The deep forest of Monongahela is within a days drive of 50% of the population of the United States. What is really amazing is given that fact, when you get to this amazing forest, you realize less than 1% of population knows about it. Welcome to the 1% club! Not the evil minority faction that controls all the wealth and laws in America, but the much more elite 1% club - the few who know how to escape the crowds and political confusion happening in America and get back to what is really great about this country - the wonderful, wild wilderness and back country that is our public lands.
Make it a weekend or weeklong trip on the cheap (because we are truly the other 1% here) by car camping along Gandy Creek. A few miles west of Spruce Knob and a few more miles south of Harman, the Gandy Creek Dispersed Camping Area awaits your visit. Managed by the National Forest Service, this area provides free (yes - FREE!) undeveloped roadside camping spots along Gandy Creek. And they are really pretty sites to spend a few days or more.
The legal campsites along his section of Gandy Creek don't come with much else besides a flat spot for sleeping and a makeshift fire ring alongside a gorgeous creek. There are about a dozen spots for camping, and the sites are first come- first served. Looking to have a campfire? Buy some firewood on your way in from a local roadside stand or at the Spruce Knob Campground.
Bring plenty of lights and be prepared for the lack of cell phone service. Be sure to travel with your full car camping kit and your Purple Lizard Map for this adventure! Tables, tarps, tapas, and tents are all needed to make these sites feel like home. Please practice Leave No Trace ethics and pack out all of your trash before you leave, too.
A plethora of outdoor recreation opportunities exist along Gandy Creek. This creek is especially popular for fishing and horse back riding. Hikers and cyclists also enjoy the trails leading in and out of Gandy Creek. Ornithologists, foragers, and those looking just to relax can all enjoy this section of forest. Several trails that cater to the non-motorized adventure crowd exist, and they all have special characteristics. Horton Trail, for instance, begins near Horton, climbs up to Allegheny Mountain Trail, descends the other side the whole way to Upper Seneca Creek Falls and Seneca Creek Trail, before climbing some more to Judy Springs Trail and Huckleberry Trail.
While Horton Trail generally stays along a creekside (foragers will want to keep an eye out for ramps and fiddleheads in the spring), Spring Ridge Trail runs parallel to it, yet climbs along a ridgeline much sooner than Horton Trail. Swallow Rock Trail includes the impressive Swallow Rock along Whitmer Road.
A few of these trails, including Bee Run Trail, begin with a bridge crossing over Gandy Creek.
Elza Trail offers some great, wide single track miles that descend back into Gandy Creek after a day of adventure. This trail winds its way downhill from Leading Ridge Trail and is loved by mountain bikers and trail runners alike.
Those looking for a backcountry climb out of Gandy Creek at the beginning of the day will appreciate Leading Ridge Trail. Although this trail can be difficult to climb, it is an old road with a modest, double track grassy grade leading from 3,250 feet at Gandy Creek to 4,150 feet along Leading Ridge. The trail continues to be pleasant as it leads to an intersection with Allegheny Mountain Trail.
Big Run Trail and North Prong Trail also offer plenty of opportunity for adventure. Cyclists can enjoy a relatively easy descent from the Big Run Trail parking area along FS 112 down to Gandy Creek. Hikers and strong cyclists may enjoy the Big Run, North Prong, and Allegheny Mountain Trail Loop. Features include an active Beaver Dam along Big Run Trail (as of 2018), a grassy double track North Prong Trail that passes by a beautiful mountain meadow, and a double track section of Allegheny Mountain Trail back to FS 112. This roughly 8-mile loop can be enjoyed anytime of year, although snow levels may cause access issues to the trailhead in winter.
Would you prefer to have outhouses, picnic tables, and bear-proof dumpsters? If so, reserve a fee site at Spruce Knob Campground. This campground sits right between Gandy Creek and Seneca Creek. Besides a lake open for fishing and non-electric boating, this campground is surrounded by miles of shared-use trails!
Call Monongahela National Forest and reserve the Gatewood Group Campground, which lies above Gandy Creek near the remains of an old lookout tower.
You can do that here too. Set up a shuttle downhill from Spruce Knob Lookout Tower, or create your own loop along the hundreds of miles of forest roads surrounding this area.
Oftentimes there is no need to leave the car to find adventure. Fill your gas tank and reference your Purple Lizard Map as you enjoy a drive through this section of forest. Don't miss the great view on the top of Rich Mountain Road as it intersects with Route 55/33 south of Harman:
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With over 300 miles of non-motorized trails, tons of gravel and dirt roads, and 24/7 access, Rothrock State Forest is a true gem for year-round outdoor recreation near State College, PA. Although the forest roads are not maintained in winter, a few parking lots along the perimeter of the forest provide ample access in almost any conditions. Below, we've chosen a few of our favorite very difficult trail loops accessible in the winter from one of these parking areas. The following loops are best for those who enjoy challenging, steep, and rocky climbs and descents.