Experience the Trails of Pennsylvania

John P. Saylor Trail: Hiking the Main Loop

I was looking for a trail to hike around Johnstown Pennsylvania. I knew of the Laurel Highlands Trail, which I had not hiked yet, but I was more interested in a circuit hike. The John P. Saylor Trail was exactly what I wanted; a double loop trail that I could hike in one day. This trail is named after John P. Saylor, a Pennsylvania congressman from 1949 to 1973. Mr. Saylor was a conservationist that sponsored and help enact many laws during his tenure, including the National Scenic Trails Act. The trail is a 17.5 mile double loop that wanders across the Allegheny Plateau with the trailhead at the Babcock Picnic Area.

Trailhead: N 40° 12.97'
W 78° 45.147'
Total Elevation: 2080'
Trail Length: 12.1 miles
Hike Time: 6.5 hours
Hike Type: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 162
Near: Windber, PA, on
Route PA56

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This trail was to be my second hike in Gallitzin State Forest. The first hike that I did earlier in the year was in a small section of the forest, located just north of Johnstown, hiking in the Charles Lewis Natural Area. This hike was further south and east where there is a larger area of state forest, located just to the east of Windber.

The trail is named after John P. Saylor, a Pennsylvania congressman from 1949 to 1973. Mr. Saylor was a conservationist that sponsored and help enact many laws during his tenure, including the National Scenic Trails Act. The trail is a 17.5 mile double loop that wanders across the Allegheny Plateau with the trailhead at the Babcock Picnic Area.

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 7.7 miles, passing through the town of Windber. You will see a sign for the Babcock Picnic Area on your right. Pull in here and continue back the dirt road for about 1000 feet. There will be parking at the trailhead on your left. 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 19.1 miles. The Babcock Picnic Area will be on your left.

When I headed out for this hike I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to hike. One option was to hike in part of the larger loop to the connector and then hike the entire small loop. This would be a hike of about 8 miles. A second option was to use the Bog Trail which bisects the larger loop, making for a hike of about 4 to 5 miles. A third option was to hike the larger loop of 12 miles and of course the last option was to hike the entire double loop of 17.5 miles.

Up to this point the furthermost that I have hiked in one day was around 11 miles. I wasn't really sure I could handle the entire 17.5 miles but I did feel that pushing myself to do more than just 4 or 5 miles. I decided that since the terrain wasn't that rough that I would do the 12 mile larger loop. I plan on heading back at a later date to hike the smaller loop so that I will have completed the entire trail.

I started my hike at the Babcock Picnic Area. I had decided to hike the trail counter clockwise. This way I would get the roughest section of the trail, near Wolf Rocks, out of the way early. I stopped at a shelter at the trailhead, looked at the large map of the trail that they had posted within, and picked up a paper map to take with me.

The trail was blazed with orange rectangles.The first 0.25 miles of hiking I slowly descended, following a stream for a good portion of the way. I soon crossed Verla Road and then began my first and largest ascent of the hike, climbing 300 feet in a little over one and a quarter miles. Not much of a climb compared to others that I've done, but on this humid July morning I was soon breaking into a sweat.

Half way along this climb was a group of rock outcroppings called Wolf Rocks. This area was interesting as it had many fractures in the rocks that you could walk through as well as climb to the tops of some of the rocks. Unfortunately this areas beauty was diminished by the presence of spray paint on some of the larger vertical rock surfaces. I hope that there isn't any new graffiti added to these rocks and that in time the natural beauty of this place will return.

Leaving Wolf Rocks I had to climb over a number of small boulders. This was the most difficult section of the hike, though it was easily managed with the use of trekking poles and taking my time so as not to slip on the wet, moss covered rocks. Shortly after leaving the rocky section I came across the intersection with the Bog Trail that provides a connection to the northeast side of this loop.

Continuing on I began an easy descent at 1.9 miles into the hike. This gradual descent of 350 feet would occur over the next 2.5 miles. At 2,4 miles I came across my first meadow. The trail here was very wide but grown over with tall grass. We had heavy rains the night before and it wasn't long before my pant legs, socks, and boots were soaked. At 2.4 miles I had crossed the meadow and headed back into the woods. You must pay close attention here as the trail makes a sharp right into the woods as the wide grass covered path that you were walking on continues straight ahead. There is a sign here that points you in the right direction.

At 3.9 miles I crossed Crum Road and then continued down along a small stream. At 4.4 miles I then crossed a stream on what seemed to be an old railroad grade. I would continue to hike on this old railroad grade for another mile, making my way back to Crum Road. Just shy of Crum Road you will pass a gas well where the trail turns left and then reaches Crum Road on 0.1 miles.

Once on the other side of Crum Road I was once again hiking through some meadows, across a large flat area. After hiking through more wet grass for three quarters of a mile the trail, following another railroad grade, headed back into the woods and started a steeper descent. At this point the trail was descending down to Clear Shade Creek.

Around 6.6 miles into the hike I came across yet another meadow. This one was quite a bit wetter than the rest, with cat-o-nine tails growing alongside the trail. A short distance past this meadow I came across Clear Shade Creek.

This area of Pennsylvania is renowned for its coal deposits and mining of such. Because of this mining, many of the streams in this area are orange from the acid runoff. Clear Shade Creek was not a typical stream of the coal region as it flowed by, free of discoloration. The trail only followed the bank of Clear Shade Creek for a short distance before the stream headed off to the right and away from the trail.

At 7.3 miles into the hike I came upon the short connecting trail that connects the longer 12 mile loop with the shorter 5.5 mile loop. I hiked back this short trail and viewed the suspended bridge that crosses Clear Shade Creek. There was a nice campsite located here and this spot looked like it would make a nice place for a base camp where you could pitch a tent, dayhike the small loop, and even do some fishing if you were so inclined.

For 2 miles I had hiked along and within the small valley of Clear Shade Creek. Parts of the trail meandered through pines and stands of various hardwoods, while other sections walked under the blue sky through grass filled meadows. Once past the bridge, there was the remnants of a splash dam erected on the creek. This made for a large marshy area where I did hear and observe a number of birds.

About 8.5 miles into the hike I started my ascent up and away from the stream, this time following what looked to be an overgrown logging road. A large portion of the John P. Saylor trail, especially the section south of Shade Road, is used for cross country skiing. Trails used for skiing usually mean that they are free of obstacles, have gentle ascents and descents, and have plenty of clearance both to the sides of the trail and above.

As I hiked this section of the trail I was now back in the peaceful woods, away from the wet, and at times, buggy meadows. I climbed about 300 feet in a little over 1.5 miles and came across Shade Road at 10.1 miles into the hike. By this time, with my feet soaked, I was beginning to feel fatigued and my feet began to ache. I wasn't sure how much water actually soaked into my socks, but I was certain that my feet weighed significantly more than they did when I started the hike.

Shortly after crossing Shade Road I came upon the other end of the Bog Trail, blazed red and yellow. The remaining two miles of hiking were, luckily for me, quite easy, as the trail followed old forest roads and an old section of route PA56. The trail at times came within spitting distance of route PA56 as I heard, and saw, large trucks zooming by. I had traveled this road over 15 years ago, heading to and from college at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown (UPJ). Never in my wildest dreams, when I was driving along this section of the highway, would I have thought that I'd be hiking in the woods just a few feet from the edge of the road.

After 12.1 miles of hiking I had made it back to the trailhead. I sat down in the car, took off my pack, removed the lower section of my soaked, convertible pants, and removed my boots. Tilting my boots, a few drops of water fell out of each. I then took of my socks and wrung over a quarter of a cup of water out of each. My feet were all wrinkly from being wet for so long, but luckily I had not developed any blisters.

Aside for the wet feet that I got from walking through the damp meadows, I really enjoyed hiking this trail. The terrain was very forgiving, without much of a challenge when it came to climbing up, or going down the hills. Aside for the area around Wolf Rocks, the trail was relatively free of rocks and other obstacles as well. All stream crossings were easy, with many having well maintained bridges in place. I am anxious to get back and finish this trail, still needing to hike the smaller 5 mile loop on the far side of Clear Shade Creek. Perhaps I'll make it an overnighter, setting up camp just off the trail by the suspension bridge. I'll make sure I take my fishing pole so that I can have a fish fry that evening for dinner.

The trailhead starts at the Babcock Picnic Area. The wooden structure seen here has a large map of the trail hanging on the back wall as well as paper trail maps.

This was the first bridge and stream that I came across on this hike. There would be many more stream crossings, some with bridges, on this trail.

One of the highlights of this hike was the Wolf Rocks. Unfortunately there was a large amount of graffiti spray painted on the rocks here.

One of the many wet meadows on the trail. Bridges are provided for crossing the wetter sections of the meadows, but there are many areas where your feet do get damp.

Along this section of the trail, the old railroad grade was eroded through by a number of streams, such as the one pictured here.

Another meadow that I had to cross. This was just prior to my descent to Clear Shade Stream.

This suspension bridges crosses Clear Shade Stream and connects to two loops of the trail.

This hike was a little over 12 miles long. This connector trail, shown here blazed in yellow and red, makes for a shorter loop of about 5 miles.

There wasn't much wildlife on this hike, but I did manage to snap a picture of this bear just prior to completing the trail.

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