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Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Clubserving Bedford, Blair, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Elk, Huntingdon, Jefferson, Juniata, McKean, and Mifflin counties
|Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet|
by Ben Cramer
Central Pennsylvania is known for long and steep ridges that march across the landscape in roughly parallel lines for dozens or even hundreds of miles. This includes Tussey Mountain, which fills almost the entire horizon to the southeast of State College.
Several of these ridges stretch northbound almost uninterrupted out of South-Central Pennsylvania. But between Milroy and Potter Mills, Tussey Mountain and several of its sisters get tangled up in a mass of contorted ridges and canyons known as “Seven Mountains,” before untangling themselves and heading off separately to the east.
The Seven Mountains formation necessitates the scenic and engine-straining climb on US 322 on the way out of Milroy. At the top of the mountain, just before leaving Mifflin County and entering Centre County, westbound travelers on US 322 are greeted by the Seven Mountains Rest Stop, which might be most useful for resting one’s vehicle after the steep climb. The rest stop features a nature trail and a couple of spurs of the long-distance Mid State Trail, leading hikers to a variety of historical and natural curiosities, topped off by an outstanding overlook called Big Valley Vista. All of these can be visited in a slightly strenuous hike of about two miles in length.
At the rest stop, head to a map board near the entrance driveway, and bear right to a mailbox containing maps and brochures. Continue ahead on the yellow-blazed nature trail. This short loop trail offers a surprising amount of natural education, including groves of native trees, minor wetlands, clearcuts, and rock formations.
After a short distance, you climb into and out of what appears to be an eroded streambed. This is actually a feeble ancestor of the US 322 superhighway, which is clearly visible (and audible) a short distance through the trees to the right. The “Bellefonte-Lewistown Pike” offered horse carriage passengers in the early 1800s a probably terrifying ride over the Seven Mountains zone and Nittany Mountain, following a route now fulfilled by portions of US 322 and PA 144. According to Pennsylvania hiking authority and historian Tom Thwaites, the Bellefonte-Lewistown Pike followed the even older Kishacoquillas Indian Path and was only one lane wide, leaving some mystery as to how wagons passed one another.
Soon you reach a junction with a blue-blazed trail. The yellow-blazed nature trail turns left here and heads back to the rest area. For this hike, turn right and follow the blue-blazed trail, still parallel to the highway but slowly rising above it. The footway becomes increasingly rocky. I saw a rather large black bear on this very trail on an earlier visit.
About half a mile into the hike, reach a junction with the orange-blazed Mid State Trail. This long-distance backpacking trail leads more than 300 miles from Maryland to New York. For an interesting side trip to find how this trail crosses US 322, turn right and descend steeply. You soon find yourself at the side of the highway. Uniquely for a hiking trail in Pennsylvania, the official route of the Mid State Trail goes through a culvert under the highway.
This box culvert is about 170 feet long and only five feet high (most hikers will have to duck-walk through), and carries a small stream that had to be artificially rerouted for road construction purposes. Hikers can use a slightly raised sidewalk with a handrail through the culvert, but during wet periods the sidewalk might be underwater. On the other side of the culvert (and the highway), the Mid State Trail continues through a rocky area where more segments of the old Bellefonte-Lewisburg Pike are visible.
After inspecting the culvert, turn around and begin a strenuous climb back towards the rest stop. Pass the junction with the blue-blazed spur trail (where you came in earlier) and continue uphill on the Mid State Trail. The climb is steep but not too long, and soon you reach a side trail that leads a short distance to Big Valley Vista.
One of Pennsylvania’s great natural overlooks, Big Valley Vista provides a view over Laurel Creek Reservoir, which from here appears to be a natural lake because the dam is hidden behind an intervening ridge. Over that ridge you can see portions of Milroy and its surrounding farms. Behind that valley is a low gap in Jacks Mountain, through which US 322 twists and turns on its way to Lewistown. On a clear day you can see up and over several parallel ridges to areas on the far side of the Juniata River.
Return to the Mid State Trail and turn right. After about a quarter of a mile, reach a junction with another blue-blazed spur trail, with a sign pointing back to Seven Mountains Rest Area. Turn left on this trail and proceed steeply downhill into an area that was recently clearcut. Reach a dirt road and bear left back to the rest stop parking area.
If You Go: Seven Mountains Rest Stop is located on US 322 near the Centre/Mifflin County Line, at the top of the mountain between Laurel Creek Reservoir and Potter Mills. The rest stop is only accessible from the westbound lanes of the limited-access highway. If you are traveling eastbound (away from State College) you will have to continue 5.5 miles to the Milroy exit, turn around, and come back up the mountain to the rest stop.
Parking is plentiful when the rest stop is open, but note that it is closed for much of the year for maintenance purposes. When the rest stop is closed, parking is available alongside or near the highway, but visitors must exercise extreme caution.
A variation of the hike described here is featured in the book 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania by Tom Thwaites.
Ben Cramer is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. Cramer is the editor of Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, 13th ed. (Stackpole Books, 2008), and is also the author of a forthcoming hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail in Centre County.