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Backpacking Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Deb thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail and is a Search & Rescue volunteer and writer living in Flagstaff, AZ.

About the Laurel Highland's Trail

Pennsylvania's Laurel Highlands Trail extends for 70 miles from the Youghiogheny River Gorge at Ohiopyle State Park east of Uniontown, through the Laurel Mountains, to the thousand-foot-deep Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown. There are eight overnight areas, each with shelters, tent pads, bathrooms and potable water. Camping is permitted only at these areas, which are located eight to 10 miles apart.

The terrain along the length of the trail is generally moderate, and a number of road crossings provide ample opportunities for both out-and-back and one-directional day-hiking. Markers at all mile points take the guesswork out of gauging distance traveled.

Day 1

March 25
Today's miles: 6.3
Trip miles: 6.3
Destination: Ohiopyle shelter area

I rarely nap at home, but when I'm backpacking it's a different story. On a beautiful day, I can lie down just about anywhere and fall asleep. This afternoon, I put my Z-rest (foam) pad on the leaves, put myself on the Z-rest, covered my face with a bandana, and two hours passed me by in a blink. That felt good! I just woke up a few minutes ago, at five o'clock.

Mike and I are at the Ohiopyle Shelter area, 6.3 miles from where we began trudging at noon. That's what it was for me, anyway -- a slow trudge. I felt like a slug. Just isn't natural to go from sitting on one's butt for the better part of the past two years straight to hiking in the mountains, carrying roughly 40 pounds. Probably closer to 45 in this case, with that bulky sleeping bag, warm clothes and six days of food. And I disregarded my old Appalachian Trail rule: don't hike on an empty stomach. I had exactly two cookies and one Diet Coke this morning. Great breakfast, huh?

So, anyway, it's interesting meeting someone you've never seen or spoken to, then, 10 minutes later, setting off on a 70-mile hike together. But, as always, I've found that the shared experience of walking a trail makes that part easy. And Mike is a very nice person. Soft-spoken, easy-going. He's sleeping in one of the shelters at the moment. Little shelters, they are. They'd be pretty crowded with the maximum occupancy of five. But it looks like Mike and I will be the only ones here tonight. In fact, I'll be surprised if we have much company on the trail at all, being that it's so early in the year and most of our hiking will be on weekdays. We saw only one other hiker today, heading in the opposite direction and carrying a day-pack. Oh, and a couple on a 4-wheeler who was riding on a trail that intersects the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT). They and I happened to reach the intersection at the same moment. I yielded. They didn't slow down.

Buuuut anyhoo. I'd say today was and is as near to perfect as a day can get. Comfortable temperature and lots of sunshine, pretty views, the sounds of the Youghiogheny River and its tributaries, a light breeze. So I felt like I had lead weights on my legs? And the blisters are no big deal, either. I'm lucky to be out here.

I'm not sure what all I was thinking about while I was hiking today. On the uphills (and today was mostly uphill), I did wonder several times if a human heart is supposed to beat that fast. And every time I stopped to take in a view and catch my breath, I thought about the fact that I'm out here enjoying a peaceful walk in the woods while hundreds of thousands of troops are risking their lives in the Iraqi desert. How strange that felt. For the past five days, I've had CNN on almost continuously during the day, even getting up now and then during the night to see what's going on. It's weird to watch a war from my living room, but it seems even weirder to me now that I'm suddenly so completely removed from all that and most everything else going on in the world. Most of the day, I found myself thinking no further than a few feet ahead of me or about nothing much at all. Then I'd think about what I've been seeing on TV lately and feel . . . weird.

Oh, Mike is up. (I know because I just heard him belch.) Guess I'll put my pen and paper away and go be sociable while I cook my dinner. Back to Liptons and mac-n-cheese. Yay, I'm hikin'!

Day 2

Today's miles: 12
Trip miles: 18.3
Destination: Route 653 shelter area

Last night was very relaxing. Mike and I lay in the shelter, chatting as the sun set, watching the fire in the fireplace a few feet in front of us. I listened to the embers sizzle for a while before falling asleep. I woke up only once before dawn, when the wind picked up and blew directly into the shelter. I scrunched down into my sleeping bag, rolled over since the side I'd been lying on was numb, and drifted off again to the sound of the creek and a shelter mouse gnawing on the wood somewhere above me.

I awoke at 6:30 to gray skies and chilly air, and started up the 1200-foot climb at eight o'clock, with Mike not far behind. Just as I reached the ridge at about 9 am, the rain began and I quickly got cold. There's heat in the feet, I figured, and picked up my pace. But my assumption was wrong this time. My t-shirt and shorts didn't cut it at all, but I was too cold to stop and change clothes . . . which makes little to no sense at all, I know. I thought I'd seen on the map that there was a shelter at the 12-mile point (six miles into today's hike), but I realized I was mistaken when I saw mile marker 14. I'd missed 12 and 13, and there had been no shelter. So I continued walking, cold and soaked.

The LHHT is generally well-maintained, but being so early in the year, I guess no trail work has been done since last fall. There are numerous blowdowns from winter storms, and many of those blowdowns brought down a lot of green briar with them. So I did a lot of oo! oo! oo-ing and have a nice pattern of scratches on both legs.

By the time I reached mile 15, I think I was mildly hypothermic, thanks to my own stupidity. I was getting clumsy, often tripping over sticks that would get caught between the back of one leg and the front of the other, since I was dragging my feet. But I kept on moving, periodically asking myself, "You okay, Deb?" and hearing, "Yep, mm-hm, sorta. Just hurry up!"

Finally, I heard Mike yell from up ahead, "Mile 18 is right here!" Normally, I would have picked up speed to get to the shelter, get my pack off and warm, dry clothes on, but I could just barely shove the next foot forward. I covered the last .6 of a mile in something like a half-hour. (My watch stopped at 10:30 this morning because it got too wet. The thing made it through my A.T. thru-hike, then dies on the second day of the LHHT. Go figure.)

Obviously, the first thing I did when I got to the shelter was change clothes and get into my sleeping bag, but it took at least an hour for me to warm up. Mike built a fire before he had changed his own clothes, while I managed to cook a hot meal, still bundled in my sleeping bag, on knees and forearms on the shelter platform. While I ate, I sat on the edge of the shelter with my face close to the fire. My sleeping bag got pretty hot on the outside, as I finally warmed up on the inside. At last, I was able to get out of the bag and make a trip to the potty and to gather more (wet) firewood. By then, we had enough hot coals to burn anything.

The sun has just about set now. The rain has stopped, and the sky is mostly clear. Mike just added more wood to the fire, and I'm comfortable. Rain or shine, I won't be hiking in just a t-shirt and shorts tomorrow. I'd rather sweat profusely than have another day like today. But if Mike's weather forecast is correct, I'll be needing those layers for the rest of the trip.

Day 3

Today's miles: 14.3
Trip miles: 32.6
Destination: Route 31 shelter area

Today the trail was one big blowdown. Oftentimes, we had to keep an eye on the yellow blazes—those on trees that were still standing, that is—while bushwhacking our way in the general direction of the trail. The slow, tedious going wore on my nerves at times, despite the beautiful weather.

On the brighter side of things, Mike is a great hiking buddy. He goes at his own pace, which is faster than mine, but I can usually see him since there are no leaves on the trees or underbrush. When he does get a ways ahead, he stops for a break on a rock or fallen log until I catch up. Sometimes we hike along together for a bit, chatting now and then. Just the way I like it.

Honestly, there wasn't much of particular interest along the trail today. At least, little that I noticed. I was so busy picking my way through the branches and green briar while wincing from a very sore knee, that I didn't pay attention to much else.

Mike and I stopped for about a half-hour on the summit at Seven Springs Ski Area, where I ate my tuna on bagel sandwich while sitting on the deck outside the closed Lake Tahoe Lodge. The trail then descended alongside and across ski slopes, still covered with soft snow. Then it was back to the blowdowns again.

We didn't see anyone else on the trail today, but we expect the ranger will stop by the shelter area as he did last night. He checks the shelters all along the trail, to see if everyone present has a reservation. The shelters are accessible by gated service roads, so the ranger on duty is able to drive in.

Well, it's time to throw another log or two on the fire and relax to the sound of highway construction maybe a half-mile away. Beep, beep, beep, vrrroom, beep! That's okay, I'm just glad to be here. The fresh air and exercise feel great, throbbing feet and knee and all.

Day 4

Today's miles: 14
Trip miles: 46.6
Destination: Route 30 shelter area

Last night, someone was walking around our shelter at 1:30 a.m. I still think it was the ranger, but Mike isn't so sure. Whoever it was didn't reply when I said, "Hello?" and I didn't hear a vehicle. All I saw was the beam of a flashlight. Hmmm . . . a boogie man? Or a boogie bear that ate someone who was carrying a flashlight? There was no one else staying at the shelter area.

Today, for my birthday, I got clear, blue skies, painful feet and lots more green briar. I'm being redundant, aren't I? Sorry.

So, anyway, Mike fell down twice today. That's three for him, zero for me. I didn't giggle, though. Not until I was sure he was okay.

A group of six hikers passed us going in the opposite direction. One of them had a big box of donuts lashed to the top of his pack. Another had a machete and a boom box. We found a shirt and a water bottle in the direction they'd come from, but unfortunately, they didn't drop any of those donuts. Not that I need them; my flabby legs rub together when I hike. Hence, the little tube of Vaseline I brought -- a chafed hiker's best friend.

Mike keeps taking pictures of me. They're for a photography assignment, you see, due shortly after he returns from this hike, and I'm his unwitting subject -- an out-of-shape hiker with a lopsided backpack. As long as he doesn't get the out-of-shape hiker-peeing-in-the-woods picture, I'm okay with it. I wonder if my hair looks okay. (Just kiddin'.)

Mike and I kept the fire going throughout most of last night. We stacked a bunch of firewood under the eave of this shelter in order to do the same tonight. The fire warms the shelter considerably. And I don't think boogie bears like fire, so that's another good reason to keep stoking.

What else? Um . . . nuttin' really. Guess that means it's time for some bedtime babbling if Mike is still awake. I don't hear any snoring on his side of the shelter. Then again, I don't think he snores. He says I do, but I know he's definitely joking.

Day 5

Today's miles: 10.2
Trip miles: 56.8
Destination: Route 271 shelter area

When the rain began, Mike and I knew we were almost at the shelter turnoff, and we started to run. But we didn't know the shelter was nearly a mile off the trail. Oh well, at least the precipitation held off as long as it did. Today was a cold one, but we were dry for most of it.

Also at this shelter area (but in another shelter here) is a man who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2000, the same year I did. His trailname is Zippedy, and he started from Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 3rd, nearly a month before I did, and finished on Mt. Katahdin, Maine, in August. Zippedy, from Ohio, is hiking the LHHT in the opposite direction. He tells us that snow is in the forecast, so said the ranger he saw last night at the easternmost shelter, which we plan to bypass tomorrow, our last day on the trail.

I'm pretty toasty right now. I swear this sleeping bag must weigh five pounds, but I don't care. It's mighty cold on the other side of it. Mike and I built a windbreak with hiking poles, his poncho and the rain fly from my tent. We're scrunched at the back of the shelter because the rain is coming in with the wind. Mike tried his best to build a fire, but the only dry fuel was a handful of small sticks beneath the eaves. Not enough hot coals to get the wet logs going. Looks like we won't have an all-nighter fire tonight.

About the trail today. Well, it was a long walk in the woods, just like the first four days, with plenty more maneuvering around . . . you know . . . blowdowns, and really no points of particular interest to speak of. That's the thing about the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail. If you prefer frequent vistas, an occasional walk through a field perhaps or periodic changes in the landscape, the LHHT probably wouldn't be your best bet for a multi-day hike. What scenic vistas there are -- and there are several -- are mostly in the first and last six miles. The trail occasionally winds its way through rock formations, and several rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets, which will certainly be beautiful when they bloom in June and early July. And there have been two short stretches through evergreen forest, with pretty snake-like creeks. I'd say it would be best to thru-hike the LHHT later in the year, when the trail has been cleared of—you got it—blowdowns, and the trees and shrubs are in bloom; although, you'd most likely see many more people on the trail, of course.

Anyhow, Mike hiked right behind me today for the entire stretch. I'd been stepping aside to let him pass, but last night he said he'd rather go at my pace --that he didn't like getting too far ahead, not knowing if I'd fallen down and couldn't get up or gotten lost. Me? Fall? Fssh! But it was nice to have the company, though we didn't talk much. I was able to get lost in my thoughts instead of focusing on the kink in my knee, my sore feet, the cold wind. I kept up a pretty good pace, inspired by having someone a few feet behind me, even getting better at dealing with the obstacle course in the trail. The thing is, I find myself looking for those mile markers. I've never hiked a trail that had those, and I'm not sure I like them. I tend to focus more on the miles covered than I usually do.

Oh, I tried Powerbar Gel for the first time today, thanks to Mike. I'd thought the stuff would be really yucky, but it was very good. The vanilla tasted more like lemon. It was an unexpected treat just as I was beginning to get that empty feeling and had no walk-and-eat munchies left in my hip pouch.

Crud, my end of the windbreak just fell over. Time to rebuild, then brave the cold for a quick call of nature just on the other side of the shelter wall. Mike says he'll heckle me if he hears a trickle, but it's far too cold to care. The potty house is a hike away, and I'm not going there unless . . . well, you know.

Day 6

Today's miles: 0.2
Trip miles: 57
Destination: Route 271

Have I mentioned that Mike has been carrying a cell phone? I don't think I did. Actually, I tried not to think about it. I've never brought one of those on a backpacking trip, and being so close to home with a number of road crossing along the trail, with the rough weather we've had and my painful knee, the knowledge that bailing out would be fairly easy to do kept creeping into my mind. I like end-to-end trail hiking, and I don't like to quit, for lack of a better word. I like to give my goals everything I've got, whether I reach them or not.

So that was my dilemma when Mike and I awoke this morning to six inches of snow, and the white stuff was still falling fast. Zippedy came over to our shelter at about 6:30 to ask what we were going to do.

"Hike," I said.

Then he said, "That would be dangerous."

"Why?" I asked.

And he replied, "Because with all the blowdowns, you'd have a real tough time finding the trail. And there are some steep descents the way you're headed, and they'll be very slippery."

"Well, I don't know," I said, "We do have a phone, so. . . ."

"Oh," he said. "Would you mind if I called my wife to come get me?"

I sat there, agonizing, as Mike took out his phone and handed it to Zippedy, who called his wife in Akron, Ohio. I could hear her tell him she'd be there in about five hours, as the phone started beeping--the battery was running very low. If I was going to call my husband, it would have to be a quick conversation. Mike said the battery runs out faster when the phone is cold, so I took it from Zippedy and stuck it down my shirt as I agonized some more. But it was only 14 miles to the end. And it was our last daaaay. I mean, we'd be home in warm beds tonight, so why quit now? Mike didn't say anything.

As I sat there contemplating, watching the snow accumulate and blow into the shelter and at my face, which was the only thing sticking out of my sleeping bag, I asked Mike what he wanted to do. It was my decision, he insisted. He said he didn't care, that doing the whole trail wasn't all that important to him.

Well, there's no sense in belaboring the point. You can see by today's miles that I made the call. My husband picked us up at the road crossing as soon as he could get there, which was shortly after 10 a.m. It was still snowing heavily, and the roads were slick. The truck slid a few times on the ride home. So I guess it was best that he came to get us as early as he did, or the driving might have been much worse later on. And Mike and I probably would have been quite a bit longer getting to the end of the trail, so my husband might have been sitting there for some time past our original 4:00 guess.

Maybe this sounds silly, but bailing out short of the end of the trail bugs me. I feel good about what I did and, as always, had a great time despite the rough weather, the blowdowns, the aches and pains. I love backpacking, even though it can be downright hard work and uncomfortable sometimes. The rewards are so worth it to me. I just have to convince myself that it's not the biggest deal in the world to call it quits short of the original goal. Sometimes it's just plain old being good to yourself, I guess, and doing the smart thing.

So that does it for my first hike of the year. Now I'll start looking forward to the next trek, which will be in the Grand Canyon in early June. My Superior Trail thru-hike has been postponed until late June, with another hiking partner I've never met. Meeting new people is a great part of these adventures. It was definitely a pleasure to meet Mike. Thanks, Mike, you were great company on the trail!

Where Is the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are there any dangerous animal attacks recorded on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail?

Answer: Not that I personally know of. There are plenty of black bears around and other wildlife, so of course, there's always the chance of an encounter, but the vast majority don't result in any harm to human or animal. Just take reasonable precautions when storing your food for the night.