by Joseph Luxbacher
Thirty-five years ago I was a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, nearing completion of a PhD in Health Education while playing professional soccer in the long gone Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL). I was and always have been a passionate outdoor enthusiast, and at that phase of my life envisioned meshing a career as a college professor with that of a free-lance nature writer, basically spinning tales of my many adventures in the outdoors. About that time I also began to write articles describing my hiking and canoeing trips into areas such as the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota, and the Rocky Mountains of Montana and Colorado. Coincidentally my first ever published outdoor article was a piece much closer to home, an article on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail located in southwest Pennsylvania. As it often turns out however, the best laid plans often go astray. Instead of settling into a tenured professor track and writing outdoor articles, I have worked in collegiate athletics for the past 30 plus years where my published writing has for the most part centered on sports and fitness rather than outdoor pursuits. I’ve never lost my love for the outdoors, however, and after I retired from my position in the Department of Athletics at the University of Pittsburgh a year or so ago I renewed my avid interest in hiking Pennsylvania’s many trails. One of the footpaths that I recently revisited is the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, the topic of my first published article, so in a sense I am picking up where I left off three and one-half decades ago.
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, a section of the Potomac Heritage Trail, begins near Ohiopyle State Park in southwest Pennsylvania. From there it travels for seventy-odd miles through the heart of the Laurel Ridge region, a section of the Appalachian Mountain Range that encompasses forests, state parks, and state game lands. The trail culminates where it meets the 1000-foot Conemaugh Gorge near Johnstown. The Laurel Highlands provide a rich assemblage of rock formations, vegetation, and wildlife for those who enjoy the physical exercise and mental relaxation that a walk in the woods can offer. From Ohiopyle the trail quickly leads upward to higher elevations, exposing a landscape that represents more than 200 million years of rock weathering and erosion by the unrelenting forces of nature. As I walked along the ridge tops I was actually taking a stroll through the geologic past as the trail leads through rock units such as the Catskill Formation, deposited before the age of dinosaurs during Devonian times 350 million years ago, and the Pocono Formation laid down nearly 300 million years ago. Along some sections of the trail you will encounter large boulders that seem completely out of place, remnants of some long lost epoch in the history of the area when glaciers deposited the huge rocks as they pushed their way through the mountain chain. Beneath my feet were massive sandstone deposits that form the backbone of the Laurel Ridge and provide evidence of periodic fluctuations of a continental sea. As the inland waters gradually receded vast amounts of decaying vegetation remained, and today form the bituminous coal deposits common to the Laurel Ridge.
Some portions of the trail, especially near the southern end, are quite rugged and require steep up and down climbs between ridge tops. On my most recent hike I found much of the area to be extremely dry as I walked through dense thickets of rhododendron and laurel. Each season has its own unique character however. Wildflowers are widespread in the spring when new growth is appearing everywhere. At that time low lying sections of the trail are typically wet and soft. During the summer months thick undergrowth and foliage are the norm, and the trail is dry and hard in most sections. Scenic views of the mountain are enhanced in the winter when the leaves have fallen and snow blankets the ridges.
As I walk the trail in 2017 and take in the beauty of the mountains it occurs to me that, although the world is much different today than it was thirty-five years ago, the Laurel Highlands remains pretty much the same. The landscape has not undergone any major changes. The large boulders remain, the thickly wooded mountains remain, the beauty and majesty of mother nature remain. If you are lucky, you may still catch a glimpse of a white-tailed deer or even a Pennsylvania black bear. Hiking the trail today generates the same feelings and satisfaction as it did three plus decades ago. I encourage anyone possessing a love of nature and the outdoors to experience the Laurel Mountains for yourself. The Trail offers something for everyone, and you can walk as far or as little as suits you. For those who wish to camp overnight, the trail provides areas with Adirondack style shelters every 8 to 10 miles. During the snow season, the trail supports snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and winter backpacking is always an option for the hail and hardy. Each overnight area is equipped with fresh water and comfort stations. You need not fear losing your way either, as the trail is marked every hundred feet or so with 2-inch and 5-inch yellow blazes. I urge you to seize the opportunity and experience the splendid beauty of Pennsylvania’s mountains. Slip on your day sac, or strap on your backpack, and step into the beautiful experience that the Laurel Highlands can offer.
About the Author:
Joe is a lifetime hiker and has walked many trails in Pennsylvania including the Laurel Highlands Trail, Black Forest Trail, sections of the Appalachian Trail, the North Country Trail, and the entire Susquehannock Trail in Potter Country. He has also hiked in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota, and the Rocky Mountains. Several years ago he was a contributing writer to the Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide. He can be contacted at email@example.com