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Old 04-25-2017, 10:59 PM   #1
DSettahr's Avatar
Join Date: May 2007
Posts: 4,436
John P Saylor Trail, Gallitzin State Forest, 4/21 - 4/23/17

Spent a weekend recently exploring the Clear Shade Creek area of Gallitzin State Forest in PA by hiking the John P Saylor Trail. I had originally hoped to spend the weekend in either the St. Mary's or Ramsey's Draft Wilderness Areas, but the forecast of several inches of rain in those areas led to my choosing a destination that was far enough north to escape the worst of the downpours.

The John P Saylor Trail is an 18 mile figure-eight in southwestern PA, named for a former member of the US House of Representatives from PA (who was also a supporter of the 1964 Wilderness Act). The trail was also my first foray into the southern Alleghenies.

I arrived at the Babcock Picnic Area, the traditional trailhead for the JPST, on Friday evening as the sun was sinking below the trees. I took some time finishing up packing, then set out down the trail. I'd decided to camp at the first decent spot that I came to, and maybe about 10 minutes out of the picnic area the trail crosses a small stream. I found a flat spot nearby and set up camp for the night.

I was up early the next morning. I spent a few minutes poking around the area of the small stream. The JPST here coincides with a short loop interpretive trail that connects back to the picnic area, and clearly gets a lot of use.

Before long, I was heading further into the woods. I'd decided to hike the north loop counter-clockwise, which meant that Wolf Rocks was the first destination I reached. The trail into Wolf Rocks was also obviously very well used, and passed through some muddy spots where the trail branched out into braided networks for 3 or 4 individual paths from hikers trying to avoid the worst of the mud. Wolf Rocks apparently is also a popular hangout for those with a lower level of respect for natural beauty, and as just about every tree on the hike in was tagged with spray painted graffiti in one way or another. The trail parallels a small stream, and at one point I did see a tent pitched back in the woods on the opposite side, although I saw no evidence of anyone yet up and moving about.

Wolf Rocks was no different from the trail to it in that as many surfaces as possible were tagged with spray painted graffiti. Discarded paint cans and smashed beer bottles also abounded. The rocks were impressive, though, with some spectacularly deep chasms, and I did take some time to poke around and explore a little bit. If only the area were better cared for, it would make for a particularly scenic destination.

Beyond Wolf Rocks, the trail passed through a particularly rocky stretch of forest before arriving at the junction with the Bog and Boulder Trail, a short trail that bisects the northern loop of the JPST and connects Wolf Rocks with an impressive upland bog to the north, and allows for a shorter day hike loop. Both the Bog and Boulder Trail as well as the continuation of the JPST clearly get far less use than the short section of trail that leads to Wolf Rocks. At times on the JPST, there was very little worn tread to guide me.

Despite occasional rocky sections, the trail made for an easy hike across the top of the plateau. Before long, I was passing through the remnants of E.V. Babcock Company's Logging Camp #59. As with many PA State Forests, the Gallitzin area was extensively logged and the remnants of these operations, including old logging camps, roads, and railroads can be readily found. Today, Logging Camp #59 consists of some sparse clearings filled with sphagnum moss, interspersed evergreens, and a few serviceberries.

Shortly after leaving Camp #59, the trail makes a sharp turn to the west and begins a steady but gradual descent into the drainage of a tributary of Roaring Fork. As I hiked, a light, misty rain began to fall. The light rain would continue to fall throughout the morning, but never got heavy enough that I felt the need to put on rain gear. I'd been spotting trout lillies left and right all morning, and stopped to snap a few photos of them in the rain.

Before crossing Crum Road, the trail parrells a finger of the Roaring Fork tributary for about a half mile. As this was the first generally reliable water source since the stream near the trailhead, I'd expected to see an established campsite or two. I found none, but there was plenty of flat ground that could be used for camping if needed.

Beyond Crum Road, the trail descends to another finger of the Roaring Fork tributary, where it joins an old railroad grade. Here, the JPST makes a shallow left turn onto the grade, which it then follows back up and out of the drainage. I noticed that the continuation of the grade to the right bore a somewhat-well used path. Curiosity got the better of me, and I followed this for about 5 minutes, crossing another small stream and arriving in an old clearing adjacent to a recently harvested area. The clearing held a small but nice campsite (good to know for future reference!). The path continued beyond the clearing on the old railroad grade, presumably to private land outside the state forest.

Back on the main route, I followed the grade up the drainage. At times, the pattern of the old railroad ties was visible in the growth patterns of moss on the grade.

The trail crossed several more fingers of the Roaring Fork tributary. Just beyond the last crossing was another small but nice campsite on the right (south) side of the trail.

The trail continued upward at never more than a gradual incline, re-crossed Crum Road, and entered a particularly boggy stretch of forest. While I found much of the JPST to be muddy, trip reports seem to indicate that most of it dries out pretty well with the arrival of summer. This stretch in particular, however, never dries out based on the reports I've read. And it was indeed deep, boot sucking mud, at times for stretches of 100 feet or more. Rarely have I ever seen a stretch of trail so desperately in need of bog bridging or even a re-route.

There were fiddleheads popping up out of the ground, though, and they made the traverse through the boggy stretch more than worth it.

After reaching dry ground, the trail continues to follow the railroad grade though a high spot between two hills, then begins another long and steady but never steep descent into the drainage of Clear Shade Creek.

The Clear Shade Creek area is clearly one of the highlights of Gallitzin State Forest and gets moderately to occasionally heavy levels of use. There is a parking area on Shade Road, and one can access Clear Shade Creek via a relatively short (less than 0.5 miles) trail. The connection between the north and south loops of the JPST is via a suspension bridge across the creek not far from this access point, and the majority of the camping intensity is clearly concentrated near this bridge. I counted at least 7 or 8 individual fire pits as well as numerous cut tree stumps, so obviously the area can get a bit crowded at times. There were signs reminding campers that PA DCNR regulations prohibit camping within 100 feet of water, but the majority of sites were in clear violation of this regulation (including one very heavily used site on an island in the creek that wasn't even 100 feet wide).

All of the sites were unoccupied when I arrived. I briefly contemplated setting up camp in a site here and spending the afternoon day hiking the south loop, but was afraid that I'd return to find neighbors set up nearby and wasn't sure just how quiet I could expect them to be (I think it's a fair assessment that the short hike in to these sites means that the style of camping popular here is more akin to car camping than backcountry camping). I crossed the suspension bridge, and started around the south loop.

I decided to hike the south loop clockwise. The reason for this is that my chosen destination for the evening, rather than Clear Shade Creek, was the site of Logging Camp #99, a clearing with an old hunter's shelter in a drainage up and away from Clear Shade Creek. Hiking the south loop in this direction meant that I would camp more than halfway through the JPST, so my hike out Sunday would be a little bit easier.

At first, the trail passes through some nice stands of hemlocks. I didn't see any established sites on Clear Shade Creek after leaving the bridge area, but there were places were one certainly could camp without much difficulty. Beyond the hemlocks, the trail climbed through open hardwoods to cross a small stream flowing down off the hill to join the creek. Again, there were no campsites here but flat ground nearby that could be used if needed.

Soon, however, the terrain again turned boggy and I found myself slogging through more mud and water. The forest opened up considerably here; according to the DCNR pamphlet for the state forest, many these bogs were created as a result of the loss of trees due to overharvesting. The lack of trees raised the water table, and the wet soils have largely prevented trees from being able to re-establish themselves in these areas.

To the north were open bogs that ran all the way down to the banks of Clear Shade Creek itself.

Eventually, the trail turned south and onto drier ground. Here, it ascended to the top of the plateau via the one actually steep climb of the entire circuit- which lasted for a mere 150 feet of elevation gain. I don't think I'd even broken a sweat by the time I gotten to the top.

The trail follows a broad ridge for a bit, then drops down into the head of another small drainage. Some maps showing a running stream here, but I saw only a couple of pools of water, despite all of the recent rain. Again, I did not see any established campsites. There was flat ground suitable for camping, but I suspect that in any season, one can expect to descend some distance down the drainage before finding running water.

I continued up the trail as it gently climbed back to the top of the plateau, passed an old logging road, and began to descend again towards the west. Soon I was arriving at the clearing that was the site of Camp #99 and my planned campsite for the night. Here, an old hunter's shelter sits on the edge of the clearing of the old camp. There is a picnic table and a well used fire pit out front. I had entertained the idea of sleeping in the shelter until I saw it- the dirt floor was uneven and quite muddy, and the roof obviously leaked pretty badly. I'm not sure that the shelter was ever really designed for sleeping in anyways- it was pretty shallow and rain must blow into the back of it quite readily.

Instead, I set up my tent in the clearing in front of the shelter. There was plenty of room for tents, here, and the clearing obviously gets a fair amount of use for tenting from various groups passing through. After setting up camp and eating lunch, it was still early. The rain had abated and didn't seem to be likely to return, so I decided to poke around and explore.

In the general vicinity of the old camp, I found plenty of flat ground for camping nearby in the event that one arrives to find a group already set up in the clearing/at the old shelter. The presence of several fire pits indicated that the clearing at least occasionally is targeted for use by multiple groups on the same evening. I also found an old hunting camp, in the form of a tarp strung up on a make shift shelter. The tarp had collapsed and it was pretty clear that the camp hadn't been used in years.

Not far away from Camp #99, I also found a faint but obviously maintained trail that branched away from the JPST and headed south. I followed this for about a half mile until it reached the property line separating private property from the State Forest. Obviously, someone has their own private trail for easy access to Camp #99.

Rather than follow the unofficial trail back to camp, I turned west to follow the property line down to Clear Shade Creek. The property line was well marked and even maintained as a trail (I suspect that hunters probably use it regularly as the blazes marking the boundary make for an easy to follow trail). The going was pretty easy until the final steep descent down to Clear Shade Creek itself.

From here, it wasn't hard to relocate the JPST which I followed back up to Camp #99, arriving back in camp about 2 hours after I'd left. A quick dinner followed; as I ate, the sky began to clear up and blue sky revealed itself just in time for sunset. I heard a barrage of gun shots coming from the bridge area not long before dusk, and I was glad that I'd decided not to camp there.

The arrival of clear skies meant for a cool night, but I slept warm and soundly in my tent and 12 degree bag. Getting up and moving in the morning required some mental effort until the sun rose high enough to start warming the clearing up.

Soon, I was packed and heading out on my way. The hike back down to Clear Shade Creek went quickly, and before long I was back on another old railroad grade, following the creek upstream back to the bridge area. Being back near Clear Shade Creek meant, of course, more muddy and boggy areas. This time, though I had the added pleasure of finding a bog filled with hundreds of pitcher plants! I willing wandered out into the bog, getting my feet even more wet and cold in the process, to grab a few photos.

The dirty diaper I found on the trail not far away was less pleasant. It was pretty fresh, and obviously hadn't been there more than 24 hours (not that I determined this by checking inside of it, but rather that it was dry and it had last rained about 24 hours before).

I spent some time poking around along Clear Shade Creek as well. I found a few established tent sites, and snapped a nice photo of the creek nearby.

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Old 04-25-2017, 10:59 PM   #2
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The sites at the bridge were empty when I arrived, although I did talk to one woman briefly who'd camped there the night before. I also snapped a photo of the suspension bridge prior to crossing it.

Now I was again on the northern loop, continuing counter-clockwise back to the trailhead. The trail continues to follow another old railroad grade along Clear Shade Creek for about a mile. It wasn't long before I passed the junction with the side trail up to the nearby parking area, as well as a ski trail that branched off. Clear Shade Creek passed through some open and boggy areas, some of the same areas I'd observed from the far bank the day before.

After leaving the old railroad grade, the trail turns onto an old logging road and follows it up and out of the Clear Shade Creek drainage for the final time. On the ascent, I stopped to take some photos of wildflowers I found along the way.

Much of the remaining section of the JPST was never very far from Route 56, and the remainder of my hike was accompanied by the constant buzz of cars and trucks going by. It was a pleasant stroll through the woods, nevertheless. Upon arriving at the far end of the Bog and Boulder Trail, I decided to swing around the bog via the loop trail. On the east end of the bog there is a viewing platform that affords excellent views of the bog itself (this time without having to get one's feet wet!).

I also noticed on the northwest end of the bog a plantation of spruce with a nice established campsite. Definitely a good thing to know about for those arriving late, as the site is only a little bit more than a mile from the trailhead and there is good running water nearby.

The remainder of my hike went uneventfully, and soon I was back at the car, changing into dry shoes before heading home. Overall, the trail was a pleasant experience apart from the mud (and apparently that is far less of an issue once spring ends and things dry out). Definitely not a destination trail (not something you're going to fly across the country to hike specifically) but a worthwhile destination for anyone who lives not far away and is looking for a relatively easy weekend in the woods. The trail was also an interesting dichotomy in that it was a mix of popular, well-used areas and stretches of trail that maybe see only a handful of visitors a week (if they even see that many).

The JPST is advertised as being beginner friendly. I would personally rank it as being a little bit closer to moderate in difficulty, for two reasons. The first is the length; at 18 miles it may be more than beginner wants to undertake. The second is that the lack of use on potions of the trail can make it a bit tricky to follow. Also, while blowdown wasn't super common there was enough of it to make it apparent that maintenance of some sections isn't a huge priority for DCNR or the KTA. The trail is far from a major challenge, however, and the figure-eight setup combined with the intermediate access points makes it easy for a beginner lower the difficulty by hiking only part of the trail.

As an aside, I have now hiked 241 of the 798 miles (30%) necessary to earn the State Forest Trails award. (I've hiked the Black Forest Trail, John P. Saylor Trail, about 20 miles of the Loyalsock Trail, the Old Loggers Path, the Pinchot Trail, the Susquehannock Trail System, and the Thunder Swamp Trail.)
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Old 04-26-2017, 01:17 PM   #3
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Great report. JPST is a nice trail, at least better than I expected it to be. Clear Shade Creek is beautiful. I've seen ATV impacts on the trail, not good considering how wet the trail is in places. If down that way again, check out Trough Creek State Park, lots of great trails, views, historical features, and Balanced Rock.
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Old 04-27-2017, 12:08 AM   #4
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Yeah, I saw some evidence of ATV use also, but it wasn't readily apparent if it was illegal, or if DCNR had used ATVs at some point to access Clear Shade Creek. I imagine that some of the materials for construction/maintenance of the suspension bridge were probably brought in via ATV.

Not sure when I'll be in that neck of PA again, although I still have to hike the Lost Turkey Trail (which shares a trailhead with the JPST).
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