The morning repeated itself on the final day on the trail. Gray, brooding clouds slowly illuminated from above as light tried to pierce the creases between them.
But this hike would end as it began.
It appeared some of the snow on the ground melted, or simply blew away. But there was still a dusting across the slick oak leaves. The leaves had proven to be more treacherous than the rocks on this trip. They concealed the trail, were slippery on the slopes, and were so crunchy as we stepped through them they seemed to send shockwaves of sound through the forest.
I repeated my routine, putting my stuff away, taking down my tent, gnawing on another cold piece of stromboli; two more remained. I set out on the trail as it wrapped around the base of Gobblers Knob, passing beneath a large cliff and then descending through rolling woodlands. Snow caked my hiking boots. The trail descended into a stream valley. I was feeling slower. My left knee hurt, my left Achilles tendon felt tight. They would only feel worse as the miles passed.
We reached some fields with stiles over the fences. It was fun to climb over the fences via the stiles. But there were no cows to be seen. When we reached the other side of the field, there was another stile. Thanks to the generosity of private landowners, such as this farmer, trails like the SST can survive and even provide a unique experience. While many trails feature waterfalls or vistas, few trails have stiles.
A short roadwalk followed across a scenic valley and we hiked under the turnpike as cars and trucks whistled above us. The trail returned to private property as it switchbacked up a hill.
I continued to hike slower. My Achilles was bothering me more, it felt raw and tight. There was not a single fall or slip which caused this injury, other than the accrual of over sixty miles of hiking.
The next section of the trail was historic as it explored the remnants of Vanderbilt’s Folly. In the 1880s, William Vanderbilt tried to build a railroad in southern Pennsylvania to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad for access to the steel mills in Pittsburgh and Johnstown. The Pennsylvania Railroad retaliated by buying a rail line near one owned by Vanderbilt in New York. Financier J.P. Morgan feared such competition would devalue is own investments in the railroads and forced Vanderbilt to abandon his plans in southern Pennsylvania. By that time, many sections of the railbed had been built, including cuts, fills, and culverts.
The trail followed one of these sections, as the railbed cut through the terrain, only to pass over sections filled across streams. The history of this area was fascinating. A series of large boulders were stacked down the slope of the mountain. The trail switchbacked to an impressive stone culvert, about 130 years old, still in perfect condition.
The trail ascended into the state forest and then gradually dropped to a small stream with hemlocks. A climb followed above the creek along carefully counstructed sidehill over rocks. The trail entered a scenic valley with pine trees and made a final climb up to the ridge that would lead to Cowans Gap.
At the top was a fine view, although it was clouded over. The trail traversed this narrow ridgeline with interesting, slanted rock outcrops and verdant pine forests. It was a beautiful ridge that became very narrow in places as the trail scrambled over and under rock outcrops.
I thought it would be smooth sailing to Cowans Gap now that I was on the ridge. I was wrong. The ridge was rugged, and in places, incredibly rocky. It was challenging for me to hike with an Achilles that pulsated with pain and a sore right knee. I was far more concerned with my Achilles. I had to gingerly step across rocks and angled boulders. I feared pushing myself, or a careless slip, might cause serious injury.
I pushed myself down the trail. Pain and discomfort rose with each step. I could see glimpses of Cowans Gap Lake, the end of the trail, far below. I was determined to get there. I finally reached a grassy path that descended into the park, passing a view of the lake. I took a break and ate another piece of stromboli; one would remain. The trail passed the site of the 1996 landslide, still apparent almost twenty years later. I winced with each step. I finally reached Cowans Gap State Park as sunlight parsed the forest.
The trail followed a pleasant path along the shore of the lake, it was a nice walk. Some ladies walked by me, I asked what time it was, they looked as me warily. One lady said it was almost 3 p.m. without missing a stride, and they hurried down the trail. I was very late.
I hobbled on the nice, level gravel path as the lake glistened through the spruce trees, surrounded by ridges and mountains. It was a beautiful place.
And then, as suddenly as it began, the trail ended. A sign at the dam marked the spot. I had hiked 79 miles. It was over. Some people were walking around the lake, mindless of this trail, and my accomplishment. The SST was over, but just a step away was the Tuscarora Trail, where one could head left or right, north or south, both directions would take you to the Appalachian Trail (AT), either near Harrisburg or in Virginia’s Shenandoah. This trail was but a phase, you could walk endlessly.
I hobbled across the dam and along the sun-splashed lake where geese and ducks bobbed lazily. I passed a parking spot where Amanda and Kevin were waiting for me. The journey was over. We did it. We smiled and shook hands. I took off my pack and my back felt as if it was free; my spinal column felt like it decompressed by several inches. I took off my wet, putrid boots and tore off my socks. As I took off my left sock over my Achilles, pain erupted up my leg. The tendon was raw, red, swollen. Specks of dirt littered my skin. All the pain, joy, amazement, sweat, contemplation, serenity, and effort brought me to this place, along the route of a trail, and the current of time.
Our journeys would continue on roads, for the time being. But away from our concete and macadam worlds are the trails, exploring a world as it has always been, and always will be. The veil of the forests harbor places beyond imagination. Will we free ourselves to see?
We left Cowans Gap State Park. The journey ended as it began- in brilliant sunshine.
The SST is a 79 mile linear trail that goes from Greenwood Furnace to Cowans Gap State Park in south central Pennsylvania. It connects the Mid State to the Tuscarora Trail, and is a part of the Great Eastern Trail which will go from Alabama to New York. Originally called the Link Trail, it was renamed and gradually re-routed. It is being transformed into one of the region’s finest trails. The trail is completely maintained and promoted by volunteers, organized as the Standing Stone Trail Club. The amount of work they have expended to improve this trail is impressive. Please support the club.
The trail is unique in that it offers an incredible variety of natural and historical features, from sweeping vistas, sandstone outcrops, sinkholes, disappearing streams, and diverse forest types. Rare plants and flowers grow along the trail. Spring brings superb displays of flowers, dogwoods, and redbuds. Historical features include charcoal mounds, dinky railroad grades, the Dinky House, Thousand Steps, and Vanderbilt’s Folly.
The trail has many steep and rocky sections. It is generally well-marked, with orange blazes. While there was enough water on our trip, the trail can be very dry in summer. Amenities include Butler Knob Shelter. Showers are allowed in the state parks for a small fee. The two towns through which the trail passes, Mapleton and Three Springs, have embraced the trail and have passed ordinances declaring themselves “trail towns”. On our hike, only Three Springs had services, such as restaurants and a gas station to re-supply.
The trail also exists thanks to the generosity of private land owners. Some of the finest features on the trail exist on private land. Governmental agencies, such as the Bureau of Forestry, Bureau of State Parks, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission have also supported the trail.
The vast majority of trails in the state are maintained strictly by volunteers. Please help support, protect, and maintain Pennsylvania’s hiking trails. The Keystone Trails Association is a good start.
Many of our trails and public areas are threatened by drilling and development. People will not protect what they do not know exists. Please get outside and enjoy Pennsylvania’s trails and scenic areas. Help protect these special places for not only future generations, but also this one.
The SST is a beautiful, challenging, and rewarding trail that will only improve with time. It will provide an experience you will never forget.
See you on the trail.