The Ironstone Loop in Rothrock State Forest is a vintage route that was made popular by Tom Thwaites and other creators of the Mid State Trail. The loop is comprised of several non motorized trails in Rothrock State Forest and Penn State University Experimental Forest, with just a bit of road walking mixed in from time to time. Since this trail is a side trail and alternative to the Mid State Trail (MST), Mid State Trail Association volunteers maintain and blaze these yellow-blazed side trails.
This loop is roughly 15 miles long and includes classic PA rocky ridge top walking with great views, a historic set of rock stairs that descend off a ridge and climb to the next ridge, a lake, swamps, streams, a newly renovated Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, an old iron furnace, and more! Primitive camping is allowed on state forest lands along this route, too! All of the trails in this area are included on the Rothrock Lizard Map, so grab yours and follow along on a somewhat forgotten loop hike in Rothrock State Forest.
There are several places to begin this hike, but we prefer the large parking area at Jo Hays vista, just south of State College on Route 26. Be sure to check out the vista before you begin the hike! The Mid State Trail, with its orange blazes, is pretty easy to spot here, so find it and begin walking west along the ridge. Technically, this is southbound on the MST, even though it feels more like a westerly walk along the ridge.
There are multiple views along this ridge as the trail meanders through rocky fields for a few miles. Be sure to enjoy the north and south vistas at the powerline, and continue on to find a few more southbound vistas, such as the one pictured above, along the ridge.
This ridge is also home to a few snake species, including rattlesnakes, so watch your step (and where you sit if you take a break).
The first turn for this loop is crucial, and difficult to miss. Mid State Trail, blazed orange, intersects with Indian Steps Trail, which is blazed yellow. Exciting yellow markers with a blue iron furnace logo are also present here, as is with most of this loop. If you're still not sure about the turn, read the sign with an arrow that reads, 'Indian Steps'. Or reference the bigger-than-human sized rock cairn. Seriously, it's hard to miss this turn. Anyway, turn south (left) and immediately begin an extremely steep downhill descent.
Images don't capture the precipitous terrain here. And words can't describe how precarious these rocks are when wet. Truly take your time here as you descend toward Harry's Valley Road.
There are a few breaks along this descent, so take time to rest at the flat sections. The rock steps here, although known as 'Indian Steps' in truth have an unknown history. The first written record of trails in this area comes from a map produced in 1770. This map, made by William Scull, indicates a Native American path leading from Huntingdon, past the site of Monroe Furnace (which we'll see later on the hike today), through State College, the whole way to Bellefonte and Milesburg (Wallace, Paul A.W., Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1998). To add even more intrigue to this story, we have to consider the fact that local Native American tribes were not known to build stone structures...especially stone staircases up and over the ridges in this area. So who built them? They may be a remnant built by a workforce that 'commuted' to the iron furnaces before the modern road network. Route 45 was a stagecoach route before the automobile, and a Native American footpath before that. The mystery may never be solved, but to make a long story short, these steps were built by an unidentified people a long time ago. Enjoy this is old, possibly prehistoric path still used by hikers right here in Rothrock State Forest!
The trail descends to Harry's Valley Road, crosses the road, changes its name to "Crownover Trail", and descends a bit more to a low spot at a small stream crossing. Rock hop past the stream, then begin a gorgeous, albeit, difficult climb up another set of rock stairs.
After a steep ascent to Leading Ridge, the trail turns right (west) and follows a wide pathway along the flat ridge. This spot is very enjoyable, and includes a few dry campsites and a couple excellent views south towards Shaver's Creek.
Crownover Trail crosses into Penn State University property for a bit about halfway across Leading Ridge. From here until Monroe Furnace, our trip today wanders in and out of this property, which is known as Stone Valley Recreation Area and/or Penn State University Experimental Forest.
Crownover Trail turns into an old double track road as it exits PSU property and re-enters Rothrock State Forest lands. Ironstone Loop continues on this double track road for over a mile as it turns south and descends to Watershed Road. Along the way Crownover Trail turns right and descends north back to Harry's Valley Road. This is a great exit plan for hikers looking for shorter loop options.
Adventurous dogs will love this loop, too! Well most of it anyway. Dogs are not permitted on certain areas around Shaver's Creek or anywhere on Stone Valley Recreation Area lands. Check your map and plan a detour or alternate route accordingly. When you are on trails open to your pet, be sure that your dog is under leash and/or verbal control so as to not bother other forest users (and resident animals), and be sure your pets are sporting blaze orange vests when you go out during hunting seasons. Note: as of 2018, hunting is not allowed on Sundays.
Reach Watershed Road and follow the great signs and blazes heading east along the road.
Two points of interest can be found on this short road walk section: a water level gauge station exists not too far from the sign above, which highlights this watershed as a research area.
Ironstone Loop re-enters the woods as a shared-use trail, although horses are not allowed. This section can be wet and muddy, but otherwise is generally not too strenuous.
Now we are officially on Penn State University property, which is known here as Stone Valley Recreation Area. There are lots of trails in this area, but luckily all of them are signed and well-blazed. Still, you'll be thankful to have your Rothrock Lizard Map with you to use as a reference at trail intersections!
Multiple trails lead adventurers around Lake Perez. We stayed on the official Ironstone Loop route, which leads around the northern end of the lake. Those looking for more access to the lake shore may wish to take an alternative route around the southern side of the lake.
The above photo shows Lake Perez from the dam on the west side of the lake.
Even though these trails are well maintained and heavily used, do keep an eye out for wildlife on trail! We spotted this black snake slithering along the trail and enjoying the sunshine on a nice October day.
Although the Ironstone Loop doesn't officially pass bye Shaver's Creek Environmental Center (SCEC), a short side trail does lead directly to this spot. SCEC is an excellent spot to stop for water and a bathroom break. The newly renovated site also offers amazing resources for environmental education. Learn more about SCEC here: Stone Valley's Not-So-Hidden Gem
Back to the trail...After crossing paved Red Rose Road, the trail alternates between low wet spots, where a few footbridges are in place to cross a side tributary to Shaver Creek, to higher dry grounds with great single track and hardwood trees.
Ironstone Trail meanders alongside Shaver Creek for almost a mile as it nears route 26. This section of trail is absolutely gorgeous!
One particularly neat section along this route is shown above. Shaver Creek has cutout a path through rocks, which are topped by young hemlock and pine trees.
A few large and well established campsites exist on the opposite side of the creek as the trail. Although these sites look welcoming, we suggest contacting Penn State University for current camping regulations prior to camping on Penn State University property.
As shown above, there were several big blowdowns to deal with on this trail in recent years. Lucky for us, most of this loop was cleared in 2018 by a handful of volunteers with the Mid State Trail Association. More volunteers are always needed, (and trail work is actually a fun time) so feel free to contact MSTA to see how you can help!
If you do encounter large blowdowns, the first step to conquering this type of obstacle is to check for other dangers (like other trees and limbs ready to fall). Second step: decide whether to go over or under the obstacle. Going over an obstacle, if possible, usually seems less risky (no need to worry about the tree crushing you). Step three: back up and get a running start. Step four...or maybe step 3a...make a second attempt to get over the obstacle. It may take a few attempts to get over an obstacle! Who says hiking isn't a full body workout?
Ironstone Loop crosses Route 26 near a turn in the road. Be very careful as you cross the road here; cars are known to go upwards of 70 mph on this section of road. Ironstone Trail continues now on the east side of Route 26, now as a hiking-only trail. Walk along the path for a short way to reach the remaining structure that used to be Monroe Furnace. Monroe Furnace produced iron 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from approximately 1846-1863. This furnace and surrounding area which includes foundations from the furnace workers' homes, is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. Take a break here and admire the history and interpretive media at this site.
Continue past Monroe Furnace on Ironstone Trail until it intersects with Mid State Trail. There is a campsite near here, along the MST northbound. Instead, take a left here (which is technically southbound on MST) and climb a very steep trail for about a mile back to your car at the top of Jo Hays Vista! The climb includes several 'false summits' which can be tough to handle at the end of the day. But once on top of the ridge, the 15 or so mile loop is completed! To add more milage to this loop, simply continue straight (northbound) on Mid State Trail at the intersection with Ironstone Trail and follow it for a few miles as it climbs Tussey Mountain. At the top of this ridge, turn left on Jackson Trail, which also leads back to Jo Hays Vista! This longer loop is approximately 22 miles.
Our Trail Guru discusses his completion of the first annual unPAved Pennsylvania gravel riding event, and how it has inspired him to ride more. "The rewarding feelings from this event are immeasurable and inspiring in so many ways: My friends and I sat around the evening after the event discussing winter bike gear needed to be able to prep for more events in 2019...especially the full 120-mile unPAved route."
Otter Creek Wilderness Area hosts over 40 miles of hiking trails for those willing to tackle the challenge. Managed as a Wilderness Area, this is truly a wild place. No roads or other infrastructure may exist. Bikes, wheels, motors, and other machines are also prohibited. Trails are well established, but signs, blazes, and other interpretive media are almost completely absent. Enter if you dare!