Hike the Tuscarora Trail this spring
Add this more than 250-mile spur off the Appalachian Trail to your list of trails to trek this spring.
In the springtime, the woods call to me. After being cooped up indoors for much of the winter, I crave the smell of that fresh forest air, the sight of trees and flowers just beginning to bloom, and the sound of leaves, rocks, and twigs crunching under my boots.
I have a bucket list of area trails I want to trek, but for my first hike of this season I chose to tackle a small section of the Tuscarora Trail, which is a more than 250-mile spur off the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) that runs southwest from the top of Blue Mountain in Deans Gap, Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia to rejoin the A.T. again in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I’ve hiked several sections of the Tuscarora Trail before—it runs through the Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, which was like my backyard as a kid growing up in rural Berkeley County, West Virginia—but the nearly 8-mile roundtrip hike I decided to embark on this time was new to me, and I felt like challenging myself.
And so one cool and sunny Saturday morning in late March, I gathered a group of fellow hikers including my boyfriend, my sister, and two friends and their two dogs, and we drove to Cowans Gap State Park in Fulton County, Pennsylvania, for a day on the trail.
Our shoes first touched dirt around 11:30 a.m. As I’d been warned by Renae Weidner, environmental education specialist for the park, the first mile or so of the particular route we wanted to take leads hikers south on a steep, winding path up the side of Tuscarora Mountain. “The worst part is at the beginning,” she said when we spoke over the phone the day before our hike. “There are a lot of switchbacks and boulders on the trail.”
After legging it a mile and a half up the mountain, we reached the junction with the Geyer Trail, marked with a sign at the crest of the ridge where there’s also a large, flat clearing. We took a break there to take in the stunning view of the surrounding valley and mountains—and to catch our breath.
From there, we followed the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail out of the park and into Buchanan State Forest. The next two and a half miles of the trail is relatively level before it becomes steep and rocky again leading up Big Mountain to our destination: the aptly named Big Mountain Overlook. At approximately 2,400 feet in elevation, the mountaintop offers a breathtaking panorama of Path Valley, parts of Franklin County, and the mountains beyond, despite the offensive graffiti marring the cluster of rocks that forms the overlook point. Seated on those rocks, we snacked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and homemade Chex Mix while we took in the view.
After our picnic, we turned around to retrace our steps back to Cowans Gap State Park, but not before exploring the Big Mountain Trail Shelter less than quarter of a mile off the Tuscarora Trail. Following a sign, we found the shelter, which in addition to a covered and partially enclosed sleeping platform features a picnic table, a fire pit, and an outhouse.
There’s a small spring-fed pond near the shelter, too, though the water should not be considered potable, warned Pete Brown, Pennsylvania district manager for the North Chapter of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC), which maintains 110 miles of the Tuscarora Trail in addition to 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
If you continue past the trail shelter, you’ll find an old fire tower, according to Weidner. Being tired and sunburned by that point in the day, however, my group opted to skip the side trip.
As we hiked the nearly four miles back down the mountainside, my companions and I reflected on the day. We’d spent almost six hours on the trail, pausing now and again to admire views of the valley through the trees or to rest our weary legs. By the time we got back to our cars, we were eagerly anticipating our next activity: getting burgers and beers and giving our sore feet a much-needed rest.
- If you want to tackle this approximately 8-mile hike, follow this advice:
- Consult a map of the area before beginning your journey.
- Wear sunscreen. You’ll be hiking at around 2,000 feet in elevation with little tree cover for around two miles or so.
- Wear sturdy shoes. The trail is rocky.
- Watch out for rattlesnakes. “They like to lay out on the rocks in the middle of the trail to warm up, especially in early spring,” according to Weidner.