Experience the Trails of Pennsylvania

Laurel Highlands Trail: My First Steps on the Trail

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail extends seventy miles from Ohiopyle State Park to Seward, just north of Johnstown. The trail traverses state parks, state forests, state game lands, other public lands and private lands. The trail is open year round and marked with 2" x 5" yellow blazes. Trails that lead to and from parking areas and shelters are marked with blue blazes. Mile markers are placed every mile along the trail, starting at the southern terminus at the Ohiopyle State Park. Overnight camping along the trail can only take place at designated areas and require reservations with DCNR. I've wanted to do an overnight backpacking trip on the Laurel Highlands Trail but never got around to coordinating a trip. So I figured I'd do the next best thing and do a day hike to see some of the great views into the Conemaugh Gorge found along the northern end of the trail.

Trailhead: N 40° 24.53'
W 79° 00.35'
Total Elevation: 2380'
Trail Length: 5.4 miles
Hike Time: 3.5 hours
Hike Type: Out-and-Back
Difficulty Rating: 102
Near: On route PA56
just south of
Seward, PA.

View Large Map
Download Map (PDF)

When I woke up the morning of the hike I was disappointed to see so much fog. I knew the views I was looking forward to enjoying would be obscured. Undeterred I set off for the northern terminus of the trail located just south of Seward, PA. If I was lucky the fog would lift and at worse I got some much needed exercise.

The northern terminus trailhead for the Laurel Highlands Trail is located just off route PA56, south of the town of Seward. To reach the trailhead from the east or west, you will need to get on route US22. Coming from the east, once you pass through Ebensburg, keep your eyes open for the route PA56 exit. Coming from the west, you'll pass through the town of Blairsville, climb to the top of the Allegheny Plateau, and then look for signs for route PA56. Once you exit at route PA56 you'll want to head south. Drive for 4 miles, passing through Seward, and keep an eye open to the right side of the road. You'll see a sign for the Laurel Highlands Trail where you turn right and travel 0.3 miles to the parking area. The trail head is located at the far end of the parking area.

When I arrived at the trailhead for this hike I was greeted by moderate fog and a light mist. Temperatures were rather comfortable and I soon found that I enjoyed the light mist during the long, continuous climb on the first part of this hike.

The register at the trail head is actually located about 500 feet in from the parking area. My guess is that they placed it here to cut back on vandalism. There were two mailboxes at the register. One was locked with a slit in the door and the other was not. Opening the unlocked mailbox, I pulled out a small form that I filled out and placed it in the locked mailbox. After registering I was ready to start my hike on the Laurel Highlands Trail.

Half of this hike was a steady ascent, climbing over 1100 feet in 2.5 miles. Of course, since this was an out-and-back hike, the other half of the trail was a steady descent. There were short sections of the trail that were flat, but all-in-all it was climbing all the way.

At 0.3 miles into the hike the trail crossed/merged with some forest roads. I got a little confused here, following the one road to the right, not seeing the yellow blaze on the other road further up the hill. After coming across a "Posted" sign, I turned around and back tracked, rediscovered the trail, and continued onward.

About 0.6 miles into the hike I came across the first powerline clearing. This was the first of two that I crossed on my hike (first of four actually, since I crossed them again coming back). I took a short detour off the trail, scrambling up a small hill to get a view from the powerline clearing. After snapping a few pictures I retraced my steps to the trail, which actually descended slightly at this point.

The trail crossed another forest road at 0.7 miles. It look liked there was some heavy ATV use in this area, both on the road, on the trail and in the surrounding woods. I crossed this same road again at 1 mile into the hike.

At this point the trail headed close to the edge of the Conemaugh Gorge. There looked to be some areas where you could take in the surrounding view, however the fog was thick here as well as the undergrowth. The trail meandered through rhododendron tunnels for about a tenth of a mile. After leaving the edge of the gorge for about 0.2 miles, the trail once again entered a rhododendron thicket on the edge of the gorge. Hiking through this area I got very wet from the encroaching underbrush. Finally I emerged from the rhododendron jungle as the trail merged once again with the same forest road I crossed twice before.

A short climb brought me to the second powerline clearing at 1.6 miles into the hike. The heavy fog obscured any hope of a view into or across the gorge. I was slightly disappointed as I really was hoping to enjoy the views on this hike. It was also starting to drizzle harder and I could here the electricity snapping in the powerlines overhead. Not wanting to find out if it is possible to get accidentally electrocuted while standing under high tension powerlines during a foggy, rainy day with relative humidity at 100%, I quickly made my way across the clearing and into the safety of the woods on the other side.

The remainder of this hike, out to the 67 mile marker, was a nice stroll through the woods. Still climbing somewhat, but not as noticeable as earlier on, the trail meandered to the edge of the gorge and back. At times the trail followed what looked to be a long forgotten forest road, or perhaps a logging road. There were many opportunities to peer down into the gorge along this section of the trail, if only it wasn't so foggy.

At mile marker 67 I decided to take a short break, turn around, and head back to the trail head. After the short break, and only about 300 feet back down the trail I viewed a turkey hen cross the trail. I slowed and tried to get a picture of her, but she flew off. I also heard another turkey in the distance, and it sounded like some others scratching not far from the right of the trail. As I stood there motionless for a few minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of more turkeys, a fellow hiker came along the trail. He and three others had spent the previous night at the first shelter (last if northbound) on the trail and were heading to the northern terminus where their vehicles waited. Shortly after he left the other three hikers appeared. I soon discovered that one of these hikers visited this website and also subscribed to the "Go Take A Hike" newsletter. We talked for a while and then we headed off as a group, hiking back the way I just came.

The other hiking group stopped at the powerline clearing, which I was happy to find out wasn't snapping and buzzing as it was earlier, so I stopped with them for a while to chat. We discussed hikes in the area and I soon discovered they were part of a hiking group out of Pittsburgh. One of the hikers was a local, living in the town of Seward. They rarely ventured further east then the Laurel Highlands Trail and I invited them to hike some of the great trails we have in Central PA. They were a very friendly bunch and I enjoyed the chat that I had with them. After 20 minutes or so of talking we decided it was time to continue on with the hike. We went separate ways at the intersection with the forest road as they followed the trail into the rhododendron thicket while I decided to take the easier, less damp way back, following the forest road.

Once the road intersected with the trail again, I turned left and followed the trail back to the trailhead. About the time I reached the trail register it began to rain very hard, so I scurried along to my car to get out of the rain. I was hoping to get a change to talk to the hikers from Pittsburgh, but with the heavy rain I decided not to wait and called it a day. My first experience with the Laurel Highlands Trail, though disappointing because of the heavy fog, was still a pleasurable one and I plan on hiking other sections of this trail in the future.

The trail register at the northern terminus is not located at the parking area of the trail head, but instead it's found about 500 feet further along the trail.

I thought this an odd sight. A 2" diameter iron bar sticking out of a large boulder.

One of the few views of the day. The fog made the many vistas along this trail uninteresting, to say the least.

Mile marker 67 was the point where I decided to turn around an head back to the trailhead.

Fellow hikers that I had an opportunity to chat with. Rain gear was definitely needed what with the fog and showers through out the morning.

Here's an interesting "flower garden" of fungus growing all over this fallen tree.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Laurel Highlands Trail