Round Island Run
Every July, the Keystone Trails Association (KTA) hosts the Prowl the Sproul hiking weekend outside of Renovo where a variety of dayhikes are offered in and around the Sproul State Forest. I attended this year's event, which is held at a local hunting club. Sproul is the largest of Pennsylvania's state forests, covering over 300,000 acres. And as I would soon see, it is one of the most beautiful.
I had spent time in Sproul State Forest several years ago, hiking the Chuck Keiper Trail and parts of the Donut Hole Trail. However, I knew there was more to see. As it turns out, Sproul has some beautiful hidden gems.
I was helping the KTA by leading two of the hikes. The first was to Round Island Run and its waterfall. I had known about the falls for a few years, but never had the chance to visit since it is located in a very isolated corner of the state forest, about an hour from where we were camping. We drove through Renovo along PA 120 and turned off in the isolated hamlet of Keating. Keating is a forgotten place, yet it is in a scenic spot, surrounded by mountains as the large Sinnemahoning Creek joins the even larger West Branch Susquehanna River. The group I was leading was filled with people who were interesting, fun, and excited to explore a new place.
After parking our cars, we began by hiking down lonely Jerry Ridge Road to its end where there were two excellent vistas overlooking the canyons and steep plateaus. It was overcast, so the mist was rising, or hanging in the distant glens. It made the views that much more spectacular. I was there the day before to scout the trail when it was sunny, so the change between the two days made it interesting.
We began the loop by hiking the unblazed Jacobs Hollow Trail. The trail was easy to follow through ferns. Along the way we passed a huge garter snakes that was about 2 1/2 feet long, the longest I have ever seen. I saw that same snake the day before.
The trail reached the stream in the hollow and went down along an old grade. The hollow was very beautiful with cascades, hemlocks, and rhododendrons. Everything seemed lush, green, and covered in moss. Everyone commented on the beauty, but the best had yet to come.
We reached the bottom and ate lunch at a pool fed by a small cascade. Blooming rhododendron surrounded us. George, one of the members in the group, found a heavy, circular piece of cast iron in the water. We couldn't figure out what it was.
Our hike took us up along Round Island Run and the beauty became incredible as we were surrounded by blooming rhododendron. White blossoms were everywhere, contrasting the deep, moist green of the forest. As I was walking, I looked down just in time to see a rattlesnake coiled up. It didn't rattle or hiss. We tried to walk around it in the brush, but it soon slithered down the slope towards the creek.
Round Island Run was simply gorgeous. It cascaded over moss covered rocks and ledges, framed by blooming rhododendron and green hemlocks. Brook trout sprinted in the clear waters below the trail. The place almost seemed primeval, as if we were on the set of Jurassic Park.
As if things couldn't get any better, we reached a place where the white blossoms covered the mountainside, reaching as far into the forest as the eye can see. Stunning. I had never seen anything like it.
A side trail took us down to Round Island Run Falls, which drops about 25 feet. A few of us stood behind the falls. A campsite was near the falls. It was a beautiful spot, but the whole hike was so scenic, it is hard to call the falls the highlight.
The trail continued upstream as hidden cascades tumbled in the rhododendron jungles below. We followed a trail as it climbed the steep slope, leaving the lush forests along the creek for the drier oak forests on the plateau. The trail became hard to follow, but we were able to make our way to another unblazed trail, where we turned left. The level trail meandered through meadows and ferns under hardwoods. We soon returned back to the cars.
Despite the isolation, this trail is worth the drive. It is best to hike this loop clockwise. While the trail is not blazed, most of it is fairly easy to follow, with the exception of the southern part of the loop where the trail climbs from the stream and then turns left back to Jerry Ridge Road. This juncture is very easy to miss if hiking the loop counter-clockwise. As a point of reference, if you do hike this loop counter-clockwise and pass a wide ledge about ten feet tall, followed by thick blueberry bushes, you went too far.
I was very much impressed by the beauty of this place. While the hike is scenic all year, it is particularly so when the rhododendron is blooming in July.
My next hike in Sproul State Forest was to the Clendenin Branch/Shoemaker Ridge Loop, and it was not to be outdone.
Clendenin Branch/Shoemaker Ridge Loop
After years of hiking in countless destinations, sometimes I feel a little jaded on the trail, as if experiencing something new becomes more and more rare. What was so great about hiking in the Sproul State Forest was that I realized there is still so much to see, so much that remains hidden.
On my second hike in the Sproul, I led a larger group to the Clendenin Branch/Shoemaker Ridge Loop. After the exceptional hike to Round Island Run the day before, I didn't think this one could top it. It proved to be equally beautiful.
This area of the Sproul is isolated, located at the eastern end of Shoemaker Ridge Road. The Chuck Keiper Trail passes a couple miles to the west. Here, numerous streams have carved gorges and glens down through the plateau as they flow to the West Branch Susquehanna River. The beauty of the Sproul is its streams, which are often pristine and feature spectacular forests of hemlock, rhododendron, and laurel. They felt primeval. These forests have cool, moist micro-climates and are home to great biodiversity. On this hike alone we passed many different kinds of mushrooms.
Starting this loop was a little confusing but we soon found our way, following an old forest road through a scenic and diverse forest of pine and hardwoods with an understory of blueberry. This trail was also unblazed, but the route was obvious. The trail followed a narrow ridge under a nice pine forest. It was interesting to see both sides of the ridge fall away through the forest. The trail led to the end of the ridge with a view from a powerline swath.
We backtracked to another obvious grade, now on our right. The grade descended into a beautiful gorge with lots of rhododendron. We soon reached Clendenin Branch at a campsite. The air was moist, cool, and had a sweet smell. What a beautiful place. The trail turns upstream, following an old grade along this gorgeous stream. There were many stream crossings, and some large pine and hemlock trees. We passed through a short section with stinging nettle, but they were not much of a problem. Soon thereafter was a patch of bright red bee balm.
As we followed the creek, the scenery became even more beautiful as rhododendron crowded the trail with bright white blooms. These blooms covered the hillside.
At Benjamin Branch there was another campsite in a stunning location, surrounded by streams, hemlocks, and more rhododendron. The trail continued upstream with multiple stream crossings. The gorge narrowed with larger moss covered boulders and cascades. The narrow trail threaded its way around boulders and logs in a jungle of green. In places, the trail hugged the side of the gorge above the rushing creek. We reached a small waterfall with a deep pool. The trail only got better as it entered a jungle of rhododendron passing a large boulder the size of a small house and a secret pool fed by a cascade.
Clendenin Branch was simply stunning with its sublime scenery. We followed the trail up a steep climb away from the creek and reached the top of the plateau where we completed the loop. I will not soon forget this hidden gem deep in the Sproul State Forest.
This trail is unblazed but is relatively easy to follow since it uses old forest grades. Keep in mind there are several stream crossings without bridges. I highly recommend hiking this loop counter-clockwise. A hike in early to mid July offers amazing rhododendron blooms. There are also two very nice campsites if you are looking for a short overnight backpack. Snakes are a common sight on the trail, although we did not see any on our hike. Stinging nettle was not a problem on this hike.
Thanks for posting these trip reports! It really seems like you've "discovered" some great new trips. It's amazing how much there is to do in PA.
Some of us--including me--know the Chuck Keiper Trail. I walked it in March 2012.
It would be cool to put together a lower mileage backpacking trip up there for the group.
I'll look over your notes.
I was impressed by both hikes, incredible streamside habitats and scenery. I was also thinking about a backpacking loop of some kind. It may be possible. Old grades seem to follow many streams in the Sproul, maybe they can be linked together via the CKT.
Round Island Run might have this exciting loop: Stone Bridge Tr, Round Island Tr, Jacobs Hollow, Jerry Ridge Rd, Smoke Draft, Lower Jerry Run (has old-growth forest), Amos Bridge Tr back to Stone Bridge. Views, waterfalls, old growth, rhododendron jungles, pristine streams- could be an amazing loop.