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Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Go Long In Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands

On this 70-miler, see rhododendrons by day and hike light by staying in shelters at night.

by: Lesley Suppes

Map by International Mapping Associates
Map by International Mapping Associates

Shaded by a dense hardwood canopy, cut by clear, wildflower lined creeks, and pocked with postcard-worthy ridgetop views, the 70-mile Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT) is one of the Keystone state's marquee paths. An hour south of Pittsburgh, the Laurel Highlands hover around 2,500 feet, and stay 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the humid valley floor. Pack light: There are eight shelter sites along the five- to six-day trek. Each site is equipped with a water pump, outhouses, refuse bins, tent-camping areas, and five Adirondack-style lean-to's, replete with stone fireplaces and built-in cooking racks.

Do it From the LHHT's southwest terminus (1), just north of Ohiopyle, head northeast to a 2,200-foot unnamed knob (2). Stop for a jpeg of the the rushing Youghiogheny (sounds like: Yawkagainy) River below. Camp comes early at the Ohiopyle Shelters at mile 6.3 (3). Next morning, prepare for a 1.2-mile lung-buster that climbs 1,100 feet on stone staircases. Along the way, mushrooms and mosses yield to wildflowers, then towering hardwoods and fern-carpeted groves. At mile 11 (4), soak your head under a six-foot cascade streaming over 360-million-year-old rock. Watch for redback salamanders and wood ducks as you cross a small dam a mile later (5). By mile 16, large swaths mountain laurel, the state flower, line the trail (blooming through June). You'll pass massive rock outcroppings before arriving at the Rt. 653 Shelters at mile 18 (6).

Rise early for the next day's 14-mile trek, and you'll have plenty of time for a mid-morning break to watch hawks at an overlook at mile 21.3 (7). Pass the Grindle Ridge Shelters in two more miles (8). Pack some cash for lunch (fresh pizza and cookies!) at the 7 Springs Mountain Resort (800-452-2223; 7springs.com) at mile 26.2 (9), the highest point on the trail. From here, hike down ski slopes, past the snowmaking ponds, and finally up switchbacks to the Rt. 31 Shelters (10).

On day three, trek 12 miles through cherry, maple, beech, and hemlock, crossing a hikers' bridge over the turnpike at mile 36. Pass the Turnpike Shelters and take a break at Beam Rock (11), an outcrop of 90-foot-high pinnacles. It's five more wooded miles to the Rt. 30 Shelters (12) at mile 46.5.

Start day four with a quick splash in Machine Run (13), a spring 1.5 miles from camp. From here, head 9.5 miles through giant cinnamon ferns sprinkled with patches of blueberry and blackberry bushes to the Rt. 271 Shelters at mile 56.9 (14). The final day is a relatively gentle 13 miles. Be sure to stop at the lookout tower at mile 66 for a view of Conemaugh Gap and shimmering Big Spring Reservoir. From the tower, it's four downhill miles to the trailhead.

Bring Rover In 2008, for the first time ever, dogs are allowed at overnight shelters.

Season October is prime time, with colorful foliage and great weather. It's also when most of the 70,000 annual visitors go (less than one percent are thru-hikers). Alternatively, try spring through midsummer for roaring creeks and lighter traffic.

Look both ways Timber rattlesnakes, black bears, and poison ivy are concerns, but the biggest dangers to Zen-ed out hikers are the numerous road crossings. Be especially aware at US 30 and PA 271.

Plan It

Book
Grab the Hiker's Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail ($7, alleghenysc.org).

Shuttle Wilderness Voyageurs (800-272-4141, wilderness-voyageurs.com).

Permits
Required for the shelters ($4.50/night; dcnr.state.us.pa/stateparks, 724-455-3744).

The Way From Pittsburgh, drive 65 miles southeast on I-76 to PA 31/711/381. Head south 22 miles to Ohiopyle.




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Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star
Andrew
Jun 01, 2013

Recently covered 57 miles of this trail over 72 hours with my wife. We did it southbound after dropping our car at Ohiopyle and taking a shuttle to mile marker 57.

We enjoyed the trail overall but found the section between I-76 and Ohiopyle to be much more enjoyable. Overall the trail is well maintained with markers every mile. The shelters aren't necessarily placed in the most ideal locations but they're very nice and well maintained. As another commenter noted, potable water isn't always available so bring a filter.

Beginners can easily do short sections but I wouldn't recommend thru-hikes without some prior experience.

Saw very little wildlife due to the season but did cross rattlesnakes near Ohiopyle as the weather warmed. Definitely stay alert as one always should.

Star Star Star Star Star
Jim
Dec 15, 2012

We hiked from US 30 south to Seven Springs. A great trail and a great time. We will do more.

yautja
May 28, 2012

Word to the wise: NOT for beginners or novices. You'll spend a lot of your time trying to avoid slipping on rocks, branches, or tree roots. Also some of the maps are wrong...there is no water/shelter area at mile marker 46, for example.

Rick-Pittsburgh
May 15, 2012

I have spent alot of time on this trail over the years.Last year alone I thru-hiked it 4x. Twice nobo from Ohiopyle th and twice sobo from Seward.
Summer, fall, winter, and spring. Love this trail. I will be attempting the whole thing in 48hrs in August(sobo.) I am actually shooting for around 36 but I will be happy with 48. ;)

Kilgore_trout
Aug 31, 2010

The LHHT is awesome!

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