Pennsylvania's Hidden Gem Becomes Trail of the Year
I keep on finding new reasons to fall in love with Pennsylvania. My home for 24 years (minus a few adventurous months here and there), PA tugs at my heart anytime my feet leave the pavement and ramble into one of the commonwealth’s 20 state forests. In terms of hiking, Pennsylvania is far too underrated. We may not have the spiked peaks of many notable National Parks, but Pennsylvania is home to over 2.2 million acres of state forest. It’s nearly impossible to drive more than an hour anywhere in Pennsylvania and not find decent hiking trails.
One great characteristic about Pennsylvania State Forests is the diversity of one trail to the next. You could spend hours meandering through the ease of Ricketts Glen State Park, part of the Loyalsock State Forest, with all members of the family; or you can spend 2-3 hours getting your legs sore with a loved one in Greenwood Furnace State Park, part of the Rothrock State Forest. Tyler and I chose the latter.
About a half hour south of State College, Greenwood Furnace State Park is located just beyond the little college bubble that exists in Happy Valley. We arrived at the visitor’s center by Greenwood Lake, grabbed a map and some tips from Ranger Mike, then headed to Monsell Trail right next to Route 305.
Monsell connects to the lengthy Standing Stone Trail, a whopping 84-mile long footpath that cuts through three Pennsylvania counties. Standing Stone was awarded the 2016 Trail of the Year by PA DCNR, so we figured that if we couldn’t get to a National Park to celebrate the organization’s 100th birthday, we could at least spend some time in a locally distinguished outdoor area.
My most immediate regret: wearing my open-toed hiking sandals. Although we were lucky enough to not encounter any dangerous critters during our hike, August is high time for timber rattlesnakes in Pennsylvania State Forests. A few days of rain gave Rothrock a gorgeous carpet of lush ferns and other greenery, a perfect hiding spot for things that slither.
Shout out to the couple who left behind two perfect walking sticks; or in our case, rattlesnake warning sticks. Through overgrown fern patches, Tyler and I navigated and fended off any veiled creatures by using our walking sticks like a blind man's cane.
The trail began to gently climb about a mile in on our way to Stone Valley Vista. I wouldn't say that Tyler and I are in amazing shape, but I promise we were only sweating profusely thanks to Pennsylvania August heat, not because of a grueling elevation. The first mile was easy enough.
I made Tyler stop quite a few times to snap pictures of the micro lifeforms just beneath our feet. Between rock and earth lives a beautifully diverse world organisms that do not get nearly as much attention as the vistas. Though I'm no pro at species identification, I can't help but to get excited over the unique textures of the forest floor (even if those textures include creepy-crawlies).
Much of this trail features stone steps; a playhouse when your fiance is nuts about rocks. Though fun to encounter, one should always take precautions before romping through these areas. Snakes, wet surfaces, and loose rock can easily end and otherwise great hiking trip. Besides, if you move too quickly through these areas, you might miss some of the smaller wildlife that calls this rocky landscape home.
It's really pretty difficult to get lost on trails within Pennsylvania's state parks. I've yet to encounter a trail that's not well-maintained or obviously blazed. Usually it takes a huge storm for debris to fall into and camouflage a trail, but DCNR does a great job of keeping these trails (relatively) safe for hikers. The only thing you really need to keep in mind is your map and cardinal directions.
Tyler and I began to hit the uppermost part of the trail where the ground levels out, one of my favorite parts of any trail; that usually means a stellar vista is on its way. Though I always say it's the hike that makes the vista, not the vista that makes the hike, it's unarguably a huge highlight.
The trail opened up to an impressive fallout of rock on the edge of the trail. Stone Valley Vista, like plenty of Pennsylvania's vistas, showed barely any sign of civilization below, let alone a university town of over 40,000 students.
We ate our congratulatory "you made it" apples, rehydrated, envied the birds, and signed the ledger. A couple not too far behind us on the trail shared the view and the quiet contemplation that comes with it. After a few minutes of mountain-induced affection and silence, we hopped back on the trail.
The remainder of the Standing Stone Trail was even more pleasant than the beginning. I can't exactly put my finger on why, but Tyler and I spent the majority of this time in our own heads, only breaking the silence to ward off any unsuspecting fauna. Maybe it was the alternating patches of birch, oak, and pine; maybe it was the slow rumble in our stomachs. We slowly reconnected to Monsell trail and walked a few more miles back to the visitor's center.
On a related note, we should probably release an album of our bear-distancing songs.
We heard the promising laughter of children on the beach; a sure sign we were close to the parking lot. By this time, I had wished we packed more food, not because of our angry stomachs, but because I could've spent a lot more time on the Standing Stone Trail, taking pictures of fungi and dodging spider webs. Overall, this quick five-mile hike is a sublime example of Pennsylvania purity in a simple and relatively easy trek. Without stopping, Tyler and I could've easily finished the trail in about 2 hours, but I would recommend taking the time to enjoy the textures and smells of the forest, especially in late August.
This trail is not as difficult as the park signs may indicate. There may be some difficulty through the rocky parts of the trail, but that is easily overcome with some common sense and acceptable hiking boots.
Given its ease and gorgeous vista, you'd think this trail would be overcrowded on beautiful days. However, the big crowd-pleaser of Greenwood Furnace seemed to be the lake right next to the trail, where families could gather under gazebos for picnics, leaving the trail open even on a beautiful August day.
The trail may be confusing at some parts. Although the trail is clearly marked with blazes, some other footpaths appeared that seemed to mimic the map. Stick with the blazes and follow your map, and you can be certain you'll stay on track.
Water can make this path tricky. We were lucky to hike on a dry day, but it was clear that even a small shower could make this path a lot more difficult to maneuver. If you're hiking on a wet day, stay cautious, especially on the rocky areas.