Experience the Trails of Pennsylvania

John P. Saylor Trail: Exploring the Southern Loop

In July of 2006 I ventured out onto the John P. Saylor Trail. The trail is located in Gallitzin State Forest, just south east of Johnstown on router PA56. The trail is arranged in a double loop, with a total length of about 17 miles. During my previous outing I managed to hike the larger of the two loops, doing a dayhike of 12 miles over mostly rolling terrain with a 2 mile hike along the Clear Shade Creek. This time I headed back to the John P. Saylor Trail to cross over Clear Shade Creek and complete the second and shorter loop.

Trailhead: N 40° 11.79'
W 78° 44.34'
Total Elevation: 1249'
Trail Length: 6.3 miles
Hike Time: 3.5 hours
Hike Type: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 88
Near: Windber, PA, on
Route PA56

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In order to reach the trailhead you will need to find route PA56. The easiest way to reach route PA56 is to head towards Johnstown. You will probably approach Johnstown on route US219, either traveling south from Ebensburg and route US22 or north from Somerset and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Once on route US219, look for the route PA56 east exit. Coming from the south, you will encounter this exit prior to reaching the west PA56 exit that takes you to Johnstown. Coming from the north, routes US219 and PA56 will merge for approximately 2.6 miles before you exit route US219. Once you take the PA56 east exit, travel for 8.9 miles, passing through the town of Windber. You will see a sign for the Babcock Picnic Area on your right. Continue on route PA56 for another 1.2 miles and look for the Clear Shade Wild Area sign on your right. Pull in here and continue back the dirt road for another 1.6 miles. There will be parking on your left. This is the trailhead for this hike. If coming from the east you may want to find your way onto route I99. Just north of Bedford is the intersection of I99 and PA56. Exit here and travel west on route PA56 for 17.9 miles. Access and signage for the Clear Shade Wild Area will be on your left. Turn here and follow the dirt road for 1.6 miles to the trailhead and parking on your left.

I had been looking forward to coming back here and completing this trail. Last year, when I hiked the main loop of the trail, I really enjoyed the area. The trail was well groomed, free of obstacles (for the most part) and the elevation changes were minor and gradual. I was able to hike over 12 miles on my previous outing and it felt more like a hike of half that distance, compared to my typical hikes.

This hike was, according to my estimates, to be around 5 miles. After getting back home and looking at the GPS I realized that the hike was a bit longer than that, coming to a total of 6.3 miles hiked. Again, the trail was well marked, though not as much used as the main loop. With just a short climb about 2 miles into the hike, the elevation changes were as gradual as those found on the main loop.

The hike started by following a yellow blazed side trail. I believe that I saw a sign here last year, indicating that this was called the Fisherman's Path. This year there wasn't a sign at the trailhead, so I'm not sure if that is the proper name for this short trail or not.

After 0.3 miles the yellow blazed side trail merged with the main, orange blazed John P. Saylor Trail. This was still in the main loop and I had to turn right to reach the cross connector and bridge that crosses the Clear Shade Creek.

After another tenth of a mile I came across the suspended bridge. I had made it to the trailhead rather early this morning, and the fog was rolling off the creek. It was about 8:30AM when I reached the bridge and I noticed a group of hikers just breaking camp not far from the trail. They were standing around the now cold fire ring, clad in fall attire that included beanies and gloves, drinking what I presumed was hot coffee.

After crossing the creek I came upon the second loop of the John P. Saylor Trail: the Middle Ridge Trail. I decided to turn left here and followed the trail as it marched down an old railroad grade.

At 0.83 miles the trail broke away from the old railroad grade and then proceeded to cross a small stream at 0.9 miles. The trail had been gradually turning uphill and away from the Clear Shade Creek, but after crossing the small stream, the trail turned to the left and headed back towards the creek.

Again at 1.25 miles the trail turned away from the creek. I wouldn't see it again until I had almost completed this loop, coming down off the ridge top. The trail alternated its wanderings through the forest and then back again along the edge and through grassy meadows. Last year I had ended up with soak and wet feet from hiking through these meadows. This year I was prepared, wearing my gaiters to help keep water out of my boots and my feet dry.

At 1.45 miles I turned away from the meadows, heading back into the woods, and beginning my descent up to the top of the ridge. Over the next three tenths of a mile I would climbed over 200 feet to the ridge top. The rest of the hike would be at this elevation, with an occasional crest over a small hill or a short descent into a shallow hollow.

At 3 miles into the hike the trail makes a sharp right. Keep your eyes open for this turn as the trail looks as if it could continue straight. It was a little more obvious to see, but in the winter, when there aren't any leaves on the trees, I could see how someone might miss this turn and end up getting way off track.

At 3.1 miles into the hike I had reached the highest point of the hike and began a long and gradual descent back to Clear Shade Creek. At 3.9 miles I came upon a large clearing. There was a small stream running off to my left. As I progressed into the clearing I noticed a shelter, picnic table, and fire ring just off the trail. If you were hiking this entire trail on one outing, this shelter is placed at just the right place to spend the night. On my readings about this trail I had never heard mention of this shelter. It looked to be well maintained and there was plenty of tenting area within the clearing if you didn't want to set up within the shelter.

Shortly past the clearing, at 4.1 miles, the trail crossed the small stream and followed it along its south bank. After another 0.1 miles the trail merged and followed an old railroad grade. The gradual descent on the railroad grade was followed for a half mile when it merged with another railroad grade. At this point you need to make a sharp right, following Clear Shade Creek back up stream to the bridge crossing on the cross connector.

At 4.8 mile, while I followed the railroad grade along the banks of Clear Shade Creek, I crossed the small creek that flowed beside the clearing and shelter that I had just crossed. As I crossed the creek I came upon two deer crossing the trail. The deer were similar in size but as different as day and night with regards to there fur. The one was very dark brown while the second was light colored, almost gray. As I reached for my camera the deer spooked and took off. I tried to be as quiet as I could walking the next 500 feet or so, hoping to come across them again, but I didn't see them again.

The trail passed through grassy meadows as well as damp, swampy areas. I saw signs of beavers but none of the furry critters showed themselves to me. At 5.9 miles I came across the connector trail where I started my hike on the Middle Ridge Trail. I turned left, crossed Clear Shade Creek, and made my way back to the yellow blazed side trail and the trailhead.

It was nice to complete another one of Pennsylvania's trails in its entirety. Even though I really enjoyed the larger loop trail, this shorter loop was more to my liking. For one, the distance was much more palatable. The short, but steep ascent to the ridge top added some challenge to the trail. Also, the majority of the trail was through woods, with only a few sections that crossed grassy meadows. I prefer hiking in the woods, with little to no undergrowth, and for the most part this trail was just that. If you are looking for a nice day hike in the Johnstown area, this one should be on the top of your list.

Here I stand at the trailhead. This is a yellow blazed side trail that leads down a small hill to the orange blazed John P. Saylor Trail. I believe this trail is called the Fisherman's Trail.

This is a small pond found on Clear Shade Creek. The fog was rolling off the water during this sunny, cool morning.

On the cross connector, this suspended bridge takes you from the main loop to the Middle Ridge Trail loop, crossing over Clear Shade Creek.

The trail, and turns, are well marked and easy to follow.

At what would be the half-way point if you were doing the entire trail, this shelter and picnic table were located alongside a large clearing. A small stream runs just behind the shelter, providing easy access to water for cooking and drinking.

One of the grassy meadows that the trail occasionally passes through.

Apparently not keen to having hikers in the neighborhood, an angry beaver took matters into his own hands and tried to confuse the hikers by cutting down this blazed tree.

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