Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail – A Thru-hike in 2 sections (2nd section only, Rt. 31 to Seward = 40 miles)
Day 1 – Rt. 31 to Turnpike Shelter (7 mi): I guess one of these is a state highway and the other is a federal one and both have nothing to do with mileage of the historic trail as I had originally thought. This morning, my partner, Justin and I tried to wake up as early as 4am, but didn’t open our eyes until 4:30am which means we didn’t get onto the road until 5. Fortunately, we had everything packed from a couple days before loosely based on the helpful suggestions on this website‘s packing list, my carefully curated nutrition packets for each day and a detailed itinerary sheet with notes for water and firewood sources at each campsite. Unfortunately, our delay didn’t account for the narrow time constraint of our shuttle driver who bailed on us as we were approaching the trailhead we were planning to leave the car to later hike back to. Instead, we drove to our starting point and made alternate arrangements to shuttle back to it from the end. We checked the weather once more and realized that an unexpected cold front was coming in but we would probably be ok. I turned my cell phone off, planning to only turn it on briefly once we arrived to camp each day, to conserve battery. We finally hit the trail around 7am after an unproductive nap in the car.
Our packs were heavy and unbalanced since we were carrying all the food for 4 days and 3 liters of water in the bladder of each pack. We started with a small hill before a generous descent into Shafer Run that was pretty rocky. My boots were comfortable and broken in, but I should’ve been wearing thicker socks with the heavier pack and my feet were sliding around a bit inside the shoe. I made an adjustment and it seemed fine but there were a lot of short, steep hills that changed how we handled gravity and our energy. My enthusiasm was quickly renewed when I recognized a huge patch of wild ramps and harvested a handful for later that night. I was ambitiously hoping we could eat something wild-foraged each day, but it simply wasn’t reliable nutrition and we were already carrying food that we needed to unweight and I was hesitant to add more to that weight.
Later that morning, I realized another growing discomfort: there was a loopy thing inside the front shoulder of my Loeka bike jersey (not designed for heavy backpack straps) that I had to cut out when we stopped for a snack/lunch on the trail. After several pack, boot and clothing adjustments for both of us, we were comfortable for a little awhile until we crossed the turnpike bridge and started a descent. We were using the Hiker’s Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail authored by the Sierra Club and W. PA Conservancy to keep things interesting by identifying rock formations, plantlife and scenic focal points for our many hours along the trail. I didn’t remember seeing so much laurel on the trail on the previous section we hiked, but that was a year ago (almost exactly) so it’s possible I simply forgot.
When we arrived to the Turnpike shelter area in the early afternoon, there were 4 or 5 adirondack-style shelters with one open side facing a fireplace and ours was prestocked with dry firewood. We were the only campers there despite the nice weather and we made quick work to filter water from a nearby stream before we got tired. The park ranger greeted us, confirmed our reservations and that we were the only hikers expected for the entire area. I recognized him from the previous section when we met trail pals over a broken pump handle at another shelter area closer to Ohiopyle. After we got the fire started, I tore the ramps into small pieces and added to miso soup as an appetizer to basmati rice which cooked over the fire and some water to warm a couple of tasty bites packages and tea. Our caloric intake required 2 servings per person.
Out of habit, I set up my Mountain Hardware Lightwedge 2 tent inside the shelter, but discussed maybe camping without it on another night. I power-showered, brushed my teeth, applied arnica oil to my front shoulder area and foot arches, drawing salve between my toes and did some light yoga. We were super tired from the previous night’s lack of sleep so went to bed around 6pm. We both have REI sleeping bags, so we are able to zip them together for more room and comfort. I slept really deeply and don’t think I woke up at all throughout the night which is rare for me when I camp.
Day 2 – Turnpike Shelter to Rt. 30 (8.5 mi): We woke up with some really beautiful birdcalls and I had my morning coffee ceremony while looking over the shelter area since we were setup at the top of a slope. My legs were noticeably tired as I made the slippery descent to the outhouses at the bottom of the slope in my 10 year-old crocs. For breakfast, we ate 1.5 cups each of Frankferd Farms Maple Nut Granola with some almond milk – another backpacking favorite of ours. This always helps us maintain energy for the first half of the day while balancing digestive enzymes for other processed and dehydrated foods that we expect to eat while on the trail.
We started our hike after a bit of stretching and noticed that we were moving pretty slow. After only 3 miles, we stopped for some cave/crevice exploration and an early lunch at Beam Rocks. We had some more miso soup and Vega electrolyte drink mix to regain our energy, which helped a ton. There were a lot of bugs interfering with eating, so I applied some of the insect repellent I’d made and it worked immediately to keep bugs off us. They still seemed interested in our food though, so we moved our stuff closer to the rocks and they left it alone. It continued raining a bit here and there, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. This is by far my favorite section of the Laurel Highlands, since I have also dayhiked, skied and mountain biked in the area (not all on this trail however). It started to rain more heavily and we had to make new adjustments again after getting rain gear out of our packs. It was warm still, so it was a very pleasant rain, and the sound of it droned out the highway. Unfortunately, the streams were overflowing everywhere, often right in the middle of the trail.
We also tried but did not succeed in finding some of the landmarks mentioned in the book – especially – an ancient fern tree fossil and an underground creek. The dense foliage alternated between hemlock, laurel and rhododendron tunnels all day long! It also felt very much like bear territory and we observed various animal tracks on the wet trails, but none were bear. Maybe a bobcat, though?
We finished the hike for the day at the Route 30 shelter, which isn’t far from the road at the top of a windy hill. I was very hungry, so I used the water and fuel we had to made tea and pasta adding in some herb mix to make it more flavorful, before getting a fire going or filtering water for camp. This proved to make cleaning up difficult, but it still happened. We had “natural” apple cinnamon pop-tarts without icing for dessert, which was very satisfying. I’d stayed in the shelter area on a previous overnight trip so I felt comfortable sleeping without a tent in the Adirondack style shelter and we were plenty warm. We’d put our food and packaging in the bear vault we brought with us and kept it several feet away from the shelter. We kept cooking utensils in a stuff sack on a shelf inside the shelter but were woken by chipmunks scurrying past our faces on the tarp all night long. In the middle of the night, we decided to make another fire to keep them away, but we didn’t get to sleep very much that night.
Day 3 – Route 30 to 271 (11.5 miles): Getting back on the trail took no time at all this morning, since we just packed our sleeping pads and bags right when we woke up and made coffee and breakfast sitting on the edge of the shelter platform. Power showering with cold water on a cool morning made the soap lather very difficult to rinse off. My backpack only has one main compartment so everything still needed to be repacked into it, after breakfast. Since it was cooler this morning I wore two pair of socks, two pair of pants, my jersey, fleece and a rain jacket. Climate control would prove challenging; however, as we had quite a few hills to traverse which raised our temperatures to the sweating point just before the chilly breeze at the top of the ridge. It also rained more heavily at times and when it stopped for a little while in the afternoon, we just put our folded up tarp on the ground a couple of feet off the trail to sit on for lunch: two packets of ramen with a whole container of silken tofu, and some Vega electrolyte drink. The only photos we took the whole day were where we sat for lunch, then we stretched a little and tightened the laces in our boots before continuing.
The rain resumed and made the uneventful section of trail along the contour line seem a little monotonous after our lunch. Until the foggy side trail descended into the shelter area, which seemed unnecessarily far from the trail itself (almost a mile). It finally stopped raining while we were on the side trail, but the heavy rain had already taken a toll on the shelter area, which was submerged under a few inches of water in most places. Fortunately, the shelter I’d reserved was at the top of a slope and mostly dry inside and it was easy to locate a stream with which to filter camp water. There was no dry firewood, however, and Justin made several “Naked and Afraid” attempts at building a wood fire in the fireplace with unsuitable tinder to no avail while the temperature dropped to the low 40s. My boots were soaked through both layers of socks, so I took them off and used dog poop bags to add waterproofing over dry socks inside my crocs. I would do the same thing with my boots the next day.
I was getting concerned about the amount of stove fuel we had left for the dehydrated foods we were carrying for the remaining 24 hours, but it turned out to be just enough to make 2 cups of tea, a high-protein nature’s burger and tomato paste mush even without the fire. Without a fire, I was shivering almost violently, so just set up the tent and got in my sleeping bag as soon as possible. My arnica oil was frozen solid so I warmed it in my hands for a few minutes to liquify it. I put the arnica and plantain salve on my affected parts, and used the liniment as a sanitizing wash instead of power showering with cold water. I was still kinda hungry going to sleep, but we went to sleep early and woke up late, broken by occasional thunderstorms though the night.
Day 4 – Rt. 271 to Seward (14 miles): The sun was out when we woke up, but it was still in the 30s. We made breakfast in the tent, prepacking everything within the tent until we were ready to emerge. I applied more arnica and salve to both of us and it was a pretty quick pack and go time; I felt strong and motivated. It was still too cold to power shower, but my deodorant was still working – at least to my own detection. I anticipated that our hiking pace was approximately 1.5 hours and wanted to finish the trail before dark, so we tried to get going early, but never looked at the clock. It would snow off and on throughout the day, but I never took off any of my layers – I think we were both wearing everything we brought (wool base layer included) and still wishing we had more, especially gloves. Fortunately, the snow was dry and it didn’t get into our layers the way the rain did so we stayed warm as long as we kept moving and the pace was consistent since there were very few, mild hills. Around mile 60, we spotted what did in fact, look like bear scat. We crossed paths with more hikers on this day than any other day and I was able to pass on an unused herbal first aid kid (that I made) to a couple of thru-hikers that were on their first day.
We continued along the ridge through a powerline cut that looked like the desert until we stopped briefly for lunch at another shelter area, not too far off the trail. My knee was making a weird clicking/grinding noise on the climbs, so I applied some arnica to it and it seemed to resolve itself. We shared a package of tasty bites, mixing it with rice and it strangely didn’t taste salty enough. I figured I was probably low on electrolytes from sweating so much over the past few days and made some drink mix, accidentally mixing two different flavors (berry + lemon lime) in the same bottle. It was kinda gross but we drank it anyway. And felt better because of it.
We climbed out of the shelter area back to the trail after lunch and noticed that a dirt bike must have come through during our lunch, breaking the top soil along the delicate edges of the trail. It was ugly to look at and I was tempted to be angry; I really wondered if ignorance was bliss or if necessary infrastructure was being ignored because no one asked: the advocacy dilemma. As we continued hiking, we would see the dirt bike tread occasionally cross the LHHT and it became evident that connectivity was lacking for this particular user group where the focal points were hill climbs and not contour lines traversing a ridge. I decided that I do think a dedicated hiking-only trail such as LHHT has its benefits, but simultaneous efforts must be made for other user groups to share the general open space, not just the entitled and vocal ones.
The last few miles we hiked through a rock quarry and steeply at first down about 1,000’ elevation. The leaves had started to become dense because of the April warmth, but we could still see a few views of Johnstown and the Conemaugh River from the rocky outcroppings from the side of the trail. The last mile, although descending, had been graded and leveling sideways to suit vehicles (presumably), so it only took us about 20 minutes to arrive at the finishing trailhead in Seward at 6:04pm. Since our original shuttle plans had changed, we were fortunate for my Dad to be visiting in town and able to pick us up from there to shuttle us back to the rt. 31 parking lot before we headed out for dinner and home.