Rain, Rocks, and Ridges; the Standing Stone Trail

Posted by Max N on

Iíd heard good things about the Standing Stone Trail (formerly the Link Trail), which connects the Tuscarora and PA Mid State Trails in south-central PA. After a couple false starts, I met Michael, Brian, Dan and Dave on a rainy Thursday evening at Cowanís Gap State Park to start our northward trek. We only had about a half hour of light and wanted to do some miles tonight and we hit the trail shortly after I arrived. And we immediately took a wrong turn and ended up at a water treatment plant, so we turned around and managed to find the official southern trailhead across a dam. The trailhead sign said the SST was 71 miles long; the sign at the other end of the trail had reported 68. And so began a fun filled weekend.

We opted to follow the Tuscarora trail instead of the SST for the first stretch since they were parallel and a high rocky ridge didnít sound like fun in the dark with fog and rain. The headlamps soon came on as we cruised down the trail before we parted with the Tuscarora and headed back to the SST on a side trail. After a climb up and over a ridge, we found a surprisingly unrocky flat stretch next to the trail and opted to camp while we had the chance. We quickly set up in the rain and dove into our tents for the night.

It rained the entire night and continued into the morning, so we headed back out into the rain with much heavier tents at sunrise. We soon passed Vanderbiltís Folly, which is a partially build railroad grade through PA that was abandoned before it was finished. Some nice stonework that still almost looked new despite being 150 years old.

We passed under I-76 and crossed a stream. I used a log bridge which I was apparently too heavy for. It wouldnít be the only bridge we heard crack this weekend. Then back up for some ridge running. At the end of the ridge we started heading down on a gravel track. The trail then took off again and did the worldís longest switchback of about a mile, to save about ľ mile of travel on the road. It seemed a bit silly.

We then had our dreaded 6 mile roadwalk on pavement since the trail couldnít be routed across private land in this area. Not the most enjoyable hiking Iíve ever done, especially in the continuing rain. However, at the end of the roadwalk, we rolled into the town of Three Springs, which sported an Italian Restaurant right on the trail. We stopped in out of the rain for our first break of the day at 2:30. They even let us bring our dripping packs in. We ordered a vast amount of food, and Dave went to the thrift store next door to buy a raincoat for $5 to replace his windshirt, which just wasnít cutting it. Great pizza and Dan and I got plenty of food to bring some with us on the trail for dinner and breakfast.

We regretfully left our rain-free refuge and headed back up into the hills with over-full stomachs and a warning from our waitress that it was supposed to rain through SundayÖ. Back uphill on a game road before bailing off do dive down into a narrow gully and climbing right back out BFT style. We arrived at the trailís only shelter and all piled in for the night. We couldnít find the spring at the shelter (despite all the rain) so we ended up using some bottles of water that were left. The rain mostly stopped when we were settling in for bed for the first time of the entire trip, but a heavy fog rolled in as we drifted off.

Amazingly the next morning it wasnít raining, and some of our stuff actually dried a little during the night. After the last two demoralizing days we were still a bit pessimistic in the morning, and were waiting for the rain to come back. We hit the trail at sunrise once again and were soon rewarded in the clearing weather with our first vista of the trip that we didnít walk right past. And then just down the trail we got 3 more vistas, culminating in the Throne Room Vista with expansive views of the surrounding country. After an enjoyable stop, we headed on because we were all about out of water and had yet to find our fist source since last night. We made it to a stream and drank our fill before hitting the next ridge.

When got to a vista when we were finishing the ridge and had a great view of the narrow valley we were heading into, surrounded by rock covered ridges. A great view up top, and a nice stroll through before we entered the town of Mapleton and shortly arrived at the famous 1,000 steps after a great walk along an old rail grade.

There were tons of dayhikers on the steps, and we flew past them with our full packs on the way up. I managed to make it at close to my normal hiking pace without stopping. It was quite fun, and good to see some history from the area. Miners used to climb these steps daily to go to work.

Up top we went back and forth on mining rail grades for a while before cresting our last ridge of the day. After running it we headed down, got water at a stream, and set up camp. It hadnít rained for most of the day, so we managed to get a lot of our stuff dry, and had a good time with the better weather and scenery today. Had a nice campfire to finish off the night.

It rained some during the night, but stopped before we got up. It rained on and off before noon, but then cleared up for our last day on the trail. The first bit of trail was meandering through the woods and brambles, but it was nice to be out in the wilderness. After a while the terrain changed dramatically, and we wound around beautiful spires of rock, stacked and sticking straight up into the sky. Didnít get many pictures though since it was raining.

We regrouped at the bottom of our last climb and grabbed water since we had a long ridge ahead of us. Travelled a great mining grade up the mountain, and there was a viewing platform at the beginning of the summit where we once again took a quick break.

The beginning of the ridgewalk was close to a road, and had SPECTACULAR rockwork by the trail maintainers. The ridge was quite rocky, but there was hardly a rocky patch that didnít have great rockwork providing a path over it. The trail work itself made the ridge enjoyable. Until it stopped. Completely. And we were left with ~8 miles of rock scrambling to finish off the ridge.

Needless to say it was slow going, and though there were some nice views along the high ridge, we were all ready to be done with this trail. It had been a tough weekend with the rain and terrain. But the ridge went on and on, and we spent a few hours up there rock hopping and adding to our battle scars. I got a nice goose egg and a bloodied leg, and Brian managed to pop his amazing blister.

We regrouped at the last vista on the ridge, and after that the trail improved dramatically with cleared treadway through the rocks. With a gentle downhill grade, I ran part of the remaining trail back down to our car at long last.

This was a tough trip and trail, and tried all of us, but we made it through and conquered the SST. Iím not sure Iíll be back, but it was definitely an experience Iíll remember for a while. Overall mileage 77.5 (5.5/27.5/22/22.5 splits).

Michael Martin posted on

Thanks, Max, for the great write up!

It was a heckuva trip, and I've found myself thinking of various sections of it as the week as the days went by.

I do want to find a way to do a LM trip out there for the section where the rock spires were, as that was definitely a highlight.

Michael Martin posted on

Just a few thoughts ...

The people who maintain this trail really do a heckuva job. It must be a herculean effort to keep it open, with all the private property issues on the land the trail crosses.

I will be taking a look at the map to see if I could do a more sane, weekend trip that I could label LM or MO, which would hit what--for me--where the highlights of the trip: the 1,000 steps, the beautiful stone spires headed into the Rothrock Natural Area, perhaps ending at Hawkwatch. I think that would be an excellent trip we could develop.

Thru-hiking the entire thing is basically an expert's only type-affair. The reasons:

* Extensive stretches where there is no camping, legally, which forced us to walk a 27-mile day between legal sites.

* Long dry stretches.

* The road walking, in sections, which, while fairly easy, do take a mental and physical toll.

I'm sure the maintainers have thought of this, but a few designated campsites on the trail would really help make it more accessible.

Since I've thought of doing a DC UL trail maintenance weekend, I might contact the SST people about that, in spring.