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Snowshoeing at Hickory Run State Park

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

I enjoyed my difficult ride in deep snow on Friday, but didn’t feel the need to repeat it on Saturday. Instead, it was a perfect opportunity to try out an early Christmas gift: matching snowshoes for Sarah and me!

This is the kind of gift I love. My sister came up with the idea, mom moved on it and my mountain biking buddy Dave helped mom pick out the right snowshoes. They’re Tubbs Sojourn 30 shoes, and they look pretty solid.

I’d never used snowshoes before, so I didn’t know what to expect. Sarah had to work, but I went ahead and tested out the snowshoes. I planned to hike the Fireline Trail at Hickory Run State Park, where I could turn around and go back early if the going was really rough, or make a gametime decision to hike the easier Skyline Trail. Here is the hike I ended up doing.


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I also had some concern about the roads. I figured the interstate would be fine, but the road into the park I wasn’t so sure about. My concerns turned out to be unfounded — the roads were clear.

I parked and had to figure out how to put the snowshoes on. It wasn’t hard, and within minutes, I was walking. After only a few steps I got a big goofy grin on my face. What fun! It’s awfully surreal, walking on the snow. You sink in a bit, and it takes a little getting used to. And every step takes a bit more effort, but overall it’s not too hard.
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Clear trail ahead of me


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Snowshoes

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Me

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Animal tracks

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Creek

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Sunlit snow

The trail was easy at first, it followed the Skyline Trail and went to a great overlook we’ve visited before, a couple of times (see here and here). The view looks different every time, and it’s been interesting to watch the view change over the course of the past couple of months.

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Looking out over the Lehigh Gorge

I encountered some tracks from cross-country skiiers. My family did a fair amount of cross-country skiing when I was a child, so those tracks brought back a lot of good memories, and also made me contemplate the differences between snowshoeing and skiing.

I was impressed with how good the traction was with the snowshoes. Once I got used to a little bit of drift, I was able to walk with confidence. I thought the Fireline Trail seemed doable. I hadn’t hiked it before, but I read that it had a lot of elevation change. It would let me really put the snowshoes through their paces.

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Snowshoes

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Looking across the gorge


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Ski tracks

The trail followed the edge of the gorge for a while, joined with the Skyline Trail, but soon the trails diverged and the Fireline Trail headed further up the mountain. I looked at the climb before me and didn’t think I’d be able to do it. I tried, and to my surprise the snowshoes didn’t slip once. There are crampons (metal spikes) on the bottom, and they work very, very well.

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Steeper than it looks

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Me

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Looking back at my tracks

As I gained elevation, the views improved. I was above most of the trees at times, and I could see and hear the Lehigh River rushing below. It was quite beautiful, and I stopped periodically to gaze out over the valley. There was an occasional interruption by snowmobile noises down on the Lehigh Gorge trail below, but otherwise all I heard was the rushing water, the crunch of my snowshoes in the snow, and a few bird noises, including a woodpecker.

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More great views

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Trees

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Panoramic view

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The river below

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Me

The trail did offer some significant ups and downs, as promised. I noticed the snow actually made certain things easier: I was able to float over a lot of rocks that might be a pain in dry conditions — the deep snow evened out the surface. Climbing hurt my ankles a little bit because of the angle of my feet, but traction was much better than I expected. Going downhill was fun and easier, although you can’t just glide like you can with skis. But I was able to do things that would be awkward at best on skis. I think the snowshoes are better suited to technical terrain.

Some things were quite interesting, creek crossings, for instance. You can still choose a path like you would when hiking and step from stone to stone, but you have to be a little more aware of where you step and of neighboring rocks that might interfere with the wider shoes. On the other hand, the crampons help maintain solid footing.

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Creek crossing

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Creek

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A steep descent, and some scenery in the background

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Climbing

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Looking across the gorge again

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Another panoramic view

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More scenery

After some more ups and downs, I eventually reached another spot with some more views. At this point I was beginning to wonder when the trail was going to turn and head back toward the car. It was only supposed to be a 2.6-mile loop, and it felt like I had to be approaching that, but I hadn’t even turned around yet.

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Solitary Tree

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More scenery

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A 12-shot panoramic shot of the view (worth viewing large)

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Footprints

At this point, the trail plunged into the gorge. It was a long, steep, insane descent. Still, my showshoes afforded me great traction.

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The plunge

When I reached the bottom, I was level with some train tracks. The river was still a good 20 feet lower.  I got confused as to where I was, as the Fireline Trail seemed to end, and another trail (marked only with yellow blazes) started. I thought the Fireline Trail was a 2.6-mile loop. The map showed that while the trail was 2.3 miles, it was not a loop. This meant either going back the way I came, or stringing together a loop using the Hickory Run and Skyline trails. I didn’t want to go back the way I came, so I opted for the loop option. This meant I’d be hiking a lot further than I intended. I was having fun, so that was fine with me.

The Hickory Run trail followed, surprisingly enough, Hickory Run itself, a good-sized creek. The rushing water created all kinds of beautiful sights and sounds. The trail itself was flat, but a bit challenging on snowshoes as it was narrow and sloped sideways at times. Here, I found one weakness of the snowshoes: they don’t grip well on sideslopes. The crampons are intended to keep you from slipping forward or backward, but do little to prevent slipping sideways. I walked on a little bit of an angle and had no major problems.

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Grassy section

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Hickory Run

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Narrow trail

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Sinkhole

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Hickory Run

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Rhododendron

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Bridge

After a while, I reached the Skyline Trail. Now Sarah and I had hiked part of this trail before, but not this part. I knew the climb would be tough, but it was harder than I expected. Skiers had come through here and in several places I could see their awkward movements to climb up the hill: sidesteps, crossed ski maneuvers, etc.

I remembered these kinds of moves from my cross-country skiing days. They’re tricky. I was mostly able to just walk up the hill with my snowshoes, with a few problems in side-sloping parts of the trail. And a couple of stops to catch my breath. It seemed like a long, long climb, but it was only about 1/4 mile.  Then again, it climbed over 200 feet in that short time. A few switchbacks made it more doable. I turned around a few times during the climb to look back on the valley from which I came. It’s impressive to see such drastic elevation change in such a small distance.

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The Skyline Trail, steep from the very start

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Side-stepping by some skiers

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Tricky side slope

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Icy rock along the trail

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Looking back on the valley below, and the neighboring mountain

Once I finally reached the top, I got to go downhill for a while, then there was another good climb ahead of me. This one was longer, but much less steep. I put it in high gear as I knew I was running behind. I made good time, but you can only go so fast through the snow. At 2.5 mph, I was hauling ass uphill, for half a mile.

During this time the scenery got a little repetitive. Earlier in the hike, I had been hiking along the edge of the gorge, or by a river. Now I was just cutting back across the top of the mountain, and while the snowy forest was still beautiful, it was nothing like the scenery from earlier in the hike. I just focused on getting back to the car, and got in the zone as I went. The act of moving became pleasantly repetitive and mindless, much like spinning my way up a long climb on a bicycle. Left foot and right pole, forward. Right foot, left pole. Repeat.

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My favorite confusing sign

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Typical scenery on the way back

After what seemed like a really long time, I rejoined the Fireline Trail and headed back to the car. I knew which way I needed to go, but if I had been unsure I could have simply followed my tracks back.

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Heading back to the car

Before long, I was back at the car. I only intended to do a rather short hike, but I ended up spending 4 hours on the trail, hiking 5 miles in the process. The snow slowed me down a lot but I found it very doable with the snowshoes. They had passed my rather strenuous test hike with flying colors. On a day when riding would have been extremely difficult, I was still able to spend 4 hours in the woods. Fantastic!

When I took off my snowshoes, I realized I needed to watch for snow/ice accumulation on the bottom. The crampon on my right snowshoe was quite clogged with ice. It had been weighing me down a bit, and limiting my traction. I hadn’t really noticed, but it’s something to keep an eye on in the future.

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Ice-clogged snowshoes

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