In the middle of Pennsylvania you will find Bald Eagle State Forest, which is a unique destination for explorers because it offers a tremendous diversity of experiences. For travelers looking to car camp, it has over 60 remote campsites available for free (reservations required) that you can set up as base camp or just for a night. There are also four State Parks to choose from with a variety of camping amenities and recreational options. Bald Eagle State Forest has some of the best fly fishing streams found along remote roads in Pennsylvania. If you're self-contained you can disappear into the forest for days and drive a few hundred miles primarily on dirt. The Purple Lizard Bald Eagle Map can unlock all of this for you!
This part of Central PA is an extremely dense forest with rolling hills
If you're new to overlanding, car camping, bike packing or backpacking this is an area you can test out your kit without being too far from civilization. In fact, if you forgot anything, you can drive to a grocery store, hardware store or microbrewery in less than 90 minutes. How bad can it get?
This blog is a day trip, but can be combined with two other trips for a multiple day adventure. Between the three trips you will explore the majority of the forest, but plenty of roads remain untraveled waiting for you to come back an explore on your own. This is an overland route which means a 4wd or high clearance vehicle is recommended. However, you can follow along and choose dirt and gravel forest roads and avoid the 4wd roads if you want to explore in a car.
Real maps are for making notes on - bring a Sharpie permanent marker to write on the synthetic material that Lizard Maps are made of.
Photo credit: Chris Cordes and Expedition Portal
Unlike pre-programmed GPS routes, pay-to-follow tours and itemized directions, Purple Lizard believes in making your own adventure, so you will always have options. This blog depends on you having the Purple Lizard Bald Eagle Map, and you can take a Sharpie permanent marker and write arrows or make other notes on the map as you read along. That is what real maps are for—don't be afraid to mark them up! It will become a treasured document with your personalized notations of special places to return to.
If you want to do more than just drive, there are hundreds of miles of mountain bike and hiking trails, as well as a few lakes and river stretches ideal for paddling a kayak or canoe. Several Natural Areas and Wild Areas exist where you can explore on foot following old logging routes that have become rough footpaths. Mountain and valley vistas abound, some you can drive to and others you'll have to work a bit harder to reach.
We have a few favorite spots to share, and a few tips that will make your visit even more enjoyable. Purple Lizard made their first map of this area in 2013 and updated it with a second edition in 2018. That's the map we'll be referencing for this article.
Bald Eagle State Forest is a big place: almost 200,000 acres sprawling across five counties. Interstate 80 cuts across the northern edge, State Routes 192 and 45 cut across the middle, and US Route 322 defines the western edge about 10 miles from the town of State College, PA which is dominated by the Penn State main campus. Several delightful small towns can be found around the forest; our favorites are Millheim and Lewisburg, but more on that later.
You cannot depend on your cell phone out here. The highway corridors and small towns will have limited coverage depending on your carrier, but once you enter the woods you may find a weak signal on the occasional ridgetop. This is one of several reasons why you have a Purple Lizard Map! Turn that thing off and put it away. Get out a real camera because you will have real photo opportunities. And enjoy being unplugged for a few hours. Or a few days.
It's not always about the drive - it's about what you find on the drive.
You can enter and exit the forest at hundreds of access points, but we're going to suggest a South to North route beginning at the Milroy exit on Route 322, just a few miles north of Lewistown, PA, and about an hour north of Harrisburg, PA. Milroy is your last stop for gas, so fill up here. Head east to Reeds Gap State Park where you can camp for the night if that fits your schedule. Continue on New Lancaster Valley Road and go straight onto the dirt at Locust Valley Road. This is a crazy intersection so be careful: Locust Valley Road is in the middle of a steep, almost 180-degree switchback so make sure you aren't cutting off someone heading downhill as you dive into the forest. In about a mile and a half pull over at the overlook on your left—and welcome to Bald Eagle State Forest!
New Lancaster Valley goes on for miles and miles.
At the un-named overlook across New Lancaster Valley you see nothing but ridges and valleys covered in a thick blanket of trees as far as the eye can see. If there are mountain lions and sasquatches living in Appalachia they are out here, along with that sinkhole that leads to the Center of the Earth. When we find it, we'll put a lizard on it!
Continue downhill to the 4-way intersection where you have some options. Unlike pre-programmed GPS routes, pay-to-follow tours and itemized directions, Purple Lizard believes in making your own adventure, so we'll always have options. Here you have two choices: take a break from driving and head east (right) to the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area and stretch your legs along a stream or have a picnic.
Take a break at the Natural Areas along the way—they are all very special places.
It's a beautiful spot to spend a few minutes or a few hours, afterwards you can backtrack to Knob Ridge Road. If you want to keep moving, head west (left) and drive Knob Ridge Road. This is classified by DCNR as a Drivable Trail, and Purple Lizard calls this a High Clearance 4wd Road. Although it may not look different at the entrance, things can change a mile or so in.
A Drivable Trail, which Purple Lizard calls a High Clearance 4wd Road, means it receives little to no maintenance and you will encounter wash outs and gullies. If you are in a stock SUV or pick-up without any low hanging fruit you should be fine. If you are in a Subaru Outback or Volvo Cross Country you will need to pay attention, you may need to stack rocks and a spotter would be helpful. (If you don't understand that sentence you will by the end of the road). Do you need four wheel drive? Probably not, but you do need some ground clearance. A family sedan will leave some parts behind, but a 1972 VW Bug would probably bounce along quite happily, and a vintage Citroen 2CV would be an absolute hoot. Leave the sports car at home. You also need to be OK with adding pinstripes from branches because you will be driving between areas of overgrown bushes, and you may find yourself in a tight spot if a tree or two fell along the trail recently. A chainsaw is a good thing to carry if you want to explore Drivable Trails, they are primarily kept open by individuals like yourself who need to open the trail to get by. We do get the occasional comment from people disappointed that their triple-locked rig rolling on 38s wasn't challenged by the trail. It won't ever be challenged by any trail in Bald Eagle. That isn't why we symbolize the roads as high clearance: we do it so Mom and Dad with a car full of Scouts don't find themselves high-centered on a ledge in the middle of nowhere trying to find a trailhead. Any two-wheel drive vehicle with some extra ground clearance should be able to handle the road, but we can't promise you won't leave a few marks.
Expect some Pennsylvania pinstripes by the end of a Drivable Trail
All that foreshadowing may, or may not, add anything to your experience on the Drivable Trails in Bald Eagle State Forest. Some are relatively smooth and open while others are rough and overgrown. This changes every season so it's not worth suggesting exactly what you'll find—and that would kinda ruin the whole point of a good roadtrip anyway. However, Knob Ridge Road is one our favorites any time of year.
If you don't want to bounce along on the Drivable Trail that is this section of Knob Ridge Road, you can take a bypass route that is a little longer but always a beautiful drive. Head to the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, and continue to Rock Springs Natural Area and turn left on Short Mountain Road. Drive up the mountain and turn left on Hunter Road, which will lead you to Bear Gap Picnic Area.
As you explore Bald Eagle take note of the campsites along the road. These are marked with a brown fiberglass stake with a number on it, and a clear sleeve to display your permit. Permits are required, and they are free - you need to phone DCNR to make reservation in advance at the District Office: 570-922-3344. DCNR calls them Motorized Campsites, which means you can motor into them. They are sparsely furnished with a picnic table (possibly) and a fire ring. During your travels make notes about the various sites and mark the number so you can return and base out of one for a few days. Some are more tent or trailer friendly than others, some are shady and some are open, some are tucked a few hundred yards in the woods and some are right next to the road. I'm sure you'll see a few that are perfect for your needs!
The crew from Main Line Overland explore Bald Eagle to test out their amazing overland build designs.
Remote campsites exist throughout Bald Eagle State Forest
At the next 4-way intersection Knob Ridge continues straight for many miles. This is a pretty drive to a few trailheads, but it dead ends. We suggest you head north (right) and wind your way to Bear Gap Picnic Area. Even if you aren't ready for a picnic this is a pretty nice place to stop and explore the stream. We're not sure how long this moss covered picnic will last, but we think it's the coolest table in Bald Eagle.
From here you have some options. If you're out of time and want to head back to Route 322 at Milroy, take Treaster Valley Road west and you'll be back in civilization in 25 minutes. If the day is young and you want to stay in the woods, head up Strongs Mountain Road which follows an old bench cut route along the southern edge of Strong Mountain. As you drop down the northern side you have another decision to make: bear right on Longwell Draft or left on Strongs Mountain Road. This is an important decision because you are choosing the eastern vs. western route at this junction. Study the Lizard map and you'll see there are no bridges across Penns Creek, and the Penns Creek Wild Area has no through roads.
Penns Creek by the Poe Paddy Tunnel
So you need to ask yourself do you want to go to Millheim or Weikert? There is no right or wrong answer, but for now this road trip is headed to Millheim via Poe Paddy State Park and Penns View.
You can explore Weikert with this blog: Exploring Bald Eagle State Forest: Millheim to Weikert, PA
Continue on Strongs Mountain Road along the steep ledge to Havice Valley Road. You can also explore Flat Hollow Road - the section of Strong Improvement Road through the gap is beautiful. Look at the Lizard Map - you could just drive in circles all afternoon exploring all these roads! Either way you'll end up on Havice Valley Road, and head east (right) to Poe Paddy State Park.
Bypass option: If you want to avoid those long sections of rougher roads, take Treaster Valley Road to Strong Improvement Road. As the name suggests, this is the 'improved' road over Strong Mountain, and it's a much smoother dirt road.
Poe Paddy and Poe Valley State Parks are both jewels in the forest. Poe Paddy is more primitive, with simple camping spots near Penns Creek, ideal for the fisherpeople. It's also at the gateway to the popular Poe Paddy Tunnel, a former railroad tunnel blasted through the mountainside that is now a bike path as well as part of the Mid State Trail. If you want to take a long walk, you can follow this 323-mile trail north to the New York state line, or south to the Maryland state line.
If you have time to stretch your legs you should drive through Poe Paddy State Park to the parking area and walk across the bridge and through the tunnel. It's a really neat area to see. The space above the tunnel has been restored to provide bat habitat, and at dusk you can see the bats leaving. But don't worry, the new metal roofing insures you won't have bats hanging directly over your head, although us old timers miss the days of the original tunnel when it was an open cave, with loose rocks that occasionally fell around you, and a rough, rocky floor filled with standing water, mosquitos and bat guano... well, maybe not so much.
The Poe Paddy Tunnel has a slight bend in it, just enough to give you that dark spot in the middle as you walk through it. The other side reveals a rail trail style path which goes on for several miles to Cherry Run Road. You can only walk or bicycle on this stretch which parallels a remote stretch of Pine Creek.
Poe Valley State Park is a couple of miles to the west, and is worth checking out for future adventures. It's a great place to set up camp for a week and base your daily explorations out of. This park is much larger and has more amenities than Poe Paddy; it has showers, you can rent cabins, swim or paddle in the lake, and in summer it has a food concession.
The next challenge is finding Poe Valley Drive, which is close to the entrance of the campground, and heads west along Little Poe Creek. This road gets a bit rough and rocky as it climbs up to find four lizards on the map; all great views from the top of Poe Mountain. Three of these have names: Ravens Knob, Ingleby View and Penn's View. They offer some of the most photogenic landscape vistas in Bald Eagle, and the last one, Penn's View, overlooks the horseshoe curve of Penn's Creek and the former railroad bridge. You can float this bend in a tube or boat, in fact you can paddle all the way back to Poe Paddy State Park if you want. Take a long look at the little houses in the distant valley, because that is where you are heading next.
Penn's View overlooking Penn's Creek and Penn's Valley
Continue on Poe Paddy Drive, head west (right) at Pine Swamp Road, and north (right) on the Siglerville-Millheim Pike. Take a minute to look closely at the Lizard Map: the S-M Pike is the historic route over the mountains that connects Millheim to Milroy—and it still serves that purpose today. You could return to where we started in about 20 minutes on the S-M Pike. But we're off to explore Coburn and Millheim. Follow the S-M Pike downhill (you'll be treated to one more vista at Bell's Majestic View) to Penns Creek, turn right and head to the village of Coburn, and take a left to follow Coburn Road to Route 45 and the heart of downtown Millheim.
Elk Creek offers food, their own craft beers and live music. Photo credit: Chris Cordes and Expedition Portal; Elk Creek Cafe
Millheim has exactly three dining choices: Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks, Inglebean Coffee Shop, and Original Italian Pizza. We like establishments with self explanatory names, so you're on your own to choose which flavor you want. Inglebean has more than just coffee, you can get breakfast fare, sandwiches, smoothies as well as the best coffee in the valley. You may find live music at both the Inglebean and Elk Creek depending on the day. Elk Creek specializes in local farm2table dinners and features an amazing selection of their own craft beers. If you want to upscale your overlanding experience you may be able to get a room at the Triple Creek Lodge above the Inglebean Coffee Shop and call it a day! If you want a really amazing lodging experience check out Brush Mountain Lodge, just a few minutes west at the very top of Brush Mountain—it's a truly beautiful place to stay.
So now you have explored a big section of the southern tier of Bald Eagle State Forest. You didn't get to see it all—there are many more places to come back and explore, but you got a sense of why this area is so magnificent. Millheim is the central hub of Penns Valley, and we have two other overlanding adventures for you to explore next:
Join fellow travelers at the Mid-Atlantic Overland Festival held every August in Central PA about an hour west of Millheim.
Michael Hermann has been exploring Bald Eagle State Forest for over 30 years, long before he drew the first Purple Lizard map.