Bald Eagle State Forest Exploration

View from Chimney Rocks

View from Chimney Rocks

Located in central Pennsylvania, the Bald Eagle State Forest covers almost 200,000 acres. The forest occupies the ridge and valley region of the state, where high, rugged ridges separate deep valleys. The state forest is home to the Mid State Trail, Pennsylvania’s longest. The state forest is famous for its vistas, isolation, and unique natural areas, including Snyder-Middleswarth and Tall Timbers.

I have long wanted to explore the isolated area of the forest between Reeds Gap and Poe Paddy State Parks, where there is a web of local trails, as well as the Reeds Gap Spur. With its rhododendron-choked streams, views, deep forests, and old growth trees, this is a region often overlooked by hikers. By stringing together several of these trails, it appeared a loop was possible. But we did not know the condition of the trails, of if they even existed.

I drove out to Bear Gap Picnic Area to start the hike. Michael, Jodi, Rick, and Dave would be joining me. Bear Gap is nestled deep in the valley, surrounded by hemlock and rhododendron as a couple of streams converge. It was early evening when I arrived. We were to camp along Treaster Run.

I was soon on the trail as it followed the creek. It was beautiful with its deep green scenery. There were several sizeable hemlock and pine trees. I soon found Dave and Rick at a campsite. I set up my tarp, hung out, and went to bed listening to the babbling riffles of Treaster Run as the hemlocks swayed overhead in the gentle breeze. I was soon asleep. Michael and Jodi arrived later that night.

We awoke the next morning to a beautiful day. We were soon on the trail, following the red blazed Reeds Gap Spur. It was a gorgeous, well-maintained trail that explored a forest of hemlock, pine, and rhododendron. The spur headed north and was blazed yellow. A steep climb followed to a ridge; switchbacks did not exist on this hike. It followed the crest of the ridge for a short distance before heading straight down to Little Weikert Run, located in a rocky valley. Another steep climb followed up Strong Mountain where there was a cairn. Snow still covered parts of the forest and north facing slopes. A very steep descent followed to scenic Weikert Run, which we crossed via a log.

The biggest climb of the day was still ahead, White Mountain. It was steep, and straight up, but rock free. We reached the top at a sign and left the spur to follow the White Mountain Ridge Trail, blazed red. This was a nice trail that featured pine and thick mountain laurel. The trail was initially well maintained, but became overgrown with faded blue blazes; volunteers are still working on this trail. As the trail descended, it gradually became more established. The trail took us to Chimney Rocks with nice views over Penns Creek; Chimney Rock itself is a vertical formation. We ate lunch in the bright sun.

View from Chimney Rocks

View from Chimney Rocks

We descended to Weikert Run at a swimming hole and more rhododendrons. The trail took us out to a forestry road which we followed to Green Gap Trail and a bridge. This trail was beautiful with many cascades over moss covered rocks. There were some old campsites, and several stream crossings. As we ascended, the trail became more difficult to follow, but the scenery was enjoyable with a ten foot falls and deep hemlocks. We headed east and the trail became very overgrown before reaching a logging road which we took over to Lick Gap.

Lick Gap was another gorgeous glen; all the streams and glens were very scenic. But heading east the trail was in tough shape as it followed the bottom of a dry stream bed. We soon reached another forest road. Next was the Middle Ridge Trail; it was a pleasure to hike as it followed the ridge, passing rock outcrops and pine forests. We descended along the Henstep Trail to Hunter Road.

Cold Spring Trail followed and it was in fairly good shape as it passed through some deer fences and traversed an old railroad grade along the edge of the ridge to another road, where we turned left. It was getting late so we found a place to camp just off the road along a nice creek.

The next morning brought more sunshine as we began a short roadwalk to Snyder-Middleswarth. Along the way we passed a small waterfall and Rock Springs Picnic Area, a beautiful spot in a narrow valley surrounded by streams. We soon reached Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, famous for its old growth forests. It is also a national natural landmark.

Everyone was impressed with Snyder-Middleswarth with its huge, towering trees and a forest floor covered with moss and ferns. Even the fallen trees were huge, carpeted with moss. Michael said it looked like Middle Earth. It did have an ancient, special feel to it. The trail was easy and a pleasure to hike as we marveled at the trees.

Massive old growth hemlock

Massive old growth hemlock

Tall Timbers Natural Area followed and it was just as beautiful, with a more intimate feel as the trail was closer to pristine Swift Run. Rhododendron arched over the trail as it threaded a path under hemlocks and pine. However, the joy of hiking soon came to an abrupt end as the trail evaporated into a jungle of mountain laurel and rhododendron, with only the occasional blaze to guide our way. It was still beautiful, but our focus turned to finding our way out. We fought and clawed our way through this thicket, made only worse by greenbriar vines that cut into our skin. We battled and brawled and just when it looked like we met our fate, with images of a giant Venus flytrap about to consume us all in this hell of plant life, we came across a freshly cut trail. It was as if we were given keys to our freedom and we whooped for joy. Maybe mysteriously, an unknown person did the same in response on the other side of the creek. Wasting no time and tempted by the promise of freedom, we took off on the trail and hiked out of the valley. We survived but we also paid a price with cuts and blood-stained skin. Forget about bears, plants can kill the unsuspecting hiker.

Our next trail, Thick Mountain Trail, proved to be much more civilized. While many ridge top trails are insanely rocky, this one was not as it explored an increasingly beautiful forest of mature hardwoods and pine. It was a treat. Also unique was that it appeared to follow a narrow railroad grade set with carefully placed stones, something I had not seen before.

High Top Trail followed and it was also a great hike. I found a view just off the trail, but the real highlight was the diverse forest it explored with rock outcrops and hemlocks. Some sections had a lot of birch saplings, but overall it was a nice trail. We finally returned back to the Reeds Gap Spur and Bear Gap Trail. At first, it is extremely steep, but leveled off in a rugged, scenic glen with vast talus slopes, rock outcrops, old lumber camp, and a hidden stream gushing under rocks. The creek had many cascades down a carpet of moss. Bear Gap was very scenic, with some potential camping. Rhododendrons grew along the creek and we soon returned to the cars.

As we were getting ready to leave, a man pulled up in a pick-up. He asked about our hike, the trails, and said he helped maintain some of them. He knew the route we took and guessed correctly which trails were in rough shape. We thanked him and he was gone as quickly as he arrived.

The trails in this section of the Bald Eagle State Forest offer a lot of potential for backpackers and provide for many possible routes. While an official backpacking trail system does not exist here, the scenery and natural features that do easily rival those found along most of Pennsylvania’s official backpacking trails. For those backpackers looking for something different, or a hike off the beaten path, the Reeds Gap Spur and the web of trails that surround it are well worth your time. The loop described is about 30 miles long.

I said goodbye to the group and headed home. Along the way, I decided to check out two vistas. I reached the one overlooking New Lancaster Valley where there was a forestry employee just enjoying the view. He seemed to look out over the forest with a sense of pride and fulfillment. I was just a visitor, this was his home.

More pictures.

Baled Eagle State Forest panorama

Baled Eagle State Forest panorama

New Lancaster Valley vista

New Lancaster Valley vista

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