July 08, 2024 6 min read

Every map we make presents new challenges and the Ohiopyle-Laurel Highlands Lizard Map was no exception. For starters, at an overall scale of 1:87,000, and a size of 3 feet by 2 feet, this map covers a lot of territory. And the detailed side of Ohiopyle State Park, at a scale of 1:27,000, demands a lot of attention to detail. There are public lands of every category managed by local, township, county, state and federal agencies, along with non-profit and for-profit organizations owning vast tracts of land with very different intended purposes. Several historical sites that are memorials of the horrors of human nature are on this map. A maze of predominantly shared-use trails surround two well known, long distance linear trails; the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail and the Great Allegheny Passage, known as the LHHT and GAP, which come together at the tiny hamlet of Ohiopyle, population 59. Yet on a sunny Saturday afternoon there are thousands of tourists and adventurers swarming the river and its banks, riding along the rail trail and overwhelming the downtown shops of a village better suited to a population number of closer to a few hundred. Some of these visitors traveled an hour or two, or a day or two, while others have made long journeys from other countries to see this amazing slice of Pennsylvania geography. 

The tiny village of Ohiopyle from the Lizard spot at Tharp Mountain. 

We started doing field work in December of 2018 and quickly realized that the town of Ohioipyle is a very seasonal town. We wondered if the census population number of 59 may be too high because there were days we only saw a few people, and honestly there were days we saw none. Campgrounds, motels and eateries are largely closed or on very limited hours in winter, but the Falls City Pub is a year round gathering place for locals and visitors, and we could always find good eats there. In the field, our backpacking coffee kit and peanut butter and jelly sandwich kit became our staple food groups, and a variety of hotels in the surrounding locales of Uniontown, Connellsville and Somerset became our winter basecamps. Winter limits our recon abilities in several critical ways. We can’t identify where dirt and pavement surfaces exist, and in many areas without winter maintenance we simply can’t safely travel the remote township and forestry roads.

 Dirt Road? Paved Road? It's 5 degrees and somebody has to get out and decide. 

Winter conditions do let us explore and understand the XC ski trail networks, the private ski resorts, and if there isn’t snow or ice pack we do get to find major trailheads and parking areas, but have to wait for better conditions to ride, run or bike the trails. We can do a lot of indoor research studying other maps and guidebooks, compiling lists of discrepancies we note comparing other sources, and starting the conversations with land managers and locals. Once the conditions break, we return to the field to zero in on specific areas to see what’s really out there.

We do love snow but it sure makes our field work difficult. 

There are a lot of interesting spots on this map that are not on public land, such as 5 covered bridges. These are all worthy lizard spots, and make exploring the farmland surrounding Forbes State Forest an interesting drive. 

We got to see the old covered bridges weather the seasons as they have done for over 100 years.

Forbes State Forest has a lot going on. Unlike most of the other Pennsylvania State Forest we have mapped, Forbes is a relatively thin strip of public forest along the high ridges of the Laurel Highlands peppered with private parcel inholdings, some small private housing developments and two large, private ski resorts. Within and adjacent to Forbes S.F. are many large tracts of Pennsylvania State Park lands, as well as pockets of Pennsylvania State Game Lands. These four different types of designation come with four different types of land management, rules and regulations. 

A backpacking trailhead on State Game Lands. You can start here, but you can't stay long.

On Forbes State Forest, you can, for the most part, go backpacking and find  remote site to camp in the forest. You can reserve one of 5 primitive car camping sites. Most of the trails are shared-use, meaning you can hike, bike or ride horses, unless otherwise posted. However, on State Park lands you cannot camp in remote locations, in fact you cannot camp at all unless you are in a State Park campground. No camping is allowed on State game lands, and of course no camping is allowed on the private ski resorts. This often confuses people because the Laurel highlands Hiking Trail wanders through all four land management jurisdictions, and it can be difficult to know what agencies land you are walking in at any given time. We know the Lizard map will help to clarify this, but when we were in the field there were times we were unsure what agencies land we were on!  This is why the only place you can camp on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is the LHHT Shelter Areas, and why you need reservations to do so. 

Most of the bridges on the LHHT are slabs of wood over streams, but this is a very serious piece of engineered trail as the LHHT crosses the Pennsylvania Turnpike. 

The GAP trail is most well known, but we mapped 4 other rail trails on this project. The Coal and Coke Trail, the Indian Creek Valley Bike Hike Trail, the Sheepskin Trail and the Rotary Trail, and all are outstanding trails to explore.

Sheepskin Trail in Uniontown includes its own version of a covered bridge.

As spring arrived and the snow slowly melted, our access to the backroads and trails opened up. We were able to field check trailheads and camping locations, and get on the various rail trails to gather information and mark points of interest. One thing we soon realized is this area has a lot of 'changing' road surfaces. Which means a section of road may go from pavement, to gravel, to pothole-filled bad pavement, to dirt, back to pavement, then gravel, all over the course of a mile or two. We try to be as detailed as possible, but this was crazy!  We decided if a road had a dirt or gravel section anywhere along it we would consider it dirt, at least until the uninterrupted paved section began anew. 

"Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.." Bob Dylan

On most of our projects, there comes a time towards the end where we try to spend a week to 10 days working 'on the map', literally, so we can maximize our daylight in the field and nighttime hours editing the map. We were fortunate to stay at Fernwalk Cottage for this part of the process, which is lovely 2 bedroom house in Addison, and a short distance from all the amazing places on the map. We can't say enough good things about this house, and if you are looking for a nice place to stay while you explore the Ohiopyle-Laurel Highland area, Fernwalk Cottage is one the best choices you can make. 

Addison PA toll house national road pike ohiopyle

The original tollhouse on the National Road in Addison, just a couple of blocks from where we stayed at Fernwalk Cottage. 

As we near completion of our fieldwork, we set up final review meetings with land managers, conservation agencies and locals to answer the last set of questions and make final content decisions. Wilderness Voyageurs was most helpful, their staff has a depth of knowledge about the area that is unequaled. 

meadow run trail ohiopyle natural slides laurel highlands

What - which way to who and where? Helpful or not helpful? The staff at Wilderness Voyageurs were very helpful! They helped us sort through a bunch of mystery questions we couldn't figure out in the field to make sure we got it right on the map. 

About 7 months after we started, the Ohiopyle-Laurel Highlands Lizard Map was published. We really like this map, it opens up a lot of territory and will help people see the area in a way they haven't been able to. This map illustrates the inter-connectedness of all these great places and the many backroads to explore to get between them. Put away your GPS, grab the Lizard Map and get out there to see what lies on the backroads of the Laurel Highlands!