Laurel Highlands Trail
Winter Adventure in the Pennsylvania Wilderness
My friend Dave and I have backpacked hundreds of miles in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern Appalachian range, from West Virginia's Dolly Sods to the Adirondacks in Upstate New York. We've also snowshoed in the Quehanna Wild Area in north central PA, but this was our first time on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.
The Laurel Highlands Trail starts at Ohiopyle and terminates 70 miles to the northeast near Johnstown. It's well suited for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing since it travels along the Laurel Mountain ridgeline, and there are warming huts and shelters positioned every eight to ten miles along the trail. Portions of the trail and its connectors are groomed for skiers by local clubs, and at mile 27 the trail passes through the Seven Springs ski resort at just under 3,000 ft. elevation.
Dave (above) and me, geared up and moving on the trail.
The section of the trail that Dave and I snowshoed was not groomed for skiing, and it appeared that we were the first on the trail in quite a while. In one section there were several inches of snow covering the tracks of a solitary snowshoer, in other sections we were breaking entirely new trail through the snow.
As I mentioned earlier, there are clusters of shelters positioned along the Laurel Highlands Trail, usually accessed by a side trail so they're well off the beaten path. The shelters are simple but beautiful and keep hikers dry and out of the wind. Having access to a shelter also frees up pack space since you don't need to carry a tent, although it's a good idea to carry some sort of tarp in case you get caught out.
Hikers must reserve shelters in advance, and the Pennsylvania DNR wants to be sure you know what you're getting into before booking.
Each shelter interior is equipped with shelves and hooks, which helps keep gear organized and frees up floor space. Dave and I were prepared for the worst, weather-wise, with extra clothing, food and tarps. But as it turned out the weather was decent, with daytime highs in the 30s and nightly lows in the 20s. At those temps the shelter was really quite comfortable.
The fireplace is at just the right height to heat the interior, and there are pot hooks and a grill grate that swing in and out. Dave is a product designer, and we agreed that an architect had put some thought into designing the shelter.
Obviously, selecting the right snowshoe is an important consideration when snowshoe backpacking. Dave and I rented MSR Denali snowshoes from REI, which we've rented before. The Denali snowshoes feel virtually weightless, attach easily to any boot, and provide claw-like grip for ascending and descending icy surfaces. Combined with a set of poles, they provide great stability when hiking through snow with a heavy pack.
We headed out from the shelter in search of the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. The trail to the Turnpike was very picturesque, with lots of boulders and a couple stream crossings. The trail was well marked with yellow blazes and we had no trouble following it in the deep snow.
After a few miles we came upon the active PA Turnpike. It's odd to be out in the middle of nowhere and suddenly see a busy freeway. We crossed over it via a nicely designed foot bridge emblazoned with the trail name.
After crossing the Turnpike the trail passes over the abandoned section's Laurel Hill Tunnel. The actual tunnel is off-limits for hikers, so we had a late lunch on the slopes of Laurel Hill, then made our way back to the shelter before the early winter sunset.
Aside from the links in the text above, here's a list of additional resources that helped us prepare for the trip: