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Pennsylvania: Roaring Run Natural Area

A precious backcountry jewel amid the hardwood forests.

Little-Known Fact: Roaring Run Natural Area features a complete mountain stream protected entirely within its boundaries.

Even though the sun kept me comfortable in just a cotton T-shirt, I knew there wouldn’t be enough warm daylight hours left to dry out my boots if I gave them a thorough dunking. I was being especially careful on the 3.9-mile Roaring Run Trail as it crisscrossed its namesake stream. But then I saw it, across the stream, not 30 feet from where I paused to survey the steep valley walls ~ a miniature waterfall gushing from the rocks. I shrugged off my pack and plunged across the shin-deep pool, forgetting my resolution to keep my boots dry.

Roaring Run is a pristine, spring- and rain-fed mountain stream that originates entirely within Roaring Run Natural Area. The area covers 3,593 acres in the rolling mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania. Its location, layout, and terrain make it ideal for spontaneous weekend trips and shakedown hikes designed to break in new gear.

The area contains five trails that connect at 17 points to form a 15-mile loop system. About half of the system covers level terrain (popular with cross-country skiers in winter), although some of the steeper trails can rise more than 150 feet in a quarter mile. This loop arrangement is ideal for solo outings because you don’t have to retrace your steps to your car.

Some of the trails are poorly marked, and there are enough water runoffs and old jeep trails to confuse easily distracted hikers. I usually spend about a quarter of my time getting lost and the other three-quarters finding my way back. But the area is small and surrounded by roads, so there’s no need to panic if you do get confused. Just hike in one direction for a few miles until you hit an identifiable road, or head downhill to the bottom of the valley and pick up the stream and Roaring Run Trail.

The best vista in Roaring Run Natural Area is at Painter’s Rock, which looks south over the valley. The only sign of civilization is a single house and fire tower more than three miles to the west, mercifully obscured by vegetation in the spring and summer. The entire valley stretches below you, and it’s easy to forget you’re only a mile from the nearest parking area.

The last time I was on Painter’s Rock, I laid down to take a nap in the Indian summer sun. As I closed my eyes, a shadow passed over me, and I looked up to see a hawk gliding off ~ proof that enjoyable backcountry doesn’t have to be big or far from home.

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