July 08, 2024 10 min read

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 (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 dirt 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!

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 the other two 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. 

Remember that time a turkey hopped out of the forest and flew along right in front of us? You just never know what you'll see.

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. 

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

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 fourth edition in 2023. 

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. 

You can enter and exit the forest at hundreds of access points, but we're going to suggest starting in Millheim, PA on Route 45, halfway between State College and Lewistown, PA. Millheim is your last stop for gas, so fill up here. Millheim is the epicenter of Bald Eagle State Forest. A classic former mill town turned bedroom community-music-culture-food hot spot, Millheim is a delightful place to visit any time of the year.

Elk Creek offers food, their own craft beers and live music. Photo credit: Chris Cordes and Expedition Portal; Elk Creek Cafe

Head east on Route 45 to Woodward, PA. You'll see the famous gymnastic and extreme sports action camp on your right which is home to acres of halfpipes, quarter pipes, ramps, jumps and foam pits where the best skateboarders and ramp riders come to practice their craft.

Continue through the tiny hamlet of Woodward and head up through the gap. Look for the sign to Hairy Johns Picnic Area on your left. Continue on Winkelbleck Road and pull over at the Winkelbleck Vista on your left. This is your first major overlook and it's a good one! There is even a beer named after it at Elk Creek Cafe and Aleworks: Winkelblink: This light colored ale gains its subtle, bread-like flavor from a balance of gently kilned malted barley and choice malted wheat. A restrained addition of hops, contributes a pleasingly delicate floral aroma.

Photo credit: Elk Creek Cafe

Continue uphill on Winkelbleck Road to Stony Run Road; head east (right) and take the first left on Sharpback Hollow Trail. This what DCNR classifies as a Drivable Trail, and Purple Lizard calls a High Clearance 4wd Road.  

Drivable Trails and High Clearance Roads

This 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 it won't leave a few marks.

Please pack out the trash your Jeep may leave behind.

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, Sharpback Hollow Trailcan be in very rough condition so you may not want to choose it. 

The unexpected $300 surcharge from a weekend of exploring. 

Pay attention to your line and tire placement. This road has cut many tires, and even Purple Lizard lost a rather new 34x10.5 BFG AT from a sidewall slice that didn't deflate the tire but cut thru to the cords. It's also a miserable road to have to do a tire change on, so explore with caution. Sharpback Hollow Trail holds a lot of water so if you're exploring in a rainy period beware there will be long stretches of standing water. The road bed is primarily rock so you shouldn't find much muddy areas, but the water makes it impossible to see the narrow tracks and larger rocks that are common. 

You'll cross the Mid State Trail on Sharpback Hollow Trail, and you are very close to the halfway point of this 323-mile hiking trail that traverses Pennsylvania from New York to Maryland. 

Karma the adventure dog is always in 4wd. 

It's easy to bypass Sharpback Hollow Trail and stay on Stony Run Road to Buffalo Flat Road, they both meet at the same place on top of Buffalo Mountain in about the same distance. You'll get to enjoy Hobo Vista as you climb Buffalo Flat Road and won't have to worry about destroying a tire. 

Motorized Campsites

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 thru the on-line reservation system at PA.gov. 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!

Once on top of Buffalo Mountain you can head east on Old Shingle Road along the edge of The Hook Natural Area. Several hiking trailheads are along this road and some lead to lizard spots. We particularly like the Molasses Gap area, it's very remote and beautiful along that section of trail. Take look at your Lizard map and you'll see the route makes a big counter-clockwise loop around The Hook Natural Area as we head to RB Winter State Park. 

Descend Buffalo Mountain to the end of Old Shingle Road where you bear left and left again onto Brandon Road and climb back up the eastern edge of the mountain. This is now a different mountain, called Shriner Mountain, and when Brandon Road meets Jones Mountain Road you head west (left) and continue climbing to the summit. There is a good view at the power line (lizard spot). Stay on Jones Mountain Road to the intersection of Pine Creek Road, where you turn right and descend to Route 192.

Bryon Dorr of Exploring Elements doesn't want to give up Main Line Overland's sweet Land Rover 110 on a summer romp through Bald Eagle. 

If you've run out of time or had enough dirt roads for the day Route 192 is your escape route to Millheim (west) or Lewisburg (east). 

Turn left on Route 192 and head towards RB Winter State Park, but do not take the first signed road options on your right; instead stay on Route 192 until you see the parking area and the view of Halfway Lake on the right. Pull over and enjoy the view of RB Winter State Park, you'll see a beach, the changing rooms/bathroom building, and the spillway. Hidden in the forest is a wonderful campground for tents and trailers adjacent to hiking and biking trails. RB Winter is a place you can base out of for an easy week of exploring Central PA. 

Continue of Route 192 and take the next right on McCall Dam Road. If you want to stretch your legs and explore the State Park follow the signs to the lake; but our route will stay on McCall Dam Road and climb up to the overlook on your right. Pull over and get an overhead perspective of the lake you were just looking at from ground level! 

Continue on McCall Dam Road to McCall Dam State Park, which may be the smallest State Park in Pennsylvania. A few picnic tables along White Deer Creek is all you'll find for infrastructure, but White Deer Creek is one of the best fly fishing streams in the State. You can follow the fisherperson paths along its banks as far as they go. 

Turn right on White Deer Creek Road and take the first left on Garden Hollow Road. At the switchback look for the entrance to Duncan Trail on the right. This is a short section of Drivable Trail that traverses Nittany Mountain, and at this point you are very close to Interstate 80. At the end of Duncan Trail, turn right on Cooper Mill Road and return to White Deer Creek Road. (If you don't want to take Duncan Trail you can easily bypass it by staying on White Deer Creek Road.)

Head east (left) on White Deer Creek Road and follow it to White Deer Pike, turn left and you'll find the loneliest exit on I-80, Mile Run. This is one of the few interstate exits that has absolutely no services: it is a short strip of pavement that connects hundreds of miles of dirt roads. Which is why it is one of our favorite exits: it truly is an exit from the fast paced world we have built and returns us, almost instantly, to the deep forests we came from. 

Photo credit: Helena Kotala and the Nth Degree

Unfortunately for us today, Exit 199 has the opposite effect. If you head east (right) on I-80 you can drive straight to New York City and the Atlantic Ocean, or west (left) and you can drive to the Pacific Ocean. Or a million points in between. 

Or simply continue straight under I-80 and disappear into the wilds of Tiadaghton State Forest. Pull out your copy of the Purple Lizard Pine Creek Map and you can explore further north on dirt roads for days. Or hop on Interstate 80 and pick any place in America for your next stop.

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:

Exploring the Hidden Center of Bald Eagle State Forest: Millheim to Weikert, PA

Exploring the Southern Frontier of Bald Eagle State Forest: Milroy to Millheim, PA

We took our friends at Main Line Overlandand Expedition Portal on a drive through Bald Eagle, check out the articles On The Lizard's Tail  andPurple Lizard's East Coast Adventure Maps.

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 since the 1980s, long before he drew the first Purple Lizard map.