The Black Forest Trail is a Pennsylvania classic, and considered by many to be the most difficult trail in the State, even though it is relatively short at 44 miles and very accessible, located in Tiadaghton State Forest in the Pine Creek area, also known as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. We (myself and my good friends Mike and Bryant) decided to hike the trail counterclockwise although there isn't a definitive preferred direction. We studied the Purple Lizard map to see the campsite locations, of which there are many, and get a general sense fo the elevation gains (and losses) as we thought about our daily distance goals and where we could park a vehicle for self-supported resupply mid-hike.
Day 1 – June 24, 2021
We parked a resupply vehicle at the south crossing of the BFT on PA44, then drove down to the parking area along Slate Run Rd to start at mile 0. The hike started with a glimpse of the site of the first Slate Run RR trestle over Slate Run. We checked out a couple headstones in the Slate Run Cemetery on our way to the Hotel Manor. After crossing Slate Run on the footbridge we again checked out the Slate Run RR bridge site, but from the south side. The first climb up onto the knoll above Slate Run got our legs warmed up, and we enjoyed the “Hoodoo Rocks” and other rock formations. The vista at the lower quarry was a nice surprise. The upper quarry vista is more impressive, and we ate the first of MANY blueberries there!
Proof that at least some parts of the Black Forest Trail are flat.
The trail takes you to the remains of an old quarry.
The trail got pretty steep, and by mile 2.5 we had climbed about 1200 feet from the bridge over Slate Run. We also saw our first glimpse of blooming Mountain Laurel, and ate lunch around mile 4. A fellow hiker warned us about rattlesnakes at the vista past mile 5, and we ended up finding at least 7 timber rattlers there. We unofficially called the vista “Rattlesnake Vista”, and the big blueberries there were the “forbidden blueberries.”
The 'upper quarry' vista of the first day - one of many along the BFT
After a nice vista at mile 6 we dropped very steeply along the rocky tributary of Red Run. There were nice cascades along the way down, and at the bottom where the tributary pours into Red Run. The trail followed Red Run for a little bit, but was diverted up onto a logging RR grade on its way to Morris Run. We swam at Morris Run Falls, then headed over to Slate Run to get fresh water for the climb to the campsite. We camped at mile 10 and heard cuckoos and whip-poor-wills!
Beautiful cascades at Morris Run falls to finish day 1
Day 2 – June 25, 2021
Day 1 beat us up a bit, so we were looking forward to some flat and gentle sections. The first vista we encountered was very impressive. The trail was gently rolling to PA44, and we encountered some really nice campsites under the pines after passing PA44. We were on a logging RR grade from mile 13 to mile 16 along County Line Branch, which was uneventful except for the yellow phase timber rattler on the trail! We climbed the 500 ft out of County Line Branch, which got very steep and rocky, and ate lunch at the top. We were happy with the 7 miles we covered before lunch, knowing that we needed to push to almost mile 23 today.
One of many excellent campsites along the BFT. Unfortunately, this one came too early for us.
The vistas between miles 18 and 21 looking down into County Line Branch and Baldwin Branch were impressive. This section has a lot of history - we found a pump house built in the 1880s for the Tidewater Oil Line. It pumped water from Baldwin Branch to cool the engines for the pipeline. We found two RR spikes, a RR tie, and the depressions of a RR bridge between mile 21 and the campsite in the hollow before mile 23. Morale was up because we covered the mileage we needed to cover, and we felt rested after the relatively easy terrain after day 1.
The old pump house built in the 1880s for the Tidewater Oil Line.
Railroad spikes are often found when you are hiking along former narrow gauge rail lines.
Our timing was perfect for the mountain laurel blooms!
The BFT wanders through some great rhododendron tunnels.
This campsite appeared at just the right moment for us to call it a day!
Day 3 – June 26, 2021
After a surprisingly steep climb out of the campsite to mile 23, we reached our resupply vehicle at PA44. We cleaned up, put on clean clothes, ate breakfast, dropped trash, and enjoyed some treats we stashed in the vehicle. We were ready to take on day 3, which would test each one of us. The vista at Big Trail Road was very impressive, allowing us to see the terrain we were about to traverse. We started the steep descent into Callahan Run, about 1100 ft down. At the bottom we enjoyed the convergence of the two streams, with a small waterfall on the right branch.
The climb back out wasn’t as steep, and it was about 900 ft up. We ate lunch at the top, then started out across Hemlock Mountain. After about a mile, Mike started to not feel well, and complained about not being able to cool down. He was afraid heat stroke was setting in, so he tried to drink more. We suggested more electrolytes, and after a few minutes rest he was starting to feel better. The vista at the end of Hemlock Mountain is one of the best on the BFT, and we hung out there for a while. The descent into Naval Run was long and steep, with an elevation change of 1200 ft! We swam at Naval Run Falls, enjoying the cool valley and cold water.
Naval Run Falls
The climb back out wasn’t as steep as the descent, and had an elevation of about 1300 ft. Near the top of the climb we got an intimidating glimpse of Half Dome, the steepest, tallest climb in Pine Creek.
The sign reads: Pine Creek, Half Dome, The Highest Direct Rise, Creek to Rim in Pine Creek Gorge. Relief - 1360', Elv. - 2060'
There were a number of other impressive vistas along the top of Naval Mountain, but the MOST impressive was at mile 33.5 where we camped for the night. The vista looks down Naval Run and down Pine Creek, with Hemlock Mountain in the left foreground and the Dragon’s Back in the background. The right side of the vista allows a view for miles down the Pine Creek Gorge.
Day 4 – June 27, 2021
We had a windy night, and didn’t sleep all that well. When we woke the next day we ate breakfast at the vista, then packed up. We had 9 miles to go on our thru-hike of the Black Forest Trail, and that was our main motivation. We visited the side vistas after mile 34, then began the drop into Little Slate Run. The climb back up to Bicentennial Trail was a bit of a surprise, but we took our packs off and went to visit the old growth eastern hemlock at the end of the trail – definitely a Cook Forest worthy tree!
Spending some quality time with a 400+ year old tree is always a good idea.
The real drop into Little Slate Run had commenced, and much of the 900 ft drop was quite steep with many switchbacks. Little Slate Run was quiet, peaceful, and cold. We didn’t linger too long – we had another 900 ft climb ahead of us to get out of Little Slate Run. We started the climb into Little Slate Run at 8:20 am, and were back out of the valley by 11:00 am. We pushed across the flats to get to the bottom of Foster Hollow for lunch. The descent into Foster Hollow was only 300 ft down, but it was quite steep. We were pretty worn out at the bottom, and rested for a while.
The BFT is notorious for going straight up or straight down.
We were hoping for another swimming hole, but there was just a small spring where the two branches of Foster Hollow converged. The climb out was steep and the trail covered with nettle, but the pines near the top were very impressive. The pond at Foster Hollow camp looked crystal clear, but oddly had no vegetation growing in it, and no fish. It was about a half mile to the vista that overlooks Slate Run, which was another very impressive, expansive view. We were on the precipice of the final 1000 ft descent to Slate Run! We expected it to be rocky, and we were right – but the reward of the panoramic view on the way down was well worth it. This was definitely one of the best views on the BFT!
Long views looking down Pine Creek
Long views looking up Pine Creek
The last portion of our hike was about 2 miles long, finishing the descent to Slate Run Rd, then walking the level trail back to the vehicle at mile 0. We hiked on portions of the Slate Run RR again, providing a very pleasant finish to the hike. We had a great meal at the Hotel Manor, then said our goodbyes to Bryant (he was headed to Williamsport) as we headed back to Rockton and Brockway. WE DID IT – WE THRU-HIKED THE BLACK FOREST TRAIL!!
Rob Keith lives in Brockway, PA with his wife Kristina and their son Wesley. He is a high school chemistry teacher, and teaches in DuBois, PA. He is an avid hiker and kayaker/canoer, and thoroughly enjoys exploring the Little Toby and Clarion River valleys. He is a published historian of the Brockway area as well. Some of his favorite spots in PA include the Allegheny National Forest, Quehanna, Pine Creek, Ohiopyle, the Hammersley, Bald Eagle, Rothrock, and Loyalsock State Forest.