Experience the Trails of Pennsylvania

John P. Saylor Trail: Revisiting the Trail

It had been over 5 years ago that I had first hiked on the John P. Saylor Trail. At the time it was the longest dayhike that I had ever did, clocking in at a little over 12 miles. Recently I had started to pen trail guides for some of the trails that I've hiked and I thought the John P. Saylor Trail would be a good candidate for a guide. So I headed back to the Babcock Picnic Area to log another 12 miles on the John P. Saylor Trail, this time keeping detailed notes so that I could put together a guidebook for this great trail.

Trailhead: N 40° 12.97'
W 78° 45.147'
Total Elevation: 1981'
Trail Length: 11.9 miles
Hike Time: 6.5 hours
Hike Type: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 159
Near: Windber, PA, on
Route PA56

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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. During the winter months this picnic area is closed. You will need to travel another 500 feet and pull into the large parking area to the left of the road. If you hike any other time of the year, turn left and pull in at the picnic area 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 with winter parking on your right approximately 500 feet prior to the picnic area entrance.

As I mentioned, the picnic area is closed during the winter months, making it a bit difficult to reach the trailhead proper for the John P. Saylor Trail. Just a short distance east of the picnic area is a larger parking/staging area for snowmobiles. I parked here (which did have a few cars parked here: hunters not snowmobilers) and then walked west along route PA56 before crossing at the gated access road to the Babcock Picinic Area.

Once past the gate I walked about a tenth of a mile before I spied the trailhead which is marked by a stone pedestal (which once held a plaque of sorts, but it is not empty) and a wooden sign showing the route of the John P. Saylor Trail. The orange blazes marked the trail to my right so I headed off in the direction, hiking the trail in a counter-clockwise fashion.

The trail starts with an initial gradual descent until you cross a small stream at 0.2 miles and then an ascend begins after crossing a dirt road at about 0.4 miles into the hike.

After a constant but gradual climb, I came upon the rock outcroppings called Wolf Rocks. This area is interesting as it has 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 is diminished by the presence of graffiti painted on the larger rocks.

Leaving Wolf Rocks I had descended through a small boulder field which soon cleared out as the trail leveled off. At this point I came across the intersection with the Bog and Boulder Trail to the left of the trail. Following the yellow-blazed Bog and Boulder Trail will provide a short cut connection to the northeast side of this loop.

Continuing on I reached the second highest point on the hike at 1.9 miles. From here it was a gradual descent of 350 feet over the next 2.5 miles. At 2.4 miles the trail makes a slight left as I came out of the woods and into the first meadow of the hike. The trail here was very wide and crosses a small stream on a wooden bridge. After another 0.1 miles you will leave the meadow and head back into the wood. 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 though it was hard to see as it was leaning up against a pine tree with most of the writing on the sign obscured by the pine boughs.

At about 3.6 miles into the hike, as the trail followed along a small stream about 200 feet to the right of the trail, I came across my first hunter. Since I was hiking on the first Saturday of December, I sort of figured I would come across a hunter or two in the woods. I made sure I wore plenty of blaze orange and I tried to keep my noise down, except for my constant talking into my voice recorder as I made note of landmarks and current distances hiked on the trail. The hunter seemed to be enjoying an early morning snack as I passed. I waved and he nodded back and the was the last I saw of him.

At 3.9 miles I crossed Crum Road and then continued down along an old abandoned forest road. At 4.4 miles I reached the lowest elevation of the hike as the trail turned left onto an old railroad grade. I would continue to hike on this old railroad grade for another mile, making my way back to Crum Road. There were a number of bridge-less stream crossings on this section of the trail but I managed to cross them all without getting wet. 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. The trail was quite wet here with water flowing and standing on the trail itself. After hiking for three quarters of a mile the trail, still following the 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 crossed a small stream coming in from my left. Just past this stream crossing I came across yet another meadow. This wet area had a number of wooden boardwalks erected which made for a less damp hike. A short distance past this meadow I came across Clear Shade Creek. 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 approximately 7 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. This shorter loop is also known as the Middle Ridge Trail. I paused here to eat a bit of lunch and snack on some pistachio nuts. After about 15 minutes I was back on the trail hiking eastward.

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 grassy meadows. Once past the connector trail there was the remnants of a splash dam erected on the creek. This made for a large marshy area where I observed some remains of beaver activity. The remains looked to be old and I didn't spy any beavers anywhere along this section of the trail.

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. The trails here are marked with orange and blue painted blazes.

I climbed about 300 feet in a little over 1.5 miles, passing through a stand of pines, and finally came across Shade Road at 9.9 miles into the hike. By this time I was feeling a bit fatigued not only from the climb but also from the distance I had hiked. I sat down on a fallen log along the road and ate my last sandwich that I had in my pack.

Shortly after crossing Shade Road I came upon the other end of the yellow-blazed Bog and Boulder Trail. At 10.2 miles the trail crosses another stream on a wooden bridge. At this point I began to hear the noise from the nearby road. At 11 miles the trail was within spitting distance of route PA56 as I heard, and saw, large trucks zooming by. Luckily after 500 feet the trail turned left, heading deeper back into the woods and leaving the road behind.

I crossed another dirt road at 11.3 miles and passed a gate as the trail was now following an old gravel road. The trail was as good 14 feet wide here and the stream crossings were hardly noticed as they flowed through the culverts under the road. At 11.8 miles the trail beared left off the wide road and became a single track once again as it made it back to the trail head. Finally, 11.9 miles later, I had completed my hike on the larger loop of the John P. Saylor Trail. I headed back to my car, parked across route PA56, and enjoyed the feeling of once again sitting.

One thing that I noticed on this trail was how wet it was. Even in December some sections of the trail seemed to be very wet, with water either ponding or flowing on the trail. Aside for the wet sections of the trail, I found it to be a nice hike. It is a good option for a challenging, but not overwhelming long distance dayhike. I am looking forward to coming back to hike the Middle Ridge Trail. I may even take a small out-and-back hike on the Bog and Boulder Trail as well.

Sign and stone pedestal at the trailhead for the John P. Saylor Trail.

The first of many stream crossings on this hike.

Wolf Rocks at an angle from which you don't see much of the graffiti.

The back side of Wolf Rocks from the vantage point of the intersection with the Bog and Boulder Trail.

Almost didn't see this sign indicating a right turn off the old forest road.

Heading into a stand of Rhododendrons.

Almost three quarter miles of straight hiking on this section of the trail.

One of the many bog/meadows found along the trail.

Here the old railroad grade is elevated off the forest floor.

Boardwalks over the wetter sections of the trail. They needed more of these.

A view of Clear Shade Creek.

At the eastern most intersection of the Bog and Boulder Trail.

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