Could a trail pack more variety in a few short miles? Hosack Run Trail, a hard right off the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania's Michaux State Forest, carried us into a hiker's netherworld of rhododendron and mountain laurel. At the peak of their bloom in May, white and pink flowers line the trail like a garden walk. Following a small stream bubbling and spilling its way toward Long Pine Reservoir, we detoured for the hundredth time to explore another piece of Dark Hollow, a murky valley that quickly leads to the sun-splashed reservoir.
In Michaux, the scenery is ever-changing, and your chief avenue of discovery is the Appalachian Trail, which snakes 34 miles along South Mountain past imposing rock sentinels like Pole Steeple and Sunset Rocks. Plenty of loop and spur trails spread across this northernmost outpost of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Still smaller, unmarked foot paths lead farther afield, often to round clearings that were once 30-foot-high charcoal hearths, that reduced Michaux's hardwoods to fuel bound for distant iron ore furnaces.
The Dark Hollow loop starts on the AT at Caledonia State Park. Take Hosack Run Trail off the AT a half mile past the PATC's Quarry Gap Shelter. The valley between Quarry Gap and Wigwam Hill is called Dark Hollow for its sheltered, almost eerie atmosphere. There's good camping within striking distance of the stream. All around stand virgin hemlocks that escaped the loggers' saws in the 1800s. The entire loop clocks in at 8 miles, which leaves plenty of spare hours for exploring without your packs.
For a longer hike, use the AT and the Rocky Knob Trail for an 18-mile loop. From Caledonia State Park, climb to Big Flat Ridge, the highest point on South Mountain. The trail will descend to Reservoir Hollow, after which the orange-blazed Rocky Knob Trail splits off to your right. Be patient and wait for the well-marked trail. The AT-Rocky Knob Trail junction is the halfway point, a good spot to pop up the tent and call it a day. Look for clearings where others have camped. Next day, circle back on Rocky Knob to the AT via 1,930-foot Sier Hill and Long Pine Reservoir.
QUICK TAKE: Michaux State Forest, PA
DRIVE TIME: The forest is 115 miles (2 hours) northwest of the Washington, DC, Beltway, 95 miles (11/2 hours) northwest of the Baltimore Beltway, and 160 miles (3 hours) west of Philadelphia.
THE WAY: From Gettysburg, travel 15 miles west on US 30 to Caledonia State Park. Avoid parking along Ridge Road due to vandalism and theft.
TRAILS: The Dark Hollow loop (8 miles) uses the AT, Hosack Run, Locust Gap, Three Valley, and Ramble Trails. The Rocky Knob loop (18 miles) uses the AT, Rocky Knob, and Locust Gap Trails.
ELEVATION: From 900 feet at the East Branch Conococheague Creek to 2,100 feet north of Methodist Hill.
CAN'T MISS: The view from 1,930-foot Sier Hill, which takes in the Cumberland Valley to the west and Gettysburg to the east.
CROWD CONTROL: Day-trippers inundate Michaux during spring, when mountain laurel and rhododendrons bloom, and backpackers are a common sight on the AT-good reasons to explore side trails.
PIT STOP: At the Flamingo, 2 miles west of Caledonia State Park on US 30 in Fayetteville, the fare is home style and cheap, and the portions are hearty.
WALK SOFTLY: Along Rocky Knob Trail, look for 3- to 4-foot-high mounds, home of the Allegheny moundbuilding ant. Look, but don't touch, unless one crawls up your leg.
MAPS AND GUIDES: The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Circuit Hikes in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania ($6, PATC, 703-242-0764) is the one resource you need. Order the PATC's topo map No. 23 ($5) separately. Also, pick up a free map at Michaux Forest headquarters on US 30 in Fayetteville.
MORE INFORMATION: Michaux State Forest, 10099 Lincoln Way E, Fayetteville, PA 17222; (717) 352-2211.