January 10, 2020 7 min read

Rothrock State Forest provides a wonderful, year-round destination for outdoor recreation near State College, PA. Although the forest roads are not maintained in winter, a few parking lots along the perimeter of the forest provide ample access in almost any conditions. Below, we've chosen a few of our favorite very difficult trail loops accessible in the winter from one of these parking areas, Galbraith Gap Parking Lot near Tussey Mountain Ski Lodge. The following loops are best for those who enjoy challenging, steep, and rocky climbs and descents. Hikers and backpackers enjoy these loops described below. Experienced trail runners and those training for difficult trail challenges such as Hyner Challenge and Greenwood Furnace Trail Challenge will also love these tough loops. Not sure if you're ready to run these trails? Check out our other winter hiking and running options from this same parking area:

An Introduction To Spruce Gap Trail 

Tussey Mountain Loop: A Winter Fitness Loop 

Spruce Gap Trail, Rothrock State Forest PA 

First Leg: Climb Spruce Gap Trail

We'll start from your vehicle at Galbraith Parking Lot. Cross over a foot bridge to reach Bear Meadows Road, then cross the road and find the signed Galbraith Gap Trail. Jog about 200 yards on this trail, then stay to the right on a double track dirt road rather than turning left back onto Bear Meadows Road. This trail turns into a nice grade just above the stream. After about a quarter mile, cross Laurel Run Road and re-enter the woods on the trail to the left. This is the northern end of Lonberger Path. You are about to engage in a steep, but relatively short climb which includes a few switchbacks.

Reach two important trail intersections about 0.5 miles into this loop. The first is a T-intersection where Lonberger Path goes off to the left and Spruce Gap Trail continues towards the right. We'll stay to the right at this intersection. Immediately reach a Y-intersection where Three Bridges Trail veers off to the right. Here stay straight, pick your head up, and gaze upon the uphill on the official Spruce Gap Trail! Spruce Gap Trail is a real doozy of a climb, and is difficult any time of year.

The trail goes under a nice section of coniferous trees about one mile into the day. Beware of ice and very slick trail conditions here in winter. The snowpack is usually lower here, so this may be a great spot for a break.

After another quarter mile or so, you will finally reach the top of the climb at an intersection with the Mid State Trail (MST). Revel in the glory, be proud of your accomplishment, then get moving again and follow the orange blazed MST to the right, towards Little Flat Fire Tower.

Little Flat Cabin and Tower Rothrock State Forest PA

Next: New Laurel Trail

Just a bit along the Mid State Trail, take notice of a wooden sign with an arrow leading left toward 'Cool Springs'. This trail was the old New Laurel Trail, but has been relocated. You could still go left here, but your body will face the lashing of hundreds of blueberry plants if you do. We suggest running across the ridge just a bit further to reach Little Flat Cabin and Fire Tower. Be sure to enjoy this spot for a second - even though the cabin and the fire tower are inaccessible it is still a nice spot.

Without crossing the road, find New Laurel Run Trail on the left. This trail can be tough to spot, but it is cleared, signed, and blazed. Once you find the trail, enjoy its gentle, wonderful downhill. Built with mountain bikers in mind, this trail winds back and forth downhill with more and more switchbacks until it reaches Laurel Run Road. There is a small pull-off spot here for vehicles at a sharp turn in the road, which also hosts trailheads for both New Laurel Run Trail and Fleetfoot Trail.

Fleetfoot Trail Rothrock State Forest PA

Finding Fleetfoot Trail

Reach Laurel Run Road, which is about 2.5 miles into this loop. Hang a quick left and then another immediate left onto Fleetfoot Trail. There is a trail marker at this trailhead- keep your eyes open for it. Get ready to climb again! This trail is sporadically blazed blue and yellow, and has some cairns along the way as well. It is another tough scramble back for about 600 feet elevation to the ridge and Mid State Trail. The top section of this trail can be overgrown with blueberries, so do your best to stay on the path of least resistance.

Rothrock State Forest PA

Mid State Trail

Reach the top of the ridge and an intersection with Mid State Trail (MST), with an option to turn left or right. For a shorter route, turn left and run across the ridge toward Kettle Trail. From here you can take Kettle Trail back down the ridge to Lonberger Trail and then home. Total mileage for this loop is just over 6.5 miles with 1,600 feet of elevation gain. Another shorter option would be to run down Spruce Gap Trail back to the car. Learn more about these trails here:

An Introduction to Spruce Gap Trail

Indian Wells Rothrock State Forest PA

Today we will turn right on the MST, and head towards a Lizard Spot near Big Flat Natural Area. The trail stays pretty straight and flat along this rocky ridge. If you need to catch your breath or take a break, do so at one of the signed viewpoints off to the left of the MST.

Rothrock State Forest PA

Descend North Meadows Trail

You will encounter multiple trail signs, pictured above, a little more than 4 miles into the day. Turn left here onto North Meadows Trail. This trail is another really steep trail that drops straight off of the ridge. It descends on loose rocks for almost 400 feet in less than one half mile, ending at North Meadows Road. With or without ice on this trail, you may be on your butt once or twice during this descent!

nordic skiing in Rothrock State Forest PA

North Meadows Road is gated, so you will not see any vehicular traffic on this section of road. In winter it is a popular destination for nordic skiers; though, so please do your best to stay off of nordic ski tracks along this road. The road is popular with cyclists year-round, too. Take the road to the left (downhill), and enjoy the nice gravel downhill section-much easier and less stressful then the steep downhill that you just experienced.

Lonberger Path Rothrock State Forest PA

Head Home On Lonberger Path

Roughly 6 miles into the day, turn left on Lonberger Path, pictured above. Follow Lonberger Path straight away and slightly downhill for more than 3 miles. It’s a great trail so enjoy the speed-but watch out for rocks, roots, and other trail users.

Reach a trail junction with Spruce Gap Trail nearly 9 miles into the route. This is the same intersection encountered at the beginning of the hike. If this loop wasn't hard enough for you, stay to the left and take yourself for a second lap!

If you're feeling tired and done for today (as you should), turn right, downhill, and enjoy some switchbacks and a rock armored tread down to Laurel Run Road (gravel). Cross the road and find Galbraith Gap Trail slightly to the left. Follow this for about a quarter mile until the trail turns into a double track dirt road. Quickly turn left on the trail before reaching paved Bear Meadows Road. 

Just under 10 miles into the day you'll be back at Bear Meadows Road. Cross the road, and jog over the wooden bridge, and find your car!

North Meadows Trail Rothrock State Forest PA

More Climbing!

Rothrock is a lovely place for those who just can't get enough climbing and descending along the rocky ridges and valleys of Northcentral PA! Here's a few quick considerations for those who would like to add some mileage and elevation to the 10-mile loop described above:

Note: Consider making any of the options below into wonderful overnight backpacking trips!

Let's go back to the intersection of MST and North Meadows Trail, roughly mile 4 in the loop listed above. Instead of turning left and heading down North Meadows Trail, add mileage to your loop by going straight on MST, which continues to follow this rocky ridge for a couple more miles as it wraps around Bear Meadows Natural Area. Reference your Rothrock Lizard Map here and take note of multiple side trails between here and where MST intersects with Bear Meadows Road. All of these trails descend steeply off of the ridge to the valleys below. We'll list some quick notes about these trails, and leave the rest of the adventure up to you!

North Meadows Trail Rothrock State Forest PA   

North Meadows Trail 

North Meadows Trail descends both sides of the ridge. The section of trail which descends northwest to Bear Gap Road and Laurel Run Road is extremely rocky (pictured above) and just as steep as most other trails that drop off of this ridge. Consider hiking or running down this trail to Laurel Run Road, which used to be a part of the Rothrock Challenge, then hiking back up to the ridge via Wildcat Gap Trail.

Bear Gap Vista Rothrock State Forest PA

Keith Spring Trail and Wildcat Gap Trail

Wildcat Gap Trail is another remarkably steep and difficult trail for those heading uphill or downhill. Luckily, there is an excellent vista near the trailhead of Wildcat Gap Trail along Bear Gap Road, so the climb is worth it! From Bear Gap Road, take Keith Spring Trail back up to MST. You can't miss Keith Spring Trail along Bear Gap Road: there is a piped spring here, which usually runs year-round. Mid State Trail between North Meadows Trail and Keith Spring Trail includes some of the finest vistas in Rothrock State Forest, along with a few primitive camping areas just outside the boundary of Big Flat Natural Area. Most of this section is within the Big Flat Natural Area, designated as such because of its unique characteristics.

 Quinn's Rock Rothrock State Forest PA

North Meadows Road Intersection 

Hikers, runners, and backpackers looking for even more distance will continue along MST to a five way intersection with North Meadows Road and Gettis Ridge Road. These sections of North Meadows Road and Gettis Ridge Road are both gated, so you can enjoy the gravel and dirt surfaces without worrying about vehicular traffic. Or you can cross this intersection and continue even further along MST, making loops as long as you desire. Like the rest of this state forest, the trails and roads are open 24/7, so go out prepared and don't let daylight limit your exploration!

Rothrock State Forest Pennsylvania

Year-Round Adventure In Rothrock State Forest

While this blog has gone on long enough, we've only scratched the surface of options within Rothrock State Forest. With over 300 miles of non-motorized trails, tons of gravel and dirt roads, and 24/7 access, Rothrock State Forest is a true gem for year-round adventures. Our suggestion is to utilize trails close to maintained roads during inclement weather in the winter, and save the deep woods activities for the other three seasons of the year. Now get out and enjoy your public lands!