This Thanksgiving weekend I decided to hike a trail that would offer new experiences and challenges, while also returning me to past chapters of my life.
I decided to thru-hike the Standing Stone Trail.
Over ten years ago, I lived in Lewistown. I was new to the area and learned of a trail some volunteers were trying to re-open after nearly being abandoned. At that time, it was known as the Link Trail. I decided to help out. I joined the club, helped maintain the trail, and even incorporated the club. While I lived in Lewistown, I hiked several sections of the trail. I was amazed by its vistas, geological features, and historical remnants.
I was on this trail after the 9/11 terror attacks. I drove up Allensville Road that evening to hike a short section of the trail to clear my mind. I passed a man who was tracking raptors at Hawk Watch; I asked him about the tragic news of the day. He looked at me with a blank stare- he hadn’t heard. He walked away dumbfounded. I almost felt guilty for telling him. I reached Sausser’s Stonepile under crystal clear skies as the sun began to set, casting the mountain ridges in a golden glow. It was breathtaking. But what I remember most was what was not there- not a single plane was in the sky. There was complete silence as the daylight faded away to a cool, somber evening.
I knew the trail had the potential to not only be one of the best in Pennsylvania, but also the mid-atlantic. But I would not be there to see it through. I moved from the area, keeping tabs on the trail from a distance. The trail was re-named the Standing Stone Trail (SST) and a concerted effort began to truly remake the trail with new routes and additional features. The work volunteers have contributed to dig new sidehill, move rocks, create steps, water bars, cribbing, and a shelter is nothing short of impressive. Along the way, a trail is gradually being reborn.
The SST used to exist in the shadows of Pennsylvania’s better known backpacking trails. That is beginning to change. The unique features of this trail can no longer be ignored. It does not simply link vistas or streams in the isolation of a state forest, rather the SST links two state parks and towns. It introduces you to communities, farms, and bucolic countrysides where people live and work. It transports you along a corridor with remnants of how people used to live their lives in relation to the land. It offers a backpacking experience so different in Pennsylvania. As the trail improves, it will take its place as one of the state’s finest.
So on a chilly Wednesday night I met Amanda and Kevin in Cowans Gap State Park. The stars glistened across the sky. We shuttled our car north to Greenwood Furnace State Park. In over an hour we drove a distance that would take us four days to backpack- a distance that would be 79 miles.
We reached Greenwood Furnace, once home to an iron smelting community. We began hiking on the trail at about midnight. After a half mile in, we found a clearing and set up camp. The night was clear, so I thought there was no need to set up my tent. I laid my sleeping bag under a pine tree and fell to sleep wondering what the future miles would bring, wondering what challenges would have to be overcome, and what experiences would make it all worthwhile. I fell asleep as shooting stars streaked overhead.
We woke the next morning to frost. I was protected under the pine tree. The sun began to rise over the eastern ridge, promising a beautiful day. I began the hike ascending the ridge under hemlocks. The sun finally rose above the ridge, illuminating the forest from the side. I reached stunning Stone Valley Vista as the shadow of the mountain I was on stretched across the valley and farms.
The SST follows the ridge of Stone Mountain. The terrain became increasingly more rocky, but the views were impressive. The trail crossed one ledge that looked down into Big Valley, draped in mist. The ridges seem to float above the clouds under a deep blue sky.
The SST traverses an area with a large Amish population. Kevin and Amanda told me they spoke to some Amish hunters on the trail. While most people could not relate to what we were doing, I had the feeling the Amish could. For a long weekend, we were in their world.
The ridge revealed more views- Little Vista, Sausser’s Stonepile, Hawk Watch. Each revealed the beauty of central Pennsylvania. The viewing platform at Hawk Watch had the following advice written on it: “Consume Life”. We reached Allensville Road, which had a new kiosk. A descent to Rocky Ridge followed. We passed another Amish hunter and a designated camping area. At Frew Road, we snapped pictures of the Amish hunter’s buggy and horse. The horse snorted with mild annoyance at our curiousity.
Rocky Ridge is home to Oriskany Sandstone formations that are home to rare wildflowers. In spring, the ridge teems with flowers and dogwood floral displays. It is a special place. The SST follows a new route as it meandered between the rock formations, under pine and through laurel, with views to the west. It was a stunning section of trail that took an incredible amount of work to construct. The formations were non-stop under the bright sun. At times, it was hard to see the blazes due to the bright sun. I’ve been blinded by the sun while driving, but not hiking. A yellow side trail led to the impressive Hunter’s Rock formation.
The trail descended to a creek. One unique feature along the SST is its karst geology. This creek disappeared under the ground and sinkholes dotted the forest floor. The bedrock was limestone and we probably hiked on the top of caves.
More impressive sandstone formations continued along the ridge, with one that looked like fingers jutting above the trees. Further down the trail were old charcoal mounds that were used to make iron centuries ago.
I soon faced my first challenge. I was feeling great, but my left thigh began to cramp, and then my right thigh. I couldn’t figure out why. I then realized I was dehydrated. I had not been drinking enough water over the course of the bright, sunny day. For the rest of the day, I had to be careful since I felt the cramping could return. I began to hike at a slower pace.
I descended to Saddler Creek and PA 655 as the sun set. New switchbacks led down to the road. I hiked through the hamlet of Fousetown; a small child was riding his bike with some adults nearby. I waved, and they waved back.
The trail passes behind a house and climbs along a field. Jets streaked across the clear, metallic skies. Next was the infamously steep climb up The Hump. The gradient eased as the trail passed a small camper and followed a grade under dark hemlocks. To the left was a deep, rugged gorge with the sound of cascading water. I was hiking in the dark, with only the shaft of light from my headlamp.
I saw Kevin and Amanda filtering water at a small stream. We camped in a clearing a short distance off of the trail. The climb up to Shorb’s Summit would wait for us in the morning. As we set up camp, a coyote howled in the distance. We then began to hear things in the trees. What was it? A squirrel? Raccoon? Spider monkey? Our headlamps failed to resolve the mystery. Amanda then realized it was large oak leaves hitting each other as they drifted down.
We hiked almost 23 miles, the story of the remaining miles would have to unfold with each step.
Standing Stone Trail’s website, including maps.