifted their courses. It ?s a great example of how nature can rapidly reshape itself that too often we don ?t consider. You won ?t encounter too many vistas on the trail, but two and half miles further, you ?ll meet Beam Rocks, a crevassed, cliff face roughly a hundred feet tall where you can see across Somerset County to the Allegheny Front. Be careful around this area as falls can be deadly and rattlesnakes like to sun themselves on exposed rocks like these. After you pass the base of the rocks, you ?ll see a trail blazed with red markers that will take you to the overlook at the top. For a shorter hike, you can also access Beam Rocks from a marked trail at a parking lot on Laurel Summit Road. A number of side paths intersect the Laurel Highlands Trail through Forbes State Forest. Hiking the area for two years, I haven ?t explored all of them. You could backpack the area for a few days before you hit them all.
For shorter hikes with some photo snapping payoff, you can explore other parts of the State Forest and Linn Run State Park. Keep in mind, the road that connects the two washed out, so a two mile drive becomes a 15 mile trek. Spruce Flats Bog offers a break from the forest, wildflowers and bird watching. It ?s not far at all from the PW&S lot where I suggested starting the hike. Wolf Rocks provides a view of the valley that serves as the source for Linn Run in a mile and half round trip hike. In Linn Run, Adams Falls Trail is relatively easy out and back walk if you just go to the falls. It is uphill much of the way there, but the path is relatively clear. You also need to pay attention to where you ?re going because you can actually walk past the falls if you ?re not paying attention. The rest of the trail is rocky and not really worth the potential ankle soreness in my opinion. If you are looking for more of a challenge in Linn Run, I highly recommend the Grove Run Loop which climbs part of the way up the mountain along its namesake stream and crosses a number of other smaller feeders along the way up.
So congratulations, you went on a hike. Now it ?s time to treat yourself to some empty calories and The Original Pie Shoppe in Laughlintown has some of best. Don ?t let the name fool you, their specialty is doughnuts and they make some of the best I’ve ever had. They ?re big, simple and fluffy. I ?d put their product up against nationally known brands like Portland ?s Voodoo Doughnut any day. You won ?t get flavor combinations weirder than Maple Bacon in Laughlintown, but they do the basics incredibly well. Also consider the fried cinnamon bun which has become my go to. For what it’s worth, the pie ?s not bad either and some folks swear by their pizza as well.
Be safe, be prepared for any hikes you do take and I highly recommend reading up on hiking best practices elsewhere on the internet or finding a more experienced friend before you hit the trail. Consider that in this piece, I highlighted only about 15 miles of trail, and alluded to three times as much in a relatively small area in just one direction outside of Pittsburgh. That ?s just a drop in the bucket of what ?s available to you. If you want good exercise or want to go exploring, you have plentiful options in your own back yard.