Experience the Trails of Pennsylvania

Hiking the Mountain Bike Trails of Coopers Gap

The northern reaches of Rothrock State Forest extend into Centre, Huntingdon, and Mifflin Counties. Unfortunately the trails in the Rothrock that are located within the boundaries of Mifflin County are neglected by all but mountain bikers. I looked to remedy that in late March by hiking some of the mountain biking trails and introducing these fines trails to the hiking community. There was a circuit hike of about 5 miles that I have been wanting to do for over six years. It was this circuit hike that Dan and I explored on the last sunny but chilly weekend of March.

Trailhead:  N 40° 42.07'
W 77° 39.32'
Total Elevation:  1353'
Trail Length:  5.5 miles
Hike Time:  3.5 hours
Hike Type:  Loop
Difficulty Rating:  82
Near:  Coopers Gap, near Milroy, PA.

The trailhead for this hike is located just a bit past Coopers Gap. As anyone that mountain bikes in Coopers Gap where the trailhead is located and they can give you great direction to it. For those of you that don't have friends the mountain bike in the area, the first thing you are going to need to do is get on route US322. There are a number of "back" ways to get to Coopers Gap, but I think the most direct is via the Reedsville/Bellville exit of route US322. Heading east or west on US322, once you get to route PA655 you need to head north towards Reedsville. At the tee, traffic light, and the end of route PA655, turn left onto Tea Creek Road (there is no sign there that indicates this is Tea Creek Road, at least none that I know of, but turn left here anyways). Drive 0.7 miles and take the first left you can onto Woodland Road. Once on Woodland Road, follow it for 1.9 miles as it parallels Tea Creek back to the entrance into Rothrock State Forest and Coopers Gap directly across the intersection. Once on Coopers Gap Road, go for about 2 miles and you will see a large parking are on your left. This is the Coopers Gap Trailhead parking, so pull off here, park the car, and get ready to go for a hike.

About six years ago I was looking over a Rothrock State Forest Map (the one by Purple Lizard Maps) and I saw all of these trails located in the Mifflin County part of the Rothrock State Forest. Having grown up in Mifflin County I was keen in getting a chance to explore some of these trails. One section in particular, in and around Coopers Gap, looked quite appealing since it seemed like there were a number of trails you could combine to form a circuit hike. I prefer circuit hikes over other types of hikes and they are almost a necessity if you are going to hike by yourself.

I never did get a chance to do that hike and the years passed as I explored other hiking trails in Rothrock and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Turn the clock forward to March of this year. Dan and I were interested in doing a hike and I wanted to do something that I had not done before. I had contemplated heading up north to hike some side trails of the Black Forest Trail, but just the weekend before a spring storm came through and dumped over a foot of snow on that area. That meant we had to stay closer to home and the only area that I had not yet hiked in Rothrock State Forest was the area located in Mifflin County, the Coopers Gap area where I've been wanting to hike for a number of years. What was even better was that Dan had mountain biked in this area before, so he was familiar with the trails. So we met up and headed to the Coopers Gap trailhead to hike the mountain biking trails.

After parking the car we headed east on the Sand Hole Ridge Trail. Unlike other trails in Rothrock State Forest that I have hiked on, this trail was not blazed. However, since this was a mountain biking trail, the path was well worn and maintained and we had no issues following the trail.

The trail had a slight, gradual ascent to it as we hiked in amongst the pine trees. There were also a number of what looked to be fruit trees, stunted by the growth of broad leaf oaks and maples. My guess is that this area of Coopers Gap use to be a farm before it became part of the Rothrock State Forest. Or perhaps these trees were planted in a clearing in the woods to provide food for the wildlife, I'm not sure which.

At about 0.5 miles into the hike, after the trail leveled off a bit, we spied a trail coming in from our left. This trail, Dan told me, took us more directly to the Beautiful Trail, which ran across the top of the ridge. We were in no hurry to get to the top of the ridge, so we continued on the Sand Hole Ridge Trail.

At 0.6 miles we began our descent into Crabapple Gap and at 0.9 miles we crossed a gated mountain road, just near the intersection with Coopers Gap Road. We crossed the gated road and scrambled up a small hill and back into the pine forest. We were now on the Long Cut Trail.

You may be thinking to yourself, what is a "Long Cut"? Well, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If you were to traverse a straight line between two points as opposed to taking a more well known and established path, you would be taking a "Short Cut". So logically, a "Long Cut" must then be the furthermost thing from a straight line. If you made this assumption as to the definition of a "Long Cut" then you are correct. The Long Cut Trail was anything but straight.

Once on Long Cut Trail we hiked for a one mile to reach a point that, if we would have followed the road we just crossed, we could have reached in 0.3 miles. I'd say that pretty much meets the definition of a "Long Cut".

Actually, at 1.6 miles into our hike we crossed again the gated road and the trail was now named Deer Tick Trail. Looking at the undergrowth and grass that we were now hiking through, it didn't take much imagination to figure out how they came up with the name for this trail.

We followed Deer Tick Trail for a mile, switchbacking five times as we climbed the south face of Sand Hole Ridge. After 2.6 miles of hiking we reached the top of the ridge and the eastern most part of Beautiful Trail. Actually, looking at the maps, this was still considered part of Deer Tick Trail. Regardless of the name we had made our ascent to the top of the ridge and had a nice leisurely hike ahead of us.

Before we headed west on the trail, Dan suggested that we turn east here and follow what looked to be the remnants of a trail. Luckily there was no vegetation so it was easy going, but I would suppose this would be thick with Mountain Laurel during the summer months and going would be difficult.

We hiked east across the top of Sand Hole Ridge for less than two tenths of a mile when we came upon a beautiful vista. There was a large outcropping here with no trees growing on the northern slope. Once we crested the rock outcropping we could feel the wind pick up, but we had a clear and unobstructed view towards the north, looking down on Lingle Valley with Brush Ridge and Spruce Mountain just beyond. We paused here for a bit to enjoy the view then we headed back the the southern side of the outcropping, where the wind wasn't blowing as fierce, and enjoyed a little mid-morning snack.

After a short break we were back on the trail, heading west on top of Sand Hole Ridge. The hiking here was rather easy and quite enjoyable. There were a few rock fields/gardens that we had to hike through, but nothing bad (especially compared to hiking the MST from Little Flat to Big Flat). Once we hid Beautiful Trail proper, I soon learn how it got its name. It seemed to be an old mountain road that had long since grown over. The trail was wide and clear of obstacles. Riding a bike from west to east, I'd guess you wouldn't have to peddle for close to a mile as we were making a slow ascent on the ridgeline, but the eastward-bound mountain biker would have experienced a nice stretch of trail to coast upon.

At about 4.1 miles Beautiful Trail emerged onto Conklin Road. We turn left here and followed the road down to Coopers Gap Road. At this point we turned right and hiked Coopers Gap Road for a little more than a tenth of a mile where we turned left onto a trail. This trail was a short cut (in all sense of the word) to the Shittaka Trail. This trail started on Kettle Trail and paralleled Coopers Gap Road down to the trailhead parking area. Once we hiked the short cut trail we turned left onto Shittaka, about 4.5 miles into our hike.

I asked Dan why this trail was called the Shittaka Trail? Was there Shittaka mushrooms that grew nearby? Dan said the trail got its name because once mountain bikers hit this section of the trail, which was easy than most of the trails they had biked that day, they were able to kick back, relax, and talk some shittaka. Personally, I think Dan was making this up as we were hiking. Dan has been known to spin some yarns from time to time.

We followed Shitakka Trail (however it came about its name) for about a half a mile when we came upon the intersection with Indian Trail. The previous half mile of trail showed a lot of recent improvements. There was fresh shale on the trail and water ways dug to prevent erosion. I commented to Dan that it looked as if the trail work had been done recently. It wasn't until the end of the hike till we found out how recent it was.

We were only on Indian Trail for a hundred feet or so before we turned left and continued to follow Shittaka Trail. The trail was relatively straight as it made a gradual descent through the woods. At 5.4 miles into the hike we came across a small stream and a nice wooden bridge that crossed it. Actually, with the recents snows, rains, and warm weather, the small stream was running quite full. The bridge, however, was well designed and easily spanned the swollen banks of the stream. After crossing the stream we hiked another tenth of a mile and ended up back at the trailhead.

We encountered one person on this entire hike, up to this point, and that was Stu Hess. He was riding his bike up the Deer Tick Trail when he passed us. We exchanged a few words at his passing (something about Dan not being able to pass high school chemistry without Stu's help) and then he continued on his way. I thought we may encounter him towards the top of Sand Hole Ridge, but he wasn't anywhere to be seen.

Once we emerged from the woods at the parking area we encountered Rich Wertz. Rich is well known to mountain bikers and should be well known to hikers as well. It is Rich's efforts that provided these great trail in Coopers Gap, and other areas of Rothrock State Forest. Rich, and a few others, had just finished clearing and fixing up the Shittaka Trail just that morning. The trailwork that Dan and I saw early had been very, very recent (probably about an hour or two prior to our passing). Dan and I spent a few minutes talking to Rich and Stu appeared on his bike. He was covered in sweat (an icicles) and seemed to be having a pleasant time on the trails that day. It was that moment that I wished I could share with other hikers. Here were two hiker and two mountain bikers, each out in the woods, enjoying a spring weekend in their own way. Each of us came into the woods to experience what the forest had to offer. Each interacted with the trails that were there, and each of us were able to share the woods, and the trails. And each of us really didn't know that the others were there until the end when we could share our experiences with each other. To me this is what the woods has to offer; a unique experience for each that enters, and large enough for each to experience on their own without infringing or interfering with the other.

{vsig_c}0|cg1_01.jpg|Just a bit past the trailhead for the hike, Dan and I make our way along the Sand Hole Ridge Trail.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_02.jpg|Dan heads up the Deer Tick Trail. I don't think there are any ticks out at this time of the year, but hopefully if there are, Dan will clear them from the trail.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_03.jpg|Once we reach the ridge top, Dan takes me off the trail to show me a vista. I am a trusting fellow.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_04.jpg|Almost to the vista. We had a breathtaking view of the Seven Mountains from our vantage point.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_05.jpg|Beautiful Trail in all its glory. I would have loved to ride a bike down this trail.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_06.jpg|Hiking down Conklin Road, I was hoping to catch the ice on the tree tops with this picture.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_07.jpg|My first wildlife sighting of the year. This porcupine did not want to hang around to get his picture taken.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_08.jpg|Heading down the newly manicured Shittaka Trail.{/vsig_c} {vsig_c}0|cg1_09.jpg|Just about done with our hike, we crossed a swollen creek on this well designed and sturdy trail bridge.{/vsig_c}

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