As I settled back into my reality, I kept saying to myself, “That’s it?” “It’s over already?” 60 Miles in three and a half days, I just finished my first multi-day backpacking trip thru-hiking the Loyalsock Trail.
Nestled in the Endless Mountains, the Loyalsock Trail (known as the "LT") is a 56.4 mile through hike in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Known as one of the most beautiful long distance hiking trails in the Mid-Atlantic region, the LT is between 3-4 hours of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NYC, Baltimore and Washington DC.
The LT’s unforgiving ups and downs made me question my capabilities and strength - from the weather changes to the blisters, through laughs and memories, reaching almost 11,000 in elevation gain, this was the hardest trail I have ever hiked.
I have been camping and hiking as long as I can remember. I grew up in California and moved to Pennsylvania in my 20’s. When I got to PA and discovered the extraordinary beauty of Pennsylvania landscapes and the vast expanse of the public forests here – I was hooked – I hit the trails, often alone, and haven’t stopped since. Now, I am a single mom with an 8-year-old son, and a full-time career as a neurophysiology technologist. I spend my days taking pictures of brains and as much of my time off as possible hiking, camping and enjoying the woods.
The Loyalsock is a forest I love and know well and the through hike is a challenge I have wanted to take on for a long time. While I had hiked sections of it before, (the longest day hike I had done prior to this was 15 miles) I decided to hike the whole length of the LT in January. I arranged things with work and home so I could take 5 days off in May (after the snow melt and before the summer heat). I initially thought I was taking on this adventure alone – and was delighted when my friend Liz decided to join me for the adventure.
Liz and I met at 8:00 a.m. at the eastern terminus parking lot located in Laporte, PA. We shuttled over to the western entrance where we started our climb to Smiths Knob. We didn’t include the first five miles today, as we both had hiked them a few days prior. Referencing our Alpine Club book and Purple Lizard Loyalsock Map, we made plans about where to stop for lunch and camp that night, and made note of certain things we’d expect see throughout the day.
The day started off well. We breezed through seven miles in the morning, stopped for lunch then at mile 14 loaded up on water. There was a long stretch of road walking and no water sources ahead of us. As the day went on, the temperature rose (late May in PA can be hot, cold or wet, or all of the above on the same day!).
By later that day, it had to have been pushing 90 and humid, I was feeling nauseous and exhausted around 15 miles on the Genesee Trail. This was the first of the many moments to come when I questioned if I was cut out for this thru-hike. I wanted to stop but I was short on water, so we continued to mile 22 where we set up camp at the bottom of Angel Falls.
Completing 18 miles on day one, we shared the campsite with two self-identified “Jersey Boys,” who we’d occasionally see on and off throughout the trek. After getting cleaned up in the creek, setting up camp and eating dinner, I attempted to read a chapter in my book, Liz looked over the Lizard Map to get an idea what we would be facing the next day - and we were both asleep by 8PM.
Leaving mile 22. So many beautiful things today. My feet were aching, and I could feel a blister forming. I slept so well the previous night though, that I had some extra energy. Today would include an eight mile walk through Kettle Creek Natural Area, a windy lunch at High Knob Vista, Rode Falls, and the sketchy backwards climb down the ladder into Ketchum Run.
Another one of my hiking friends was going to join us this week but due to the loss of a family member, he stayed home. His favorite place to camp was Alpine Vista, so Liz and I filled up on water at Ketchum Run and headed up to camp. The climb up to Alpine seemed never-ending, I even said out loud, “I just want to be done!” This was the second time I questioned myself and my capabilities. Maybe I really wasn’t cut out for this. But then I took in the view when you reach the top: a sea of never-ending green and cloudy skies. An emotional moment I won’t forget.
This was why I was out there. Testing myself, mentally and physically and to get a fresh perspective. I realized in that moment that it doesn’t matter how many times I say I can’t do it, I can. I decided in that moment to put all my trust into mother nature. I reminded myself that she has always taken care of me.
Completing 16 miles, we set up camp away from the ridge due to winds, ate dinner without much conversation and we were both in bed again, before 8:00 p.m., neither one of us touching our books.
This was going to be a great day! Neither one of us slept well because of the wind and a damn crow woke us both up at 5:00 a.m.. On the trail by 7:30 a.m., we headed into Worlds End State Park. Territory we were both familiar with. With an easier day of 14 miles, we planned a very long lunch break at the park. In true "hiker trash" form, we spread our belongings out all over a picnic table, aired our dirty feet out, had a hot lunch and a much-needed mid-day rest. My feet were throbbing. I tried bandaging them and covering them up with anything I could find. At mile 46, we left the state park through High Rock Vista. One nasty boulder climb.
The plan that afternoon was to camp at Alpine Falls. We had about five miles to get there. I was so excited to be done hiking before 5:00 p.m. today! A friend of ours was hiking in to meet us for the night as well. And he was bringing wine! I had gotten a message mid-afternoon that he had checked out the site and it was full of mosquitos and to go across the stream and he’d be to the right. Well, he wasn’t there, so we kept walking. We heard what sounded like someone snapping wood. After walking another quarter of a mile, going way too far from where he should’ve been, we turned around. We smelled smoke from a fire, so we knew he was close. I started calling his name and there he was! So nice to see a familiar face.
Ending a 14-mile day, we set up camp and were surprised with a steak and potato dinner. And lots of wine. I was very tired and uncomfortable at this point, but the evening was filled with great food, a fire, laughter and did I mention, wine? We pushed bedtime tonight to 8:30 p.m., not flipping a single page in our books.
I’m in so much pain. I don’t have a choice. I have to finish. I’m so close. Nine Miles. I walked extremely slow. I felt very guilty, like I was holding the other two back, but they were so patient with me and my broken-down feet.
I held my breath with each up and down, stopping every so often to let out some tears. The creek was rushing and beautiful this morning. The sun was bright, the sky was clear, and the temperature was perfect. Approaching the finish, I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. Before the last climb, I took one more glance at the water and smelled the pine that surrounded me. I will always belong out here. The forest took care of me this week, I will forever be thankful.
What would the Loyalsock Trail be without one more climb? It's lovely parting gift almost like it was telling us “thanks for hiking me!” The three of us finished together. We did it. I did it.
In my last few steps on the trail, I told myself to let it go. Soften up, trust yourself some more. I am capable of so much. My eyes were filled with tears of pain, happiness, and exhaustion, I knew was what waiting for me in that parking lot. Another adventure.
When I think back on what I might have done differently for this trip, all I can think of is I might have taken just a bit longer to linger at some of the truly special places along the way. Since the Loyalsock is a forest I know so well, we spent a little less time appreciating the stunning landscape than someone new to the forest might. We had initially planned on taking 4 nights to hike the trail. I took off 5 days from work thinking I would want a day to recover (which I would recommend!), but we easily could have spent a bit more time at many of the vistas or just wandering along the trail. We ended up finishing in 3.5 days (we were done by 4:00 p.m. on the last day). Also, I would’ve brought a bit more tape for my blisters. But overall, I wouldn’t’ change a thing. The day after got home I was ready to start planning to get out in the woods again for another multi-day adventure. Now that I know I can do the LT, I know I can do more.
For anyone thinking of taking this hike, especially women – I say do what you need to do to prepare, and then go for it - you are stronger than you think.
By Katie Anspach, hiker, single mom, adventurer
copyright Purple Lizard Maps 2021