Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2009

Modern Transportation on the Allegheny Plateau

by Ben Cramer

Around the turn of the 20th Century almost all of Pennsylvania’s forests fell to the axe. Many of today’s forests are actually second (or third) generation, and outdoor lovers will easily spot the transportation routes used by the old loggers. Felled trees didn’t carry themselves to market, and Pennsylvania is littered with the remnants of an extensive and thankfully forgotten industrial transportation network. These routes are now perfect for the most modern of transportation devices — feet.

Hikers in the deep woods will occasionally scramble up suspiciously straight embankments, which are old fortified slides on which logs were cascaded down to creeks for floating downstream. Trains later reached the logging company holdings, leaving thousands of miles of narrow-gauge railroad grades that now resemble strangely gentle footpaths in rugged areas. Next were one-lane dirt roads that are now eroded or grass-covered forest lanes.

Many of Pennsylvania’s forest trails use old logging transportation grades to various degrees, and some trails consist of them almost entirely. Thanks to maintenance by modern trail volunteers, gentle feet now tread on lanes once used by the most damaging of industrial age vehicles. The juxtaposition of not-so-ancient and sort-of-modern forest transportation is evident on some especially interesting trails in the area of Black Moshannon State Park in western Centre County.

The state park is roughly encircled by the 41 mile-long Allegheny Front Trail (AFT), which has been featured in this column several times. This month we’ll highlight some other trails in a high plateau area around Mid State Airport just to the west of the state park. The obscure Mid State Airport has had a troubled financial and political history, and is now used for occasional pilot practice, private sightseeing flights, and cargo deliveries. Hikers in the woods just beyond the runways are few but probably still outnumber airport patrons.

A relatively new trail has been blazed from the western side of the AFT loop toward the state park. From the crossing of Six Mile Run on PA 504 to the west of the park, locate the orange-blazed AFT as it crosses a side stream on a hunting camp driveway bridge (on the east side of Six Mile Run). Just before the camp, the AFT turns left and walks under hemlocks along pleasant Hutton Run. After trudging up a steep old log slide, reach a very evident old narrow-gauge logging railroad grade built into the hillside.

Here the AFT turns right and continues on its 41-mile journey. For an easy hike on the new blue-blazed trail, turn left (east) on the grade and begin following the light blue blazes. The railroad grade is still quite obvious and solid at first, despite being re-colonized in the intervening decades by hemlocks, ferns, and giant (make that enormous) rhododendron bushes. Just like an old wheezing locomotive, you climb gently and straightly to the top of the plateau, with interesting minor gorges to the left.

On the flat plateau, the old railroad was not so solidly constructed so the footpath gets rougher, but the trail’s gentle curves indicate the railroad’s continuing influence. About three-quarters of a mile from Hutton Run, cross a grassy lane (a former dirt road for logging trucks) that is marked with red blazes. To the right, this lane passes near some beacons for one of the airport’s runways, then climbs to an area of unusually wide-open meadows just outside the airport boundary, where the Bureau of Forestry sometimes tries to grow crops for profit.

Back on the blue-blazed trail, the old railroad grade underfoot gradually fizzles out. Watch the blue blazes carefully because the trail becomes a bit difficult to follow as you enter another common sight in Moshannon State Forest – a series of small pine plantations. The state manually reforested this region after the devastation of the logging era. After a total of about 1.5 miles, reach the yard of a state forestry office, and then Airport Road.

Down Airport Road to the right (south) of the trail outlet, the airport itself features a brand-new volunteer-built hiking path called the Blueberry Trail, a two-mile loop visiting several unique natural features around the terminal and runways. Occasional small planes are a minor nuisance. This trail connects to the scenic Moss-Hanne Trail which leads to the lake and wetlands in Black Moshannon State Park, and eventually to another segment of the Allegheny Front Trail loop.

These are just a few of the trails in our region that use the former transportation routes of environmentally destructive logging and other extractive industries. Ironically, former routes of ruination are now a boon to lovers of the forests that have returned, and are still returning, throughout Pennsylvania.

If You Go: The hike described here begins on PA Route 504 at the crossing of Six Mile Run, about three miles to the west of the “beach” at the center of Black Moshannon State Park. Just to the west of the road bridge over the creek is a staggered intersection with Six Mile Run Road with parking available at both corners. Meanwhile, Airport Road (to Mid State Airport) branches southbound off of PA 504 about one mile to the west of the “beach.”

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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 the author of Guide to the Allegheny Front Trail, now available free online.