Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — February 2004

Rock Run — Cross-Country Skiing

by Gary Thornbloom

Snow, good snow, is the key to good cross country skiing. Good snow is the reason Ralph Seeley and Tom Thwaites began, in 1981, the process that led to the creation of the Rock Run Trail System located high on the Allegheny Plateau and near enough to State College for easy access to great skiing. Central Pennsylvania winters are fairly marginal as regards good snow. Elevation is important. Often sleet and rain in the valleys can often mean snow up on the higher elevations of the Allegheny Plateau. Good snow and easy access keeps me coming back to ski there, and consistently allows me to surprise Valley friends with tales of great skiing while they are still waiting for snow in State College.

What was formerly called the Entrance Trail, and is now a section of the
Allegheny Front Trail (AFT), begins at a parking area on the north side of Route 504 next to the junction with the Tram Road. The trail is marked with orange rectangular blazes and heads north to the Rock Run Trail System. The wind that often assaults you at this beginning has been blowing unhindered from Snow Shoe and can be quite intimidating, but as you drop into the woods within the first ½ mile you will find welcome protection.

The trail skirts a clear-cut and soon joins an old haul road with a great downhill stretch. As you enter the clear cut area note the tamarack trees that have been gnawed on by porcupines. Porcupine troughs, which are their winter paths, can often be seen in the snow. The trail winds through spruce trees and they are enchanting when their boughs are heavily laden with snow. Harsh weather conditions will coat the trees in this section with ice or hoarfrost, which in brilliant sunlight gives the illusion of skiing through a crystalline forest.

After the clear-cut the trail enters the forest and parallels Benner Run, a high-quality trout stream. The stream is a small brook meandering through snow drifts. This is a pleasant downhill section elbow to elbow with trees on the bank of Benner Run.

After the trail turns away from Benner Run it passes through a rocky section with large white pine trees and a large spring to the left of the trail. The trail then winds uphill through scrub oak and mountain laurel before entering a maturing oak forest with an open park like appearance that shows the failed struggle of a forest to regenerate in the face of overbrowsing by deer. As mountain laurel begins to fill in the understory note the animal tracks that often cross this section of trail. Numerous times they have been those of coyotes. Another nice downhill run brings you to a mailbox that contains a trail register — assuming the bears have left it intact. This is a good spot for a short break and an opportunity to peruse the trail register to see what others have noted about their trail experience. You will often find notes about wildlife activity that can add to your enjoyment of the trail. Take a moment to write your observations in the trail register.

At this point you can either retrace the trail back to Route 504, or you can continue skiing on the Rock Run Trails. The trails form a figure eight. The first loop is about four miles around, and the second loop is about five miles around. The first loop includes the Headwaters trail to the west and the Woodland Trail to the east. Skiing clockwise from the Headwaters to the Woodland is the recommended way to go. The second loop includes the Ridge Trail to the west and the Valley Trail to the east. I prefer to ski this loop counterclockwise doing the Valley Trail first, and this then sets you up for a great long downhill section on the Ridge Trail. Blue blazes mark the Rock Run Trails. The AFT uses sections of the Headwaters and Ridge Trails and these sections are marked with both blue and orange rectangles.

The Headwaters Trail slopes gently downhill from the trail register and soon crosses one of the numerous streams forming the headwaters of Rock Run. Bridges span most of the streams and were all built and maintained by volunteers. The heaviest bridge is 24-feet long, weighs 340 pounds, and was carried in. After several stream crossings the trail makes a sharp right hand turn and drops through mountain laurel on a hillside that parallels a stream lined with hemlocks. Deer are often bedded down in the protected stream bottom.

Emerging from the laurel the trail eventually is well above the stream and the valley opens up. You will not find a more beautiful Pennsylvania winter scene then the snow-covered open woodlands with the Middle Branch of Rock Run winding through it. A nice downhill run ends at the approach to the bridge at the junction of the four Rock Run Trails.

Use the bridge to cross over the stream, and at this point you will be following just blue rectangular blazes. The trail winds through an open area with some large white pines and lots of boulders. If the snow cover has been just adequate then you will probably want to head south on the Woodland Trail, but if the snow cover has been good then you have the option of turning north onto the Valley Trail.

Long straight sections of the Valley Trail follow a small gauge logging railroad bed. This area was logged in the late 1800’s, and much of the trail uses the old railroad beds. Stone ballast and the depressions where the ties have rotted away are evident when hiking this trail. Stonework along built up banks is visible even with snow, as well as switchbacks that the trail uses to climb up out of Rock Run.

Beavers have been very active all along this stream for the past several years. Active dams, as well as dams that have been broken are apparent. One dam even has a heron rookery, which should not be approached closer than 100 yards while herons are present on their nests April through June as this could disrupt their nesting and endanger the young. Much of this can be seen while on the trail. Snow, as well as mud, surrounding the ponds created by these dams presents an excellent opportunity for reading wildlife sign and activity.

As the trail nears its northernmost point along Rock Run look for signs of what must have been a quite long trestle crossing the stream back in the logging days. Another bridge provides for crossing the stream. On summer hikes the sound of a small waterfall, the thick sheltering rhododendron, the bridge, the large boulders, and the deep pool of water next to the boulders provides for a perfect lunch stop.

After crossing the Middle Branch of Rock Run a straight stretch of trail follows the railroad bed and cuts through a stand of gray and white birch trees. Hemlocks soon enclose the trail and after crossing the West Branch of Rock Run the trail climbs out of the hollow following switchbacks that the trains once needed to ascend and to control their descent of this hollow. Where the West and Middle Branch of Rock Run meet is called “The Forks”. You are now on the Ridge Trail and stonework is very obvious at numerous points along this section.

The Ridge Trail follows the railroad bed until it eventually drops down and away from the bed to yet another stream crossing — be sure to pay attention to the double blue blaze that indicates a sharp turn. All of these crossings are either by bridge, or as this one, fairly basic rock hopping. Returning again and again to the streams is part of the charm of this trail system.

The trail climbs through some thick mountain laurel and after the woods have become more open there is a trail junction where the AFT departs the Ridge Trail and heads west. Continue following the blue blazes of the Ridge Trail, although orange blazes are also present as the two trail systems once again overlap. Shortly after the trail junction the top of the climb out of Rock Run is reached. From here there is a challenging downhill run of more than ½ mile that provides for great fun. Exercise caution even if you are an advanced cross country skier. Powder can help you maintain control.

Cross over the bridge at the center of the trail system again and ski through the clearing to the junction of the Valley and Woodland trails. Ski south on the Woodland Trail. The trail cuts through a large boulder field. A long straight stretch indicates that the trail is again following the railroad bed and it is only broken by several dips in and out of small gullies along the way. When the trail makes a sharp left turn it begins another climb out of the Rock Run drainage. By skiing on the trail in this direction you are going uphill through a tight section of trail that threads its way through trees and room-sized boulders.

After crossing a road that goes to a hunting camp or to the Governor’s Road you must negotiate a short, but thrilling, descent through mountain laurel that brings you back to the trail register where you will follow the orange blazes back to the parking area at Route 504.

The Entrance Trail can be skied both directions in 1 ½ to 3 hours. The Headwaters and Woodland Trails: 1 ½ to 3 hours. The Valley and Ridge Trails: 2 to 3 ½ hours. Skiing the Entrance and all of the Rock Run Trails can add up to an all day outing of 5 to 9 hours. Give yourself plenty of daylight hours for this much skiing or only ski the sections that you are comfortable with.

Rock Run has access from several points, but there is definitely a feeling that you are in an isolated or wild area. The forest surrounding Rock Run has been coming back from logging for over one hundred years. Opportunities to see wildlife, including deer, turkeys, bear, porcupine, beaver, and numerous birds are there. Signs of wildlife are plentiful, even if it is not always easy to see the critters themselves. There are numerous stream crosses with bridges where they are needed. The trail is a well-maintained trail. Elevation and slope provide the promise of good snow throughout most winters.

Good snow means good cross country skiing and Rock Run is the place for both.

Resources and Maps

Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania by Tom Thwaites includes a chapter and a map that covers this ski outing.

Greate Buffaloe Swamp by Ralph Seeley has a section on the Rock Run Trails as well as recommendations for other cross country ski trails (proceeds from the sale of this book benefits the Quehanna Area Trails Club and copies are available from George Lockey, 882 Rolling Stone Rd Morrisdale PA 16858).

The Public Use Map for Moshannon State Forest is available free from the Bureau of Forestry and provides an overview of the area as well as showing the trail. A map of the Allegheny Front Trail and Rock Run Trail is available for free at the Black Moshannon Park Office.

It is always safer to ski with a group so consider contacting the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club, Ridge and Valley Outing Club, or the Penn State Outing Club. Each of these groups leads cross country ski outings into Rock Run.

If You Go: The trailhead is located at a parking area on the north side of Route 504 about 4.5 miles east of Black Moshannon State Park or 7.1 miles west of Unionville.

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Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of the Sierra Club Moshannon Group and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net