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Old 03-12-2021, 11:09 AM   #1
DSettahr
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Hickory Creek Wilderness Loop (Allegheny National Forest) 10/15 - 10/18/20


Quick write up for a 4 day trip I did with friends last October- our annual "Columbus Day Duck Hole Trip." This year, we selected the Hickory Creek Wilderness Loop in PA's Allegheny National Forest. At roughly 13 miles, this is the shortest Duck Hole trip we've done in a while. We picked something easy this year so as to accommodate two ability-impaired group members- one who was at the end of the second trimester of her pregnancy, and one who was still recovering from hip surgery.

Obviously, the pandemic was a concern- and for a bit we weren't sure we'd even be able to conduct an annual trip this year (a similar group trip was canceled last spring due to the pandemic). In the end, we dictated that all group members were to isolate for 2 weeks prior to the trip so as to enable us to more comfortably spend time in close quarters with each other.

The Hickory Creek Loop proved to be exactly what we were looking for- while it was lacking in spectacular scenic views, it was easy hiking. We were able to take our time traversing the full loop over 4 days without any rush or concern for the less-abled group members (and 3-4 miles per day proved to the limit for the hiker recovering from hip surgery, so we chose well). The trails were well graded (apart from a couple of short but moderately steep climbs), and passed through beautiful open hardwood forest. Blowdowns were few and far between, and while many of the blazes were faded the trail was nevertheless obvious and easy to follow.




To be sure, the area is definitely a solid one for anyone looking for a beginner-friendly backpacking trip (or for that matter, a kid-friendly backpacking trip). It would be a great area to try to introduce someone to the activity without risking overdoing it (and scaring them away in the process).




The easy terrain also enabled us to include another participant- the canine companion Charlotte. Charlotte was a frequent Duck Hole attendee years ago, but she's aged considerably and hasn't attended in recent years. This was almost certainly her last Duck Hole trip, and she seemed all to eager to take in the excitement with enthusiasm- even if she did need some help getting over the few blowdowns we encountered.




She was also quick to take advantage of any and all opportunities to sun bathe.




A few additional photos of Charlotte in her youth, all taken on Duck Hole trips in years past:




There's a number of established campsites along the loop. We encountered one on the east side of the loop, in the broad drainage that eventually feeds Middle Hickory Creek. We briefly considered staying here on Night #1 (we hiked the loop clockwise), but the nearby stream bed was bone dry so we chose to move on instead.


Instead we ended up camping on the southeast corner of the loop. Where the trail first turns west, it passes around the end of a broad ridge. A short walk uphill here lead us to the top of the ridge, where we found plenty of flat ground to camp primitively.




The site was nice, although the water run could be described as "epic." The nearest source was Middle Hickory Creek, over a quarter mile of bushwhacking away and 200 feet below to boot. And once we reached the bottom of the valley, we also had some difficulty finding running water in the open meadows there (and some of us began to question whether there was even any water to be found at all), but we did eventually find a good spot to fill up at.








That first night light rain moved into the area and we spent the evening hanging out under the group tarp chatting. Some of us hadn't seen each other since the previous year's Duck Hole trip, so there was a fair amount of catching up to do.


The next morning brought with it fog as the rain tapered off and moved out of the area. It made for a beautiful sight in camp.




Sections of the trail parallel both Coon Run and Jacks Run respectively, and both of these drainages had several well-established sites. We elected to eat lunch in one such site on Coon Run.


Coon Run was also running pretty low, but there was enough water there nonetheless to fill up on.


Jacks Run is about the halfway point for the loop, and we chose to camp for the second night in another well-established site there. Jacks Run was also running pretty low, but there were a few deeper pools here and there with plenty of water. We enjoyed a beautiful night under clear (but cold) skies.




Our final site was along the north leg of the loop, which follows the top of a broad ridge. We'd expected to camp primitively at a non-established site again, but to our surprise there's a few moderately-well established sites along this stretch. We found a fire pit decently far off trail (just enough to be out of sight) and elected to camp there. This was a dry site, without any water nearby at all, but we'd planned ahead and carried enough for the night (and the hike out the next day) with us from Jacks Run.








After the light rains Thursday night, the rest of the weekend was gorgeous- and we saw a number of other groups out for the weekend. Clearly the Hickory Creek Wilderness is moderately popular at times. We saw a couple of groups out on Friday evening, and on Saturday the woods really started to fill up. We didn’t leave camp #2 until early afternoon Saturday, and by then most of the other established sites on Jacks Run were already occupied. I’m sure that in our wake, a latecomer group was undoubtedly happy to find our vacated site. I was also glad that we’d decided to camp at a dry site atop the ridge on Saturday night, well away from anyone else.

Continued in next post…
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Old 03-12-2021, 11:11 AM   #2
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Continued from above...

Naturally, all of the normal Duck Hole shenanigans and hijinks were on display.
This was our 16th Annual Trip, so the previously agreed-upon theme natural was "Sweet Sixteen." One of the participants brought a "sweet sixteen" tiara and sash to share.






There's also been a "drive to the bottom" among some participants, who attempt every year to see just how much gear they can carry without breaking their backs. This was exacerbated this year, as two of our group members took it upon themselves to carry not only their own gear, but the gear for their less-than-able companions (the aforementioned pregnant attendee and the aforementioned attendee recovering from hip surgery). And while I don't think either of the Sherpas ever regretted their choice to shoulder the extra burden, they were no doubt reminding themselves at times that they love their partners very, very much.








We also held the annual Duck Hole Corn Race. I have never won the corn race, nor have I ever even been a serious contender for the title. I don't know how some folks can have such fast digestive systems.






Dogs are also able to participate in the corn race (but no dog has ever won, either).




Another Duck Hole tradition on display was the mixed drinks contest. Attendees are invited to bring mixed drinks to share, and after every drink has been sampled by everyone, we vote on the best of the trip. This is a contest that I have been a serious contender in- and I thought that my dark and stormy's would nail me the prize.


My friend Sam brought margarita's- including an entire bag of limes. I came close to winning, but in the end he eked out a win by mere single vote. Lesson learned- next time, don't bring concentrated lime juice, spring for 2 dozen limes.




Jiffy Pop popped over the fire has also long been a Duck Hole tradition. I have a special Jiffy Pop handle that allows one to pop a pan over a fire without burning their knuckles- and naturally I left it at home. While attempting to pop a pan with a glove, I managed to light the pan on fire. I thought it was still edible in the end, but I think my companions disagreed with me.




One of our group members found a stick and was able to carve indentations in it to hold the pan handles, and we were able to pop up new batches successfully.


Perhaps the most sacred of Duck Hole traditions is the piņata. Every year, we haul a piņata into the woods, to be stuffed with a mix of candy and travel-sized bottles of booze (plastic only, for obvious reasons). And every year, we blindfold ourselves, dizzy bat until we can't stand upright to save our lives, and do our best to batter the piņata until it splits open, all while someone yanks on the cord to keep it out of our reach. (Of course, all of this is followed by a careful camp sweep to ensure that no missed candy or booze is inadvertently left behind). This year, we picked a virus piņata- not to make light of the pandemic, but rather give a physical outlet for those of us who felt frustration with the whole situation. And boy did we vent.








And last but not least, of course there was plenty of merit badges. Badges were awarded for things like miles hiked, nights camped out, participating in a Duck Hole trip in a new state, winning the various contests (corn race, mixed drinks, piņata), skinny dipping, being pregnant, saving the life of another Duck Holer, and so on.










And of course, our sashes and merit badges were on full display for our Class of 2020 photos. (Plus everyone wore the "sweet sixteen" tiara also, to really tie the photos together.)


Continued in next post...
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Old 03-12-2021, 11:12 AM   #3
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Continued from above...

We've had a string of trips over the past few years in areas of particular scenic beauty: The Devil's Path in 2016, Big Schloss in 2017, Pharaoh Lake in 2018, and the Dolly Sods in 2019. Hickory Creek certainly was no where near that same level of stunning scenic viewsheds, but it was beautiful enough in its own right. The area would be a bushwhackers paradise, with it's open hardwood forests and hemlock stands.

And in any case, Duck Hole isn't always about the scenery, but the companionship- and we had plenty of that throughout our trip, making for yet another amazing Duck Hole experience that will be remembered for years to come.































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Old 03-12-2021, 12:15 PM   #4
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Awesome. I stayed at Jacks Run a long time ago. That trip was the genesis of "Don't touch my morning wood." ��
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Old 03-12-2021, 06:16 PM   #5
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You all certainly picked a great time of year to visit ANF. Looks like everyone had a lot of fun out there.

Did you have a chance to add on any short hikes with views while you were out that way? Rimrock Overlook, Jake's Rocks, the Tidioute Overlooks, and Kinzua Beach/Dam all offer good views and don't eat up too much time. Minister Creek's a bit longer, but doesn't take a whole lot of time either if you just go to the main overlook spot.

BTW, there's a similar forum to this one at midatlantichikes.com which includes Pennsylvania. You'll recognize a few of the posters on that forum since they also post here. It's not nearly as popular as the PAWilds subreddit, but is nevertheless a good place to post trip reports and photos if you want to check it out sometime.
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Old 03-12-2021, 06:16 PM   #6
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(or for that matter, a kid-friendly backpacking trip). It would be a great area to try to introduce someone to the activity without risking overdoing it (and scaring them away in the process).
Sounds good per my recent inquiry.

I've never been there. It's almost exactly the same distance from my house as the blue line, so I've almost always opted to go east (and north).

I did take a mountain bike trip to Ellicottville 2? years ago for the first time, and honestly I did not have a great time. We stayed at Allegany State Park and the camp sites were pretty dreadful (close and open - not many trees). I wanted to roadside camp in McCarty or Rock City but my partner did not. Later, he did. We also found pretty much a tent city at Rock City the next day, so no chance we were camping there. It was muddy (I was told by a local they were actually pretty dry ), the trails were not really well designed, and weren't all that much fun. But this isn't Allegheny - and I'm told that not only are the bike trails there better, but so is pretty much everything else... but... the mountains are always calling.

It might be a little drier down there and out of the swing of Lake Erie. It seems Allegany/Rock City/McCarty get hammered with thundershowers all summer.

Last edited by montcalm; 03-12-2021 at 08:45 PM..
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Old 03-18-2021, 08:33 AM   #7
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PA doesn't quite have the same romantic grandeur of the Adirondacks, but there's some solid opportunities for outdoor recreation in the state nonetheless. The "PA Wilds" region is sort of like a "mini Adirondacks," in a way- 2 million acres of mostly large tracts of public land with parcels of private land mixed in, and a decent network of hiking and backpacking trails. It's harder to find areas of remoteness in PA as are readily found across much of the ADKs (dirt roads abound across the state land parcels in PA), but the opportunities for solitude are still good in many spots. And there's some beautiful areas nonetheless.

And yeah, PA doesn't seem to be nearly as much of a mud fest as the southern tier of NY often is.
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Old 03-18-2021, 09:53 AM   #8
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Yeah, no doubt. Ever since really "learning" about PA Wilds and Allegheny I've wanted to visit.

A couple things detract me a bit, and it's mainly that it's so similar, at least looking in pictures, to western and central NY, which is where I've lived most of my life (Naples, Rochester, Rome/Utica, Ithaca). We could definitely benefit from some larger tracts blocked wilderness, which I think is what PA would have over that part of NY. 1000 acres of continuous state land is pretty large here - which is good enough for mountain biking and XC skiing.

For me, personally, I think I also had some real special experiences in my formative years (4-6, 16-18) in the Adirondacks that kind of "pull" me back. I have vivid memories of the younger age climbing small mountains, swimming on sandy beaches under large Hemlock and White Pine, digging in the dirt playing with trucks, walking around "kitschy" towns like Old Forge (which are almost carnival-like in the summer). In my older formative years I was gaining independence by backpacking, and really discovering Wilderness areas, and doing a lot of mountain biking - which at the time was a lot riding on roads, dirt roads and connecting bits of ridable trail. That also gave me a sense of freedom and independence. I then, after high school, went to PSC, which not only introduced me into a whole new area of the Adirondacks, but also to living year round in the park. Paul Smiths/Saranac are probably still my favorite place. And in my later years I really discovered canoe tripping and got a whole new sense of that area I never had when I was younger.

I did those things close to home but they don't have the same ring in my memory as the Adirondacks.
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Old 03-18-2021, 10:42 AM   #9
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Yeah, the combined Allegheny National Forest and PA Wilds regions definitely eclipse the southern tier of NY when it comes to... huge tracts of (public) land. Although FWIW, even NY's southern tier region has some nice options for hiking on state forest lands. There's some stuff southwest of Buffalo in particular where you can find some really interesting gorges and ravines to explore with cascading streams (just gotta watch out for the nudists). And the nice part about much of the camping along the Finger Lakes trail is that it's accessible yet doesn't get a huge amount of use- so it's relatively easy to slip away for an easy backcountry night on a whim without much planning.

To be clear, I like the Adirondacks better too. But that doesn't mean that I don't also enjoy hiking and backpacking in PA. If you're equidistant from both areas, I wouldn't blame you for taking the majority of trips up into the ADKs... but PA is absolutely worth at least the occasional visit.
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Old 03-18-2021, 12:44 PM   #10
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Haha - so I was also thinking of another "argument" in my head about how many really easy overnight, or 3 day backpacking trips there are in the Adirondacks that are great for beginners.

The thing I don't like about the FLT in general is how close most of the campsite or lean tos are to roads. In some sense, yeah it's nice, but I know when I was younger my friends and I used to abuse this with lots of people and beer. We cleaned up after ourselves, but if you were rambling along looking for some solitude, you weren't gonna find it there. Probably not much larger than your group though, and probably just as boozy, but younger and stupider.

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Old 03-24-2021, 04:57 PM   #11
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My observation with many of the FLT lean-tos has been that they get relatively little use, surprisingly so given how close many of them are to the nearest road access. Granted, most of my explorations along the FLT and throughout the southern tier have primarily been focused in the off season, but even then you don't really see nearly as much of the same issues at the FLT lean-tos that you'd expect to see at any similarly accessible lean-to in the ADKs- trash, devegetation (tree cutting), vandalism, etc.

I'm sure that some FLT lean-tos can occasionally be party spots, but this doesn't really appear to be a regular problem at many of them. I'd suggest that there's probably a myriad of reasons for this- there's even easier options for party spots that are closer to the roads (many state forests in the southern tier have designated roadside campsites also), and for the locals at least, there's probably also some level of access to forested private property for wild woods parties, well away from the prying eyes of any DEC Forest Ranger or Conservation Officer.

And also... to some extent, I think folks in the Southern Tier just really don't camp all that much. For how much the local culture prides itself in being "outdoorsy," I don't think camping (especially primitive camping/backpacking, without your car nearby) is in any way a big part of the local culture. During hunting season especially in the Southern Tier, I've had a number of encounters with other public land users decked out from head to toe in full camo who were aghast that I would even consider camping a mere quarter mile from the closest road.

With regards to our Duck Hole crew- I would describe us as more "flamboyant" than "rowdy." It probably helps that most of us are pushing 40 (and a few of us have already eclipsed that milestone).
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Old 03-24-2021, 05:47 PM   #12
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I'm actually more familiar and have far more use on the Bristol Hills Branch than the actual main trail, but currently there are 4 lean tos on that section, two are private, two are public, but all open to public use.

I've never run into a "party" myself, but I almost always see those ones occupied. Our parties were never more than 8 or so people, so not anything really. We'd never have those at the two private ones. Just seemed risky and disrespectful.

I never saw much abuse either. They all collected stuff like any lean tos do, but yeah, not any of the things you mention, except maybe cutting live trees, but I've never really surveyed that. There are no signs about it. We never did or even thought about it just because of the amount of work involved vs using downed wood. I don't think as many people use fires at the sites I know, either. They seem less used in that aspect.

What I do know of in those areas are a number of really nice, but illegal campsites, that are not far from the FLT/BHT, and other offshoots, but are right next to streams. I actually don't know if the 150' rule applies, but I had always assumed it was a minimum. These spots are probably only known by locals though as I've revisited many over the years and no through hikers seemed to have used them, or if so, very few. Others are in WLM areas where camping isn't allowed.

I'd guess, based on my own experience, that a lot of big parties happen at hunting camps, out in fields or peoples homes. Lots of people, as you say, don't really go overnight camping. I'd say about 20-30% of my high school population did in my home town, at minimum for some short overnights to lean-tos. The majority of that population also did longer, more serious trips where no booze was involved. But Friday/Saturday nights, or throughout the summer we'd do a lot of "social" backpacking i.e. short trips, larger groups, alcohol. I think a lot of this was just getting away from parents. I never knew anyone to leave stuff behind, but I went with a lot of individuals who were someone how averse to carrying the garbage. I'd much rather carry a bag of empty cans and ramen wrappers than all the water in beer and noodles that it was on the way in.

Anyway, I'm not sure why these are such issues in the Adirondacks except perhaps that use is much higher. I had always found the very character of backpacking the Adirondacks much more wild, remote, and unspoiled than south/western NY that I couldn't have fathomed damaging it in any way. No one ever told us this stuff, it just seemed common sense.

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Old 03-30-2021, 09:35 AM   #13
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I took a visit into McCarthy Hill State Forest a few weeks back to check out the lean-to there that is on the Crystal Hills Trail (spur to the FLT and part of the Great Eastern Trail). One thing I did notice was that there was a really nice map of the entire state forest on a kiosk at the main trailhead for the area- and that the lean-to's location on the map had been covered up with a white piece of paper. I'm not sure if this was someone just trying to make it hard for others to find out about the lean-to so that they could keep it to themselves, or if the DEC was trying not to over-advertise the lean-to's presence to the public. Given that the map was secured under a piece of plexiglass, however, my supposition would be the later.

Some genius had also driven in on the unplowed road to the summer parking lot and gotten their truck stuck in the snow. It appeared to have already been sitting there for several weeks by the time I visited- looked like they were forced to resort to the "let the snow melt and get it out in the spring" method. With how much snow was on the ground at that time, I'd guess that it was likely a few more weeks after before they were able to retrieve it.
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