Backpacking Pennsylvania: the West Rim Trail

The 30-mile West Rim Trail's been on my Pennsylvania backpacking to do list for a while now almost entirely because it skirts the edge of what's referred to as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. Traversing terrain in the Tioga State Forest, Pine Creek Gorge Natural Area, and Colton Point State Park, the West Rim Trail (mostly) follows a path along the deep, steep Pine Creek Gorge, offering hikers some pretty spectacular views and varying terrain.

Along the trail on our second day. (PC: D. Herscovitch)

The West Rim Trail also offers hikers plentiful campsites, water sources often no more than 1.5 miles apart, and moderate elevation change, making it a perfect weekend trip for those of us living within a relatively short driving distance. We started around 1:30pm Friday, finished around 9:30am Sunday, and I can say with some certainty that I'll be back to do part, or all, of it again.

Day 1: Rattlesnake Rock to First Night's Camp, 10.41 miles, 2,388' Elevation Gain

Point-to-point trails can be a challenge because doing them requires two cars along with making time to shuttle people to the beginning after you've parked one car at the end. But West Rim Trail hikers have the option to take advantage of an affordable hiker shuttle provided by Pine Creek Outfitters, making it possible for my husband and I to do the trail without relying on others to hike it with us, or driving the four hours from Philadelphia in two cars. (They'll also drive your car from one end to the other for you, if that's preferable.)

The first mile of trail, slow and steady up!

We parked my car at the northern terminus around 12:30pm, hopped in a van with six other hikers, and rode to the southern terminus at Rattlesnake Rock near Blackwell, PA. We started the hike around 1:30pm knowing he first few miles involved most of the day's elevation gain.

The orange-blazed trail gains 1,500' in the first 1.5 miles, climbing steadily up along Loyd Run before leveling out and turning toward the Pine Creek Gorge. We signed the trail register, then moved as quickly as we could up the trail to try and outrun the gnats and mosquitoes common in the area this time of year. At 2.5 miles, we crossed a road, skirting Kerry Run to our right and heading toward an intersection with the Bohen Run Trail. Our first vista came at mile 3, but seeing through the trees was a challenge.

Much of the second half of the day looked like this, sun peeking through the trees hitting fields of undergrowth.

The trail continued along the gorge, dropping down in elevation briefly, then climbing back up again. For the remaining 7 miles we'd cover that day, the biggest change in elevation we'd face was 500'. That and the fact that the trail was mostly devoid of rocks made it possible for us to move relatively quickly, covering the entire 10.4 miles holding a 25:00 mile pace. 

The trail took us through thick stands of mountain laurel, fields of ferns popping out of the ground between massive trees, and patches of stinging nettles; we'd contend with them a great deal on the second day. We picked a campsite on a wide, flat patch of land 10.41 miles into the day because according to our map, it was supposed to have a gorgeous vista. If it weren't for all the big, beautiful trees in the area, it would have. 

My favorite part of a day of hiking - dinner! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

We shared the site with four other hikers who'd already claimed the site's giant pre-built fire pit; it was great to meet new folks and share stories with them before we turned in for the night. Take a look at our route for the day here.

Day 2: First Night's Camp to Second Night's Camp, the Intersection of the West Rim Trail and Colton Road, 13.79 Miles, 2,121' Elevation Gain

Crawling into the tent at 9pm on the first night meant we were up by 6:00am, allowing us to start hiking at 7:30am. The elevation profile for our second day's hike looked like a stretched out version of the EKGs my husband reads at work (he's a flight paramedic), and we looked forward to not having to do super long, steep sections at any point during the day.

A chilly, hazy morning at camp on the first night. I was cold in my 45┬║ sleeping back - shocking for June in Pennsylvania!

Our second day started with a steep drop down to a small creek we'd pumped water from the night before, and continued on to an even more scenic campsite than we'd had. The trail cut away from the canyon and toward West Rim Road, then back toward the canyon and to the Bradley Wales picnic area. I was excited to see pit toilets; despite the lack of running water, any kind of bathroom along a trail is a bonus to me!

The next several miles were beautifully scenic, winding along the edge of the gorge and giving us multiple opportunities to stop and enjoy the views. At one of the vistas just past Bradley Wales, we stopped for a quick lunch and my husband noticed a brown spot on my face, just above my left eyebrow. When he went to brush it off, assuming it was a piece of dirt, and it didn't come off, we realized it was a tick. He quickly pulled out a set of tweezers and a needle to remove it, but it was a good reminder for both of us to do regular tick checks!

One of the multiple stunning vistas we saw on the second day. This made all the hiking so worth it! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

We continued along, following the orange blaze past vista after vista, nearly missing a turn at mile 11 (Turkey Path) that would've had us a good bit off track. (Turns out, the four hikers we'd shared camp with the night before missed it; we chatted with them at our shared camp on the second night.) We also encountered some spectacularly muddy spots on this section; my low profile trail shoes were no match for the mud, and my feet got completely soaked. But thanks to the good weather, they were dry by the next morning.

After the trail took us along a portion of Thompson Hollow Road, we started our last descent for the day toward Colton Point State Park, and found ourselves in the biggest field of stinging nettles I'd ever seen. I normally hike in shorts in the summer to avoid overheating, but there was many a point along this 0.5 mile section I considered stopping to dig out my pants. The nettles were brutal. 

Somewhere in the middle of the nettles. They looked like they were trying to swallow the trail!

We popped out of the nettle field along Colton Road and started looking for the campsite we saw marked on the map. It didn't take us long to find, and we set up along a small creek on the first tent pad we saw. In hindsight, I would've kept walking up the creek to one of the other three tent pads beyond where we set up; they were much more secluded and further from the road. They were all occupied by the time the sun set.

Our relatively early (3:30pm) arrival in camp had us thinking about finishing the trail that day, which would've brought our total to 20 miles for the day. But we also knew the last 6 mile section would be the most rewarding, so we opted to rest up and take our time doing it the next morning. That also meant we had time for two dinners! 

Creekside camp on the second night. We dug out the fire pit before we used it, but the clothesline was already there!

Normally, we'll pack exactly what we need to get through a backpacking trip with respect to food, but this time, we packed a bit extra. Our first dinner was a giant bag of dehydrated mashed potatoes we'd had in our food stash for longer than I'm willing to admit. Second dinner was Wild Zora Beef Stew for me (highly recommend) and Mountain House's Chicken Fajita Bowl for my husband (also highly recommend). Take a look at our route for the day here.

Day 3: Intersection of the West Rim Trail and Colton Road to the Northern Terminus, 6.04 miles, 971' Elevation Gain

We woke on the earlier side (5:30am) again on our last day, and some of the folks we'd camped near were already up and getting ready to head out for the day. We pumped enough water to get us from camp to the car without slowing us down, and we headed out from camp, briefly following a wide gravel road (Rexford Tr.) until it took a sharp turn right.

The first mile of the last day with the sun peeking out between the trees.

The trail passed through a gate, and continued to follow a wide, but overgrown old road. It meant we could walk side by side, and quickly; it was clear we were both excited to see what promised to be even more spectacular scenery than the days before.

As we crossed into Colton Point State Park less than a mile into the day, we could hear some traffic along the network of roads nearby. This section of trail was clearly more popular than the other sections, and more easily accessible to give folks access to some of the vistas.

One of the multiple vistas along the route, clearly the most scenic part of the trail.

About 2 miles into the 6 we'd cover that day, we crossed a paved section of Colton Road, heading toward the canyon, and the terrain we traversed in this section made the whole trip worth it. Stunning vista after stunning vista dotted the next 1-1.5 miles, slowing our progress as we stopped to gawk at the gorge. We passed a few campsites along this section, making a mental note of them for our next trip.

From this point on, the remaining 2.5-3 miles of trail run parallel to Colton Road; the occasional car broke the rhythm of the birds singing, but it also meant we were close to the finish. The majority of the trail took us down in elevation, with a few brief sections of climbing up after crossing streams and runs.

The two of us on a cliff overlooking the canyon, taken by one of the four hikers we shared campsites with both nights.

We did lose the trail about a mile before the end; a number of trees fell across the trail, obscuring it, and after we bypassed them, it took us a bit to get back on track. And the few creek crossings (Owassee Slide Run included) ensured I got my shoes muddy again, just in time for us to hit the parking lot around 9:30am.

Yours truly taking the last few steps along the trail. Finishing is such a good feeling! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

I immediately opened the trunk and dove into a box of Trader Joe's Toaster Pastries I'd inadvertently left in the car, and subsequently thought about the entire trip. We took a quick ride back to Pine Creek Outfitters to grab fuel canisters for our stove to replace the one we emptied on the trip, and planned our route back to Philadelphia to include stops at Bullfrog Brewery and New Trail Brewing Company. Take a look at our route for the last day here.

Tip and Things to Know Before You Go

There are a lot of maps out there, but make sure you stop at Pine Creek Outfitters to pick up a printed map that shows campsites and water sources. We arrived having downloaded the map and route to our Gaia GPS phone apps, and I printed copies of this one, but when we got to Pine Creek Outfitters, they had a $4 version that highlights campsites and water sources. It helped us a ton with last minute route planning. (If anyone knows where to purchase it online, please let me know!)

There's usually plenty of water, but grab the aforementioned map at Pine Creek Outfitters and be prepared. Some sources might be dry in the summer, and the map notes which are more seasonally available water sources versus those always flowing.

All water sources marked on the map were viable while we were there, but that might not always be the case.

Set up the shuttle, even if you have multiple cars. The shuttle was so convenient, saved us a ton of time, and gave us a chance to pick up last minute essentials at the outfitter before we started hiking.

There are plenty of options to shorten the hike, or do it in pieces. You can build in some of the small side trails, even some of the forest roads to get a loop if a 30-mile point-to-point isn't in the cards.

You're not likely to be alone, but you're also not likely to see a lot of people, especially on the southern half. The trail's gained notoriety in and beyond Pennsylvania, so unless you hike mid-week in the winter, you'll likely encounter other hikers and you'll likely have to share campsites. But the good news is, there are a ton of established campsites along all 30 miles of the trail. So hikers don't have to worry about finding one, or making one.

Consider bringing a bear canister. We did, and generally always do unless we're confident we aren't in an area where our food supply is at risk. Also, consider wearing pants. I don't regret wearing shorts aside from our stinging nettle adventure on the second day, but the trail is overgrown in spots, and it's possible poison ivy was among the foliage we walked through. (As far as I know, I'm not allergic to it, so can't say for sure!).

Would love to hear from others who've done this, or plan to do it! Sound off in the comments!