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Exploring the Charles Lewis Natural Area

The Charles F. Lewis Natural Area is located in a small section of the Galitzin State Forest located along the Conemaugh River, spanning the Indiana / Cambria county line. Named for a newspaperman and the first president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, this natural area is located just across the river from the northern terminus of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail.

Trailhead: N 40° 24.67'
W 78° 59.12'
Total Elevation: 2400'
Trail Length: 4.9 miles
Hike Time: 3.5 hours
Hike Type: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 97
Near: Along route PA403
south of Cramer, PA.

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My original plans for this Easter weekend was to spend a day hiking about 7 miles of the the Laurel Highland Hiking Trails. But plans change, and I found my self at the parking area of the Charles Lewis Natural Area on a sunny Easter morning. I had done some research with regards to this trail, so I wasn't hiking blind. I knew it was a little less than what I wanted to hike, with a length of around 5 miles. But it was a loop hike, which I prefer over an out-and-back hike, and had a significant elevation change to it. I was looking for a work out so that I could get in shape for an upcoming 22 mile hike on the Chuck Keiper Trail.

The trailhead for this hike is located on route PA403, just south of the small town of Cramer. If you are coming from the east or west, your best bet is to get on route US22. When coming from the east, look for the intersection of route US22 and route US219. Once you pass under router US219, set your odometer and drive for 13.8 miles and get off at the router PA403 exit. Once on PA403, drive another 3.9 miles south, through the town of Cramer, and you'll see the parking are on your left. If coming from the west, you will also be taking route US22. When the route changes from a two lane road to a four lane highway, set your odometer and travel for another 2.3 miles. Take the route PA403 exit, then turn right onto the road, heading south for another 3.9 miles. The parking area will be on your left just south of the town of Cramer. If you are coming from the south, take route US219 to the junction of route PA56. Routes US219 and PA56 merge south of Johnstown by Scalp Avenue. You'll remain on US219/PA56 for 1.8 miles and then exit US219, following PA56 towards Johnstown on the Johnstown Expressway. Simply continue on route PA56 through the town of Johnstown and follow it out of town along the Conemaugh river. From the point where you left route US219 it is exactly 13 miles to the trailhead, with the parking area being on your right.

When I arrived at the trailhead there were two other cars already parked there. I would encounter the owner of one of the vehicles later on in my hike. It turns out that he was doing the same hike that I was. I caught up with him with less than a mile of the trail remaining as he was taking a break and eating a small snack.

From the trailhead you'll begin the hike on a relatively flat area. This use to be the old road, back when it followed the contour of the mountain. Almost all of the old pavement has been overgrown and if you look to your left just as you enter the woods you will see the remains of the bridge abutment. At 0.1 miles into the hike, as you follow the yellow blazes, you'll see your return path to your left as it crosses Clark Run.

As you continue straight along Clark Run you'll start to ascend the mountain. Hiking in a counter clockwise direction gives you the best views of the many small waterfalls on Clark Run. At 0.8 miles into the hike the trail pulled away from Clark Run and intersected with the orange blazed Rager Mountain Trail. I had the option of continuing on the yellow blazed trail, but since it was only about 1.8 miles in length, I decided to follow the orange blazed trail instead.

Following the orange blazed trail I continued an easy grade on up the ridge top. The ascent was steady but not all that tiresome. At 1.5 miles I encountered my first vista at a power line clearing. From here I was able to look across the Conemaugh gorge to Laurel Hill and Laurel Ridge State Park. This was where the 70 mile Laurel Highland Hiking Trail came to an end from it's beginnings in Ohiopyle State Park.

For the next 0.25 miles the trail follows the sharp edge of the ridge top. There are some very interesting out cropping all along the trail, making you wonder about the forces that were involved in making some of them. Finally at 1.75 miles into the hike the trail leveled out and I was treated to relatively flat hiking for the next mile before I began descending again. On this one miles stretch of trail I came across two springs, the sources of Clark Run.

At 2.5 miles the trail looped back on the power line that I crossed earlier. Again I was treated to a nice vista looking to the west. I stopped here to take a break, quench my thirst, and enjoy the view.

Soon I was starting the slow descent back to the trail head. The trail for the rest of the hike, at least on the orange blazed Rager Mountain Trail, was not well defined but I could easily follow it because of the many blazes. In some places there were blazed placed almost every 20 to 25 feet.

At 3.2 miles into the hike I came to the edge of the natural area / state forest and was treated to another view. This vista wasn't as spectacular as the last two, but it did give me a glance to the north. The reason for this view was because the private land that was along the state forest at this section as recently timbered and there were few trees blocking the view.

At 3.9 miles the Rager Mountain Trail met up with the yellow blazed trail that I was on earlier. Continuing straight, following the yellow blazes now, I noticed a change on the trail. It was now much more rockier. All along this stretch there were rock cliffs to the right and I wondered what kind of views could be seen from the top of those rocks.

About another 0.25miles later, just as I was soon to discover a rock field that I was going to have to scramble over, I came upon a fellow hiker. This gentleman was doing the same hike that I just did and was just enjoy a small snack as I approached. We talked for a few minutes and he told me to make sure I checked out the Lost Turkey and John Saylor Trails to the south. I thanked him for the suggestions and continued on.

The next 0.15 miles was a little rough as I made my way across a very rocky section. The trails in this area aren't nearly as rocky as the trails back in central Pennsylvania, but this section would have done those trails proud. In some ways this section reminded me of a very rocky portion on the Black Forest Trail. For the most part you could hop from rock to rock, but there were a few section where you had to climb up and over some of the larger rocks. While I was doing my research for this hike I had read about the presence of rattlesnakes along this section of the trail. Luckily I didn't encounter any on this day.

I soon found myself begining the last descent of the hike. Luckily I was treated to one last view just I started my climb down off the ridge. At 4.4 miles into the hike you get a nice view looking down the Conemaugh River. On this day the river looked muddy and high, and because of some of the trees blocking the view, if you do this hike later in the year you may not be able to enjoy this vista.

A short scramble down for the next 0.25 miles put me back down along Clark Run at the intersection of the trail that I noticed earlier. After nearly 5 miles and 3 and 1/2 hours later I was back at my car at the trailhead.

This was my second venture at hiking in western Pennsylvania. My first, in Yellow Creek State Park, was a lot different experience than this hike. Where Yellow Creek is much more suited for hiking with kids, with nothing more than a pair of sneakers, this hike definitely needed a pair of hiking boots and offered a climb of over 1100 feet. Thanks to the fellow hiker that I met on the trail, I now have three more hikes that I'd like to try soon. Not only would I like to experience a section of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, but I'd also like to hit the Lost Turkey and John Saylor trails as well. Even though it's still early in the hiking season, it seems like I'm already running out of time to do all the hikes that I'd like to do this season. Oh well, I guess there's always next year.

This sign for the Charles Lewis Natural Area, easily viewable from the parking area and route PA403, located at the trailhead.

Following the yellow blazed trail along Clark Run. The trail gets narrow at times as it crosses the steep hillside.

Looking across Clark Run at a tributary cascading over some rocks as it meets up with the main stream.

Clark Run gets shallow and spreads out as it flows over large slabs of rock in the stream bed. This type of rock, which is resistant to erosion from water, makes for many small waterfalls all along the stream.

Climbing up away from Clark Run, the yellow blazed trail intersects with the orange blazed Rager Mountain Trail.

The Rager Mountain Trail crosses a power line twice on this hike. Here's a view, from the first vista, looking towards the power plant in Seward. The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail follows the top of the ridgeline on the other side of the Conemaugh Gorge.

An interesting out-croppingof rock right along the narrow ridge line.

I can make out five orange blazes in this photo. It was a good thing that the trail was blazed so well because it would be hard to discern from the surrounding woods with out them.

The only view from the trail to the north. This vista is courtesy of some timber cutting on private land that butts up against the Charles Lewis Natural Area.

The intersection of the Rager Mountain Trail with the yellow blazed loop on the north east side of Clark Run.

This section of the trail is the rockiest of the entire hike.

A view looking down the Conemaugh River.

Almost at the end of the hike. This is where the yellow blazed, shorter loop reconnects a few hundred feet from the trailhead.

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