Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2006

Penn’s Woods in the Winter — by Ski or Snowshoe

by Gary Thornbloom

Getting out on the trail when the trail is buried by a foot of snow can be intimidating to some and exhilarating to others. If your comfort level does not include wandering alone through a winter wonderland far from the highway, then you might want to consider an outing with groups such as the Penn State Outing Club, Ridge and Valley Outing Club, or the Sierra Club.

All outdoor activities have a greater margin of safety when you are with others. Some activities, such as cross country skiing and snowshoeing, can carry even greater risks when they are done solo. Alone, injured or lost, on a trail or not — miles from the nearest road, snow, temperature, and darkness falling — is not a pleasant situation to be in. Getting out with a group is an easy way to provide a margin of safety.

Outings with organized groups are also a way to make new friends, and to try trails you would not have thought of trying on your own. Outing leaders have had the training or experience that can help you to gain the confidence that will allow you to enjoy the winter woods and to push your experience to the next level. Leaders, as well as others along for the day, are often knowledgeable about the history and the natural history of the area. Not only will you be gliding through the beauty of a snow covered landscape, but the insights gleaned from casual conversation can broaden your awareness of that landscape. Wood lore, the stories animal tracks tell, bird calls, and historical traces often remain concealed to the uninitiated. Traveling with someone who can open your eyes and ears to what is all around you are among the positive aspects of being with a group.

The Penn State Outing Club (PSOC) was formed in 1920 and is one of Penn State’s oldest student run organizations. You must be a member to rent cross country skis or snow shoes and to participate in an outing. You must be 18 or older and, while most participants are students, members of the community are welcome. PSOC has a website that lists outings. PSOC also provides an opportunity to do volunteer trail work.

Ridge and Valley Outing Club (RVOC) was formed in 1991 “to promote the enjoyment and cultural environment by non-competitive outings events.” All outings are open to the public and there is a strong emphasis on providing outings for varying ages and abilities. Outings are rated easy, moderate and difficult. Members receive a quarterly newsletter. The RVOC website provides information on outings, events, some area conservation issues, and general outdoor information.

The Sierra Club was founded by John Muir in 1892 with the idea of getting people out into the mountains so they would appreciate what was there and that it was worth preserving. The local Sierra Club Group, the Moshannon Group, was formed in 1980, and offers monthly forays throughout Central Pennsylvania. Explore, enjoy, and protect are at the heart of the Sierra Club mission and of the Moshannon Group outings. All outings are open to the public and outings include people of all ages and abilities. The Moshannon Group Newsletter and website provide descriptions of outings, events, and many area conservation issues. The Moshannon Group also does volunteer trail work. Their website provides an archive of On The Trail columns, including the February 2004 column about the Rock Run Trail system, and the December 2002 column about snowshoeing.

The Rock Run Trail system offers premiere cross country skiing and snow shoeing, although a snowshoe adventure can leave the trail behind. It is no coincidence that all three clubs make annual winter pilgrimages to these trails. The trails were laid out in 1981 by Ralph Seeley and Tom Thwaites, who were then advisors to the PSOC. The work of cutting and completing the trail was done largely with PSOC volunteers. The trails were located with cross country skiing in mind. The elevation, the north slopes, and the hollows all combine to preserve the snow cover. The trails are often skiable when the valleys and the sunny side of the mountains around State College are bare or barely dusted.

The trailhead is readily accessible along State Route 504. What was once called the Entrance Trail, but is now a section of the Allegheny Front Trail provides two miles of skiing north of SR 504. This section of trail is often skiable with as little as 4–6 inches of snow, and will get you to the Rock Run Trails. They form a figure eight with the first — southern — loop of about four miles, and the second — northern — loop of about five miles. The southern loop needs 8–12 inches of snow and the northern 12 inches or more. By combining the different sections of the trail ski outings can span a wide range of abilities.

The Rock Run Trail system consists of four trails, Headwaters, Woodland, Ridge, and Valley. The names indicate the variety of terrain and habitat you will be traversing. At times you will be flying down a wide-open trail, while at other times you will be brushing past trees, house-size boulders or mountain laurel. At times laboring up switchbacks, and at times gliding and kicking along lengthy straight stretches. Streams are crossed by snow bridges, short wooden bridges, and one long wooden bridge with inch high rails to guide your skis — at least that was the intent of the builder! If you ever ski with me, or with Ralph Seeley, ask about the turkey that opted not to use the bridge.

Local trail legends Ralph Seeley, Tom Thwaites, and Jean Aron occasionally accompany or lead Sierra Club or RVOC cross country ski and snow shoe outings. All three have not only written books on local trails, but have been instrumental in building these trails. All three are a wealth of information and lore about Central Pennsylvania’s trails.

Cross country skiing on woodland trails or exploring the woods by snowshoe does not get any better than Rock Run. However you are at times miles from the nearest road, and not everyone is comfortable in a winter setting that is this isolated. You can safely enjoy the winter beauty of Penn’s woods by going on a group outing. And you can cross country ski and snowshoe in the company of some interesting folks. Cold snowy weather is a great a time to be on the trail!

Books 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; copies are available from George Lockey, 882 Rolling Stone Road, 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 Rock Run Trail is available for free at the Black Moshannon Park Office.

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.

Appalachian Ski & Outdoors in downtown State College and the Penn State Outing Club rent cross country skis and snowshoes.

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

You may also contact the Moshannon Group for information about cross country ski and snowshoe outings. Contact Gary Thornbloom for details of a Saturday, January 14th (2006) cross country ski outing on these trails.


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