Experimental music, photography, and adventures

Pinchot Trail, north loop

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Last week, The Blasphemous Bicycler (hereafter known simply as “TBB”) invited me to hike the north loop of the Pinchot Trail, in Lackawanna State Forest on Saturday. If you haven’t read his blog, check it out. It’s an excellent combination of cycling, hiking/backpacking, and of course, blasphemy and other topics. Always an interesting read. Anyway, I accepted the invitation and throughout the week watched the forecast for Saturday get increasingly gloomy. By Friday, the forecast called for temperatures in the 50s and a 90% chance of steady rain throughout the day.

Admittedly, I felt a bit concerned. I had never done a hike this long (10+miles) and I had no idea what to wear for 6-7 hours of hiking in the rain. But I had waterproof* boots and a $2 poncho, so I figured what the heck? Why not? This would be a good way to test rain gear, TBB’s new stove, and our will.

* My boots claimed to be waterproof, but I had not fully tested this claim.

We started hiking around 9:45 am, in moderate drizzle. A short ways into the trail we found a box with a log book and maps. We signed in and took some maps. Our first impression was that our ponchos were working well. In addition to keeping us relatively dry, they covered our packs and allowed some breeze to flow through. The ventilation was much appreciated. They did give us a bit of a hunchback look, with our packs under there, but we made the most of it.

TBB, rocking the hunchback look. This stream popped up seemingly out of nowhere and disappeared under the rocks, and reminded me of the Orangeville Rise of the Lost River in Indiana

This trail must not see a lot of maintenance, because there were a ton of downed trees around which we had to maneuver. But the defining quality of this trail, at least to me, was all the rocks. I am not used to such rocky trails, coming from Indiana, but in this area long sections of trail basically amount to huge rock gardens. TBB tells me this trail was actually fairly moderate, in terms of rocks.

One of many fallen trees blocks the trail

The first of many sections of very rocky trail


The trail mostly climbed for the first few miles, but it was mostly very gradual climbing that was fairly easy. There were a couple of short steep sections, but nothing bad. At some point we encountered some dense fog for a good 45 minutes to an hour, making for an even more beautiful hike. We alternated between conversation and quiet hiking, getting lost in the crunch of the leaves beneath our boots, the pitter-patter of the rain drops on our hats and the sounds of the blustery wind rushing through the trees and over our ears. The trail was very straight and flat for some time. We heard a loud noise that sounded like a small engine starting. Startled, I asked, “What the hell was that?” TBB said it was a grouse; a few minutes later he spotted another one, although I didn’t see it.

Straight, flat, and easy foggy trail

Bare trees

Hiking through the fog

We crossed a gravel road, the first of several we would see. We commented that these roads would be great for cycling. Bikes aren’t allowed on the trails, but the roads were smooth gravel and looked extremely inviting.

Gravel road

Foggy, mowed clearing


More fog

After a while, the trail got considerably rockier and passed by a cranberry swamp (I think). We climbed a bit more, ending in a large, bare rock face.

Exposed rock face

Cranberry swamp

We started a long, difficult rock-riddled descent. The rocks, wet and leaf-covered, were quite slick, and there was no way to get even footing. This made it tricky to move without slipping, and the weird angles punished our ankles. We took our time and made it through safely. TBB’s poncho billowed like a trenchcoat in an action movie.

Billowing poncho

Rocks. Yes, that’s the trail.

Making progress …

We saw a small stream and wondered if it was the creek we saw on the trail map. It seemed like it might be; we were a little disappointed, expecting something bigger. TBB filtered some water from the creek, and we took a break under a hemlock tree that shielded us from the rain so well we thought it’d stopped. Some trail mix and water had us feeling more energized. Only when we started hiking again without our ponchos did we realize it was still raining, and put the ponchos back on.

Small creek

Now we had more rocks to deal with, this time going uphill. Once we reached the top of the hill, we realized we had another big, rocky descent ahead of us and suspected that the creek we had been looking for was up ahead. We could see a big mountain on the other side of the valley, and wondered if we had to climb that next.

Rocky climb

Descending into the valley

As it turned out, we were right. We took another, shorter break by this much-bigger, rushing creek and scouted out some potential campsites there. It was an incredibly peaceful scene, quiet except for the sounds of the rushing water.


Potential campsites

Another shot of the creek

We lingered for a bit, then decided to move on. TBB said, “It’s difficult to leave a spot like this,” and I couldn’t agree more. The creek was probably the highlight of the whole hike in its scenic beauty and placid setting. There was no bridge across the creek, so we crossed on some rocks. They were very wet and slick, and one was loose. We both got our feet wet crossing the creek, and I noticed a leak in one of my boots after I crossed. Air bubbles escaped from my boot with each step. Hopefully I’ll be able to reseal it.

Creek crossing

Shortly after leaving the creek we saw a handsome large buck run through the woods ahead of us. Now, we had to climb for quite a while. We encountered a couple of other hikers, who were covering the entire Pinchot trail system over the course of three days. We chatted for a couple of minutes, then moved on. This climb was rocky, but not as bad as some of the places where we had just hiked. We didn’t have to hike all the way up to the top of the next ridge, though, as the trail gradually climbed up the side as the ridge came down a bit. Still, it took a lot of effort to reach the top. Hiking on the ridge, we got some glimpses of surrounding mountains through the trees; just a few weeks earlier we wouldn’t have been able to see very much.

Climbing the ridge

Ridgetop hiking

Once we reached the top, it was flat for a while. We soon came to another road crossing and decided to make that our lunch spot. I had a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and some Cheez-Its, TBB brought his stove and made some Ramen. The hot meal was an awesome idea; next time I’m on a long, cool hike, I’ll bring my stove. The rain stopped and started back up briefly but we took off our ponchos and for a few glorious minutes, the sun came out. I took my boots off and let my socks and feet air out a bit. I wished I had brought dry socks, something I had considered doing.

Lunch spot

Testing TBB’s new stove


The sun came out for a few minutes


TBB’s hat, GPS and trekking poles

We started hiking again, this time without our ponchos. We soon came across a bright orange salamander. He wasn’t moving very fast, but he was still alive. It seemed awfully cold to be a salamander. A few minutes later we saw another one that wasn’t as brilliantly colored.


It felt great to hike for a while without the ponchos. They do restrict your range of motion a bit, and also make climbing over rocks more challenging, since it’s harder to see your feet. It’s funny how something you take for granted under normal conditions — hiking relatively unencumbered — can feel like such a luxury at a time like this.

More brush covering the trail

Sometime around 3 pm it started getting darker. It had been fairly dark all day, but we were surpised at how quickly we were losing light. It was a bit disheartening, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. We did pick up the pace a little during the easy stretches. But soon we had a tricky, rocky downhill section. We had some good views as we hit the edge of the ridge and hiked down.

Reaching the edge of the ridge

About to descend. A boardwalk is visible below.

The wooden boardwalk was very slippery

We knew we were getting close to the end of the trail. We had a little difficulty figuring out which way to go. Eventually, we figured it out and before long reached the road, where we’d walk the last mile back to the car. As soon as we reached the road, the skies opened up, the wind blew harder, and the rain began pouring down on us. These were the kinds of conditions I feared we’d have all day. I was glad it didn’t rain this hard earlier in the day. Water was running down the back of my poncho. I put the hood on to stop it, but I was already drenched. We walked along the road fairly quickly, although it made no difference. We were already drenched. This was an important lesson: the ponchos worked fine when it was only drizzling, but heavy rain, especially combined with strong winds, meant we got soaked.

The road

Reaching the trailhead. You can see raindrops falling, if you look closely

TBB by the trailhead sign


We were glad to be back at the car. It had been a fun hike, despite the conditions, but I think we were ready to be out of the rain, and it was getting quite dark.

10 Responses to “Pinchot Trail, north loop”

  1. Bike Noob Says:

    I really enjoy your pictures, especially since you moved to Pennsylvania. And as a former hiker, I even like your hiking pix! I lived in Pittsburgh for four years, and spent a lot of time around State College, too. Pennsylvania always struck me as not very bike friendly — not many bike lanes or shoulders on roads. I once attended a County Board meeting where a commissioner stated that he would not support putting bike lanes on a road that was being widened. He didn’t want to spend the extra money for it. That was all back in the days before I got into biking, so I never experienced conditions there first hand.

  2. Scott Loveless Says:

    Those are some nice pictures. Looks like you guys had a lot of fun. I wanna ride my bike on that sloppy wet gravel road!

  3. Myles/ rattrappress Says:

    Those wet rocks look treacherous! There’s nothing better than a hot meal out in the woods, even if its Ramen noodles.

  4. Doug Says:

    From my experience there is nothing that will keep you dry in those conditions. I think more about trapping heat and wearing clothes that will insulate when wet. I like hiking on a rainy. It looked like a fun hike to me.

    If you keep hiking in NE PA you will learn of it’s reputation for being insanely rocky in some areas.

  5. furiousball Says:

    that looks like a big muddy mess – fun tho!

    i always love the pictures of rainy stuff outside, lots of neat textures when mixed with the water and dampness. great shot of the salamander too

  6. Pedalman Says:

    Great account of what looks to be a fantastic hike. Your photos compliment a beautifully written post.

  7. Tim Says:

    Great stuff all round. Thanks for the journey. As, yes, those roads look rideable. How far were you from the house?

  8. Leah Says:

    I stumbled across this site when I “googled” cranberry swamp. Your pictures are amazing, thank you for bringing me there.

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