The PA Wilds of northcentral Pennsylvania is the best kept secret in the eastern United States. It is an outdoors wonderland filled with gorges, views, big rocks, old growth, great camping, star-filled skies, pristine streams, and incredible isolation. There are hundreds of miles of trails, dozens of state parks, natural, and wild areas. And within the core, the soul, of all of this is the impeccable Hammersley Wild Area.
A place you simply must experience.
We drove up to my friend’s small cabin, a basecamp to explore the Hammersley. After getting a fire going to fend off the cold, we drove up to Cherry Springs State Park. It was a new moon, and the skies were clear. We were treated to an amazing panorama of stars across the sky, as the cloud-like veil of the Milky Way connected the horizons. It was amazing, among the darkest skies in the east. Despite the frigid cold, there were some other people there to experience the universe. In the face of the thousands of stars, I felt so small, yet so alive. In a world filled with electrified screens, we had the best one of all.
We awoke the next morning and were soon heading off to Cross Fork to follow the Susquehannock Trail System (STS) into the Hammersley. The ground was dusted white, a pleasant sight in a winter devoid of snow. The trail made long switchbacks up the mountain, around glens, and under hemlocks. The morning light tried to electrify the horizon under the brooding clouds. We reached the top as the trail separated jungles of mountain laurel. The top laurel branches were green and free of snow; the lower branches were covered with it. This created a striking contrast in color.
The STS turned left and we headed straight onto the yellow blazed Twin Sisters Trail. This was a very beautiful trail that was well marked and fairly easy to follow, aside from one laurel thicket. We hiked through an impressive forest of hemlocks, old growth white pine, seep springs, and a small stream with carpets of moss. The forest soon opened up to stately hardwoods with last year’s ferns and ground pine. The forests were serene and vast, without a sign of civilization, or noises from cars or trucks. Only distant streams filled the gorges and glens with the melodies from their currents.
The trail brought us to what I call the Hammersley Meadows, or Twin Sisters vista. We spent some time here, exploring the south and north meadows with their vast views to the west and south, overlooking the rolling ridges, deep glens and gorges, and infinite forests. It was truly breathtaking. The meadows were a golden brown, as the north facing slopes were white with snow. These meadows are like those in the southern Appalachians of Tennessee and North Carolina, but right here in Pennsylvania. The meadows were created by a wildfire in the 1960s, with 20-30 mile views. How is this not famous, I thought.
To complete the loop and return to the STS, I decided to follow the ridge along the north edge of the meadows down to Hammersley Fork and the STS. As we hiked down, the terrain soon formed a distinct ridge with non-stop views to the south into the Hammersley Canyon. It was an impressive hike and the finest ridgewalk in the Mid Atlantic that does not involve talus slopes or rock outcrops. Below us was a narrow glen through which a stream flowed, above us, were the Hammersley Meadows from which we hiked down. Aside from some steep sections, the woods were open and the walking was easy. There were some low picker bushes we had to endure. The views continued almost all the way down to Hammersley Fork. We crossed the creek over some logs and took a break at a campsite next to meadow with old apples trees.
The STS was nearby and we followed it down along the pristine Hammersley Fork. The trail followed narrow sidehill above the creek, offering views. The bottom of the canyon was beautiful with open forests and side streams that tumbled into the Hammersley Fork over small waterfalls. We saw one cascading waterfall that came right out of the ground as a spring. The north facing slopes were dusted white from snow, the south facing slopes had no snow. All we heard was the sound of water, with no man-made noises. This felt like a place set apart. We could feel the wilderness. Along the way were several superb campsites with impressive stone furniture.
As we hiked, the Hammersley Fork grew into a large stream and we had to carefully cross it over some strategically located fallen logs. We soon came upon the famous Hammersley Pool, a deep bedrock pool formed by a rapid. The water was clear. Nearby was a large campsite. We continued down and the nature of the Hammersley Fork changed with more rapids, bedrock slides, and pools. What a beautiful stream. All around us were woods, mountains, glens, and streams, revealing themselves through the bare forests.
The STS left the Hammersley Fork and climbed up along Elkhorn Hollow, a stream with many small cascades. The trail became snow covered, a curving, white thread through the forest. I looked down a nearby glen to see a distinct boundary of white snow, with brown earth above it, marking how far the sunshine reached down into the glen. The hike revealed more beautiful forest and some large hemlock. We completed the loop and retraced our steps to PA 144.
Afterwards, we stopped by the tiny mountain hamlet of Germania to get a bite to eat at the Waldheim Bar and Restaurant. The food was great, prices reasonable, and the people were friendly. It was fascinating to hear the stories and experiences of the locals. Here, the vast woods define their lives. We told the bartender that we were hiking in the Hammersley, he responded, “It doesn’t get any wilder than that.”
The Hammersley is surely one of Pennsyylvania’s crown jewels and it has attracted the attention of more and more hikers and other outdoor lovers. I will surely return to explore more of this special place. The Hammersley has come to represent what is increasingly rare in our developed world: an isolated sanctuary for nature, a wilderness insulated from the designs of man. It protects the serenity we need to exist, a refuge for not only animals, but also for ourselves.
Here, peace prevails.
Our route was somewhat similar to the Hammersley hike on Mid-Atlantic Hikes. We did not hike the Dry Run Bushwhack, and we completed the northern end of the loop via the ridge just north of Twin Sisters Hollow. I highly recommend this fairly easy, and very scenic, off-trail route.
Susquehannock State Forest, home of the Hammersley.