Where I usually hike, a scurrying chipmunk qualifies as a big-game sighting. So imagine my excitement at the chance to see a majestic animal the size of a love seat on stilts. And in Pennsylvania, of all places. With words like "300 elk" and "primeval forest" ringing in our ears, Jess and I set out to hike the 72-mile Quehanna Trail.
It's hard to believe animals so large could keep such a low profile, yet few people know elk have been residents of central Pennsylvania since the 1920s. One of only two herds reintroduced east of the Mississippi, this contingent has slowly expanded its range south, creeping outside the borders of Elk State Forest and into view of lucky hikers on the Quehanna.
To increase our chances of seeing wapiti, we headed for the northeast section of the trail. Regardless of where you jump onto the Quehanna, you'll hike through classic Eastern forest so wild that you forget Pittsburgh is just down the road. You'll find dark, forbidding hemlock groves along the southeast section of the trail and silvery stands of ramrod-straight birch in the north-central part of the Quehanna that passes through Marion Brooks Natural Area. From rock outcrops along the southcentral part of the trail you can look across Gifford Run at rolling hills blanketed in deep forest cover. Cool down on hot days by dipping into nearly any valley, where you can hopscotch across creeks flanked by twisted rhododendron or towering pines. The western portion of the trail in Moshannon State Forest and Parker Dam State Park is out of elk range but you may bump into deer, bobcats, and bears.
Jess and I saw the usual array of Eastern songbirds while hiking under leafy canopies, but what we really wanted to spot was a large rack, a buff-colored rump, or a pair of dark, pointy ears. During a break along the edge of a grassy meadow, several large, dark shapes on the next ridge caught our attention. We squinted into the sun and wondered aloud whether they were deer or elk. After the animals slipped into the forest, we decided they were probably too big to be deer, although we had some lingering doubts until we almost stepped into a fresh pile of scat. No deer makes nuggets that large.
QUICK TAKE: Quehanna Trail, PA
DRIVE TIME: The Quehanna Trail is about 270 miles (5 hours) northwest of Philadelphia and 150 miles (3 hours) east of Pittsburgh.
THE WAY: To access the western-most trailhead at Parker Dam State Park, take exit 18 off I-80. Turn onto PA 153 north and follow the signs to Parker Dam. You can pick up a map at the park headquarters and follow country roads to other trailheads. The Quehanna Highway crosses the trail three times and gets you near the northeast section of trail, where you're most likely to see elk.
TRAILS: The 72-mile Quehanna Trail loops through Parker Dam State Park and Elk and Moshannon state forests, and several natural areas. Hiking the full loop takes 5 to 6 days. Trips of 7 miles and up can be arranged using the Quehanna cross connectors and numerous cross-country ski trails that bisect the loop.
ELEVATION: Little Fork Vista rises to 2,100 feet; several valleys dip to 900 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Plan your trip around the nine vistas marked on the Quehanna Trail Map.
CROWD CONTROL: Although the number of visitors is increasing, central-Pennsylvania trails still see a limited number of backcountry users.
PIT STOP: The ice-cream shop in Karthaus satisfies post-trip munchies.
WALK SOFTLY: Overnight camping is not allowed in natural areas or within 100 feet of roads. Camp-fires are not permitted during fire season (early spring) or during droughts. Call Moshannon State Forest to check fire dangers.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Quehanna Trail Map is available free from Moshannon and Elk state forests. 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, by Tom Thwaites ($14; Countryman Press, 800-245-4151), also profiles the trail.
MORE INFORMATION: Mo-shannon State Forest, Box 952, Clearfield, PA 16830; (814) 765-0821. Elk State Forest, P.O. Box 327, Emporium, PA 15834; (814) 486-3353. A camping permit, available over the phone, is required in Elk State Forest.