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Old 05-05-2018, 05:40 PM   #1
DSettahr
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Chuck Keiper East Loop, Sproul State Forest, PA 3/8 - 3/11/18


The group that I hike with every fall (the Annual Columbus Day Duck Hole Trip, so named because the only two things about the name that are consistently true are "Annual" and "Trip") has been trying for a few years now to put together a proper backpacking trip in late Winter/early Spring to supplement our annual Autumn backcountry gatherings, and this was the year we finally made it work. Our original itinerary (the Otter Creek Wilderness in WV's Monongahela NF) got shot down at the last minute due to particularly foul weather in the forecast, so we went with a backup plan- Sproul State Forest's Chuck Keiper Trail, where the forecast promised minimal precipitation. The full Chuck Keiper Trail is a 50 mile loop, although a short crossover trail in the middle splits it into a 33 mile west loop and a 22 mile east loop. We selected the 22 mile east loop for our trek as this was easily doable within our time frame with plenty of time for hanging out in camp and without needing to feel rushed.

Dusk on Thursday evening saw two of us rendezvousing at the East Branch Swamp Trailhead on PA 144. The rest of the gang would be arriving the next morning, but Bryan and I had elected to get an early start by hiking in to a campsite not far from the trailhead the night before. The guidebook and map promised us several campsites on the East Branch of Big Run, downstream of East Branch Swamp and along the connector trail that splits the main Chuck Keiper Trail.


The trail through East Branch Swamp Natural Area was pretty wet and muddy- and I was glad to have made the choice to bring waterproof boots instead of trail runners, especially given the colder temps and presence of snow. We made good time, however, and soon we were on dry ground on a gentle but rocky descent, with Big Run flowing unseen in the darkness off to our left. The map promised us three campsites, and through trial and error (and an extra mile or so of backtracking), we determined that the first site was the nicest of the three by far. In fact it was the only one of the three that could possibly be described as "not horrible." The second was quite small, and the third had water flowing through the middle of it. Light snow began to fall as we setup camp, and soon we were snug in our tents for the night.

The next morning dawned cold but sunny. We had a few hours before our companions arrived, so there was no rush to get up and break down camp- for me at least. Not long after we awoke, Bryan stated "I've been looking at my food and thinking about the cold. I don't think I brought enough food." A glance at the watch and some mental calculations determined that he had more than enough time to hike back to the trailhead, drive to the nearest town, pick up some extra provisions, and return to camp well before our companions were set to show up- which is exactly what he did. Meanwhile, I passed the time reading (and catching up on an extra hour or so of sleep).


Bryan and I timed camp breakdown just about perfectly- as we were strapping the last bits of gear to our packs, we heard a trail-crew cry from back up the path, and within seconds, Sam, Sawyer, and Maya waltzed into view.


Now that all were present and accounted for, the trek could begin in earnest. After several rounds of bourbon were filtering their way into our bloodstreams, we set out for the day.


Not far from the campsite, we arrived at a junction with the Chuck Keiper Trail proper, where we turned left and began a slow but steady climb up onto a wide ridge to the east. The forest opened up considerably, and soon we were hiking through a winter wonderland of wide clearings interspersed with stands of pine and oak.




Maya was particularly excited to be outside, and for several hours she had a pretty solid case of the zoomies.


The next several miles of trail brought us through more open forest as we crossed the plateau, with gently rolling terrain that was never overly rugged or challenging. As we hiked, the bourbon continued to flow freely... perhaps even a bit too freely. A safety stand down was called, and a frank discussion of how best to minimize risk going forward was held. A mutual agreement was reached that the sole sober member of the party should take charge of navigational responsibilities, and so Maya was unanimously elected to lead the way for the remainder of the day.


The second half of the day brought with it a few steeper descents and climbs, first down into the Clendennin Branch drainage. The descent was steep and a bit slippery, but manageable. Clendennin Branch was crossed amidst a swirl of snow flurries.


Beyond Clendennin Branch, we climbed steeply back up to the plateau, passed through another open stand of scrub oak, and began another, much steeper descent down to Cranberry Run. Microspikes would have been nice here, as the snow on top of a coat of slippery oak leaves did not lend itself well to traction. A few of us were forced to resort to butt sliding to avoid tumbling down the steeper sections.


Cranberry Run was our selected destination for the night, and we found a nice campsite a short distance downstream from where the trail crossed the creek. Despite being well-established, firewood in the vicinity was plentiful, and before long we had a nice fire built up.


Late afternoon passed into evening, and we hung out by the fire, cooking dinner, drinking more bourbon (as well as hot chocolate spiked with Yukon Jack). Eventually, we all turned into bed for the night.

The next morning dawned cold again, and it took some mental fortitude to emerge from our tents, much less get around to breaking camp down and packing up. Mid-morning found us setting out for the day- which began with a bang, as we set out on a steep climb back up to the plateau. Any grumbling about the cold quickly vanished, and in fact we were soon shedding layers of clothing.


The trail soon began another steep (and tricky) descent down into the Benjamin Run drainage. Again, we found ourselves precariously scrambling down on the slippery snow and leaves (with a few more butt slides along the way). Benjamin, and the stretch of trail especially ascends Sled Road Hollow, wa probably one of my favorite stretches of the trail. The forest here was dense hemlock, with occasional stands of yellow birch scattered throughout. It was quiet and peaceful.




The climb up through Sled Road Hollow wasn't steep until the very end, where one solid push brought us back up to the top of the plateau, where we stopped in an open clearing alongside a seasonal dirt road to eat lunch before continuing on down into the Boggs Run Drainage. Here, the trail lost a significant amount of elevation, and it wasn't long before we found ourselves below the snowline.


The trail throughout the Boggs Run area appeared to have been extensively re-routed at some point in the not too distant past. The present route of the trail follows traverse across the side slopes of the hollows, generally sticking 100 feet or so above the streams. Below, we occasionally spotted old trail blazes, indicating that the trail had once followed the bottom of the hollows. The reason for the re-route was fairly obvious- it kept the trail up and away from the erosive power of the stream and minimized the necessary number of stream crossings. A good reason to move the trail for sure, but I personally would've made sure to do a better job digging out a bench into the side of the slopes before moving the trail, as there wasn't much flat tread to get a purchase on. It wasn't long before our ankles were letting us know that we were going to pay a price of soreness for hiking on steep side slopes.

Shortly after reaching Boggs Run itself, we passed a phenomenal campsite and were sorely tempted to stop their for the evening. There was still a decent amount of daylight, however, and we wanted to be closer to the trailhead for our last day. The guidebook promised us 2 more campsites several miles upstream, so we elected to continue onward.


As we climbed, the hollow started to narrow, and we soon found ourselves wondering just how a campsite could fit in it- the sides were impossible steep for camping, and the bottom of the hollow had little room for much else other than Boggs Run itself. As it turned out, there was an old road bed (possible even a logging railroad grade) at the bottom that was mostly washed away, but here and there portions of it could still be seen... and the campsite was perched on a narrow strip of this old grade. An LNT site it was not- it was way too close to the stream itself, and regardless of minimum impact considerations, it wasn't even really all that nice of a site (flat ground was decidedly lacking). It was clearly a site that had been established out of desperation.

We were sort of in a desperate state ourselves at that point, though. The afternoon was waning, and while we knew there was another site further upstream (at least according to the guidebook), we had no idea if that site was actually any better (the guidebook had a bad habit of listing every campsite without discretion, even the ones that were little more than an old fire pit, with no consideration towards even whether it was a site than anyone would realistically want to use). Furthermore, beyond the next campsite, the trail entered the drainage of Hall Run, in which no camping was allowed due to that stream supplying drinking water for the nearby village of Renovo. If we gambled on the next site and it turned out to be worse, we'd have no feasible option for camping anywhere within a reasonable distance. Accordingly, we decided to use the site we were at, and agreed that we'd do what we could especially to minimize our impacts to the stream (which included particularly some epic climbs well up the steep sides of the hollow for the purpose of human waste disposal).


As usual, we hadn't shied away from the bourbon while hiking during the day, but after getting tents pitched and settling in, we started whipping up some more mixed drinks, including Manhattans with icicles taken from trees around camp.


Darkness came early in the hollow, and similarly, sunrise came late the next morning. We spent a cold morning eating breakfast and breaking down camp in the shadows, while intense sunlight teased us from the tree tops high above.


Soon, we were climbing back up to the trail (and stepping into the sunlight). We continued our climb up Boggs Run. We came to the last campsite, and found that it was flatter and nicer than the one we'd chosen to stay at (naturally), although use of it would also mean camping right smack in the middle of the trail (a pet peeve of mine). A continuation of the steady climb brought us back up to flat ground atop the plateau.


After following a woods road for a short stretch, we reached yet another steep and slippery descent into Diamond Rock Hollow. More butt sliding ensued, at least until we had yet again dropped below the snow line. Diamond Rock Hollow present another pretty stretch of trail alongside a babbling stream with some picturesque cascades.


Reaching the mouth of the hollow brought us to Hall Run, which despite being the biggest stream we'd had to cross on our trek, was running low enough that it was easily rock hopped.


The trail then crossed PA 144, then climbed to another side hill stretch that paralleled the road. Unlike the previous side hilling that we'd followed in the Boggs Run area, this was well constructed, with a flat bench wide enough to accommodate a hiker (and still angled slightly downward to facilitate drainage). Following this for just over a mile took us to Drake Hollow, where we began the longest and biggest sustained climb of the entire trip- just under 1300 feet back up to the top of the plateau. The ascent was steady and relentless, and while it followed an old road bed along side a creek and was never steep, with full packs of winter gear, we definitely felt it.


Once again on the plateau, we passed through more open forest across Barney Ridge on our way to PA 144, which we would follow a short distance back to the trailhead.


All in all, it was an enjoyable trip. The steep ups and downs were a bit more rugged than I was expecting, but it always feels good to get the legs working and moving after a long winter without many opportunities to hike. At some point, I'm hoping to return to hike the entire 50 miles of the full loop- or at least finish it by hiking the 33 mile west loop. I definitely would not rank even the 22 mile loop as beginner friendly (due especially to the steep climbs), but for anyone with moderate levels of experience that is looking for an alternative destination that presents somewhat of a challenge and sees relatively few other visitors compared to certain areas of the Adirondacks, all or a portion of the Chuck Keiper could work well.
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Old 05-05-2018, 11:17 PM   #2
Grandpa Paddler
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Nice report and great pics. Just think how much harder it would have been without the liquid pain killer.
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Old 05-06-2018, 08:58 PM   #3
DSettahr
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Originally Posted by Grandpa Paddler View Post
Nice report and great pics. Just think how much harder it would have been without the liquid pain killer.
Bourbon is always the best pain killer.
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Old 05-06-2018, 09:27 PM   #4
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Great report. I think the west loop is nicer than the east, but both are worth hiking. In Drake Hollow, there's a seven foot falls reached by a faint side trail from the CKT.
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Old 05-07-2018, 08:40 PM   #5
DSettahr
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Originally Posted by jmitch View Post
Great report. I think the west loop is nicer than the east, but both are worth hiking. In Drake Hollow, there's a seven foot falls reached by a faint side trail from the CKT.
Thanks- I'll keep that in mind. Like I said, at some point I'll be back to hike the other half (and hopefully hike the entire trail in one go at the same time).

As an aside- this hike puts me at about 261 miles hiked out of the 798 total required for the PA DCNR State Forest Trails Award- just shy of a third of the way there.
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Old 05-08-2018, 04:20 PM   #6
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Good job. CKT is a tough one.

As an aside, the STS is now getting a third shelter, should be up sometime this year.
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Old 06-20-2018, 06:33 PM   #7
DSettahr
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Good job. CKT is a tough one.

As an aside, the STS is now getting a third shelter, should be up sometime this year.
Where are the shelters on the STS located?
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