The Hook Natural Area, located within Bald Eagle Forest in Union County, is over 5000 acres in size, making it the largest Natural Area in Pennsylvania. The Hook Natural Area is named for "The Hook" that is found at it's middle. "The Hook" is where the North Branch of Buffalo Run snakes it's way between Jones and Buffalo Mountain. On this blustery January day I decided to do a hike of the Natural Area that would take me from the top of Jones Mountain, along the southern banks of the North Branch of Buffalo Run, and then gradually back to the ridgeline of Jones Mountain.
|Trailhead:||N 40° 58.45'
W 77° 08.13'
|Trail Length:||7.9 miles|
|Hike Time:||5.5 hours|
|Near:||South of R.B. Winter
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The trailhead for this hike is located at a State Forest designated camping site, on top of Jones Mountain, where Buffalo Path intersects with Jones Mountain Road. I reached the trailhead by traveling on route PA192. If coming from the west, you will need to turn right on to Pine Creek Road, about 0.6 miles after passing the dam at R.B. Winter State Park. If traveling from the east, once you enter Bald Eagle State Forest you will turn left on to Pine Creek Road after 3.2 miles. Once on Pine Creek Road, travel for 1.1 miles until you come to the intersection of Jones Mountain Road. Turn left here and travel for another 3.2 miles, looking for the dirt road on your right that goes back some 100 feet to a camping area. You will notice directly across from this road a sign for the Buffalo Path. At the camping area, park the car, and get read to hike down the side of a mountain
The hike started on what appeared to be a nice trail. It was clear of brush and deadfalls and was about 4 feet wide. However, this soon changed into a barely discernable trail that made it's way through thick undergrowth. I had entertained thoughts of turning around at this point and finding another place to start my hike, I continued on and soon found myself off of the mountain top where there wasn't any brush that I had to deal with.
Buffalo Path on this side of Jones Mountain was not well maintained. On my hike down I did not see a single blaze. But turning around and looking back the way I came, I could see some faded blue circular blazes. My guess is that it must have been a good five years since they were painted. Along with the lack of blazes there were many deadfalls that I had to navigate around and over. The trail was rocking, and with the newly fallen snow and plentiful deadfalls, the trek down the side of the mountain was slow going.
About 0.3 miles down the mountainside I could hear a gurgling stream beneath the rocks. In another tenth of a mile the stream appeared from under some rocks and continued down the mountain side. This made the hike more pleasant, having the sound of the stream to accompany me, and I continued my descent, crossing over the small stream a couple times on the way down.
At around 0.9 miles into the hike I lost all signs of what was the trail. I looked behind me to see if I could catch a glimpse of a blaze, but did not see any. I did see an old logging trail to my left and decided to follow it. Even though it took me away from the stream, I knew that not far to my east was Brandon Road and I figured this old trail would meet with it.
My assumptions were correct as I turned right on to Brandon Road at 1.3 miles into the hike. I continued my hike down Brandon Road, turning right at 1.4 miles where it intersected with Old Shingle Road. After another tenth of a mile I beared right again, continuing on Old Shingle Road, and passing the Mifflinburgh Water Authority Reservoir. At 1.9 miles into the hike, with the reservoir still in view, I turned right off of the road and followed the yellow blazed path along side the chain link fence of the water authority.
I was now on the main trail, following along the North Branch of Buffalo Run. Located on the south bank of the stream was an old railroad grade on which this yellow blazed trail now followed. The hiking was easy as the grade of the ascent was small and the trail was clear of obstacles. Early on the railroad grade was smooth with only a few rocks, but as I got higher up into the valley, the railroad bed became more and more rockier. The trail reminded me, early on, of hiking along Six Mile Run in Black Moshannon State Park, but late on, it reminded me of the boot busting hike on the Mid State Trail within Detweiler Natural Area.
At 4.6 miles into the hike I reached the only bridge over the North Branch of Buffalo Run. Crossing this bridge, the trail was smoother and seemed more like a trail then a railroad grade. The trail was rerouted recently to eliminate multiple stream crossing and there were a few instances where I had to climb up mountain side some fifty feet to avoid the steep stream bank.
I had my first bridge-less stream crossing at 5.2 miles. It was a small stream flowing down from my right that emptied into the North Branch of Buffalo Run. Directly on the other side of the stream were two, well blazed trails. The trails were recently blazed with blue paint and were probably done by a Boy Scout or Cub Scout group as the the blazes were placed about every 20 feet.
This was the intersection of Molasses Trail and Middle Ridge Trail. I had originally decide to hike out Molasses Trail back to Jones Mountain Road but decided against it. By hiking out Middle Ridge Trail I would eliminate about 0.5 miles of road hiking, which I found more to my liking.
The Middle Ridge Trail continued up Slide Hollow until 5.8 miles into the hike where it turned left and ascended Middle Ridge. The trek over Middle Ridge was straight, clear, and short. I found myself on Jones Mountain Road in no time at all, turning right at 6.2 miles into the hike, and heading back to the trailhead and my parked car.
Hiking along the mountain road was uneventful, and I took the opportunity to use my iTunes enabled Motorola phone to listen to some songs as I hiked. At 6.2 miles I paused to take photos at the only vista on the hike. I also ran into a couple of gentleman driving by in their car. We had a short conversation, about hiking here as well as in Rothrock State Forest. However, the winds were blowing and the air temperatures were in the mid-20s, so I cut our conversation short and headed back to the car.
The Hook Natural Area is a beautiful place to visit and I'd highly recommend that you put it on your list of places to hike. I don't think I'd suggest this exact hike as the Buffalo Path is not well maintained or blazed. Perhaps a hike that begins on Middle Ridge Trail, heads down a short distance on the railroad grade along the North Branch of Buffalo Run, turning around, and then climbing out of the valley on Molasses Trail would be more enjoyable. Even if you only hike the lower areas of the Natural Area I highly recommend you experience the largest natural area in Pennsylvania.