The Mid State Trail (MST) is a long distance backpacking trail, which extends over 500 Kilometers (around 320 miles) from the southern border of Pennsylvania, through the heart of the ridge and valley region, to the northern border of Pennsylvania. Among other fun facts, the MST is well-known for its insistence on the use of the metric system and its overall wild characteristics (even though the trail is often within two miles of a road). It is the longest and wildest footpath in Pennsylvania.
Approximately 45 miles of the MST is in Rothrock State Forest. While many Purple Lizard blogs regarding foot travel in Rothrock State Forest do include small sections of the MST, this blog will highlight a long, dry linear stretch of the MST from outside of Huntingdon, PA to Pine Grove Mills, PA. This section of trail is open year-round, but we find it most enjoyable during the spring and fall shoulder seasons. During these times of year, the cooler temperatures keep the snakes under the rocks and also reduce the need to drop off the ridge to find water. Walk the section below in a long day or overnight trip. Or break it up into multiple day hikes by utilizing cut-off trails and a shuttle vehicle. Follow along as we lead you on a hike of the MST in Rothrock State Forest!
We'll begin this trail description from the MST parking area at the dead-end of Mountain Road near the village of Barree. Barree can be found on your Rothrock Lizard Map just east of Water Street and just south of Little Juniata Natural Area. As a long distance backpacking trail, the MST is highlighted with a green ribbon on Purple Lizard Maps, so it should be easy to find. We'll begin our hike at this parking area and describe a walk northbound about 17 miles to Jo Hays Vista at Route 26 above Pine Grove Mills, PA. Among other normal items you bring on any hike, be sure to pack extra water for this hike, as there are no water sources on the trail along this stretch. Your Rothrock Lizard Map and this blog will assist you in finding shorter loop and shuttle hike options along the way. Those looking for detailed directions, historical information, and other updates regarding the MST will also want to bring along a copy of the Guide to the Pennsylvania Mid State Trail, which is published by the all-volunteer club for the MST, The Mid State Trail Association.
There's little to no time for warming up on this trek, as the MST immediately climbs over 700 feet in about a half-mile along the boundary of Little Juniata Natural Area. Luckily, MSTA has added some great switchbacks to the trail here, which makes the climbing easier. The trail levels off now for a bit as it walks along a series of old roadway and tramways in the Natural Area. Be sure to look up towards the mountain to view old quarries, and towards the edge of the mountain for views of Spruce Creek and Little Juniata River.
At this point the climb to the ridge is only half-way completed. Hikers must go about another mile and climb more than 400 feet vertical to reach the amazing vista pictured above. Now you are on top of Tussey Mountain and you will stay on top of this ridge for the next 15 miles! It's a steep climb, but once it's over, you are on relatively flat ridge top.
Like other ridges in this part of Pennsylvania, Tussey Mountain is extremely rocky. Luckily, MSTA volunteers keep this section of trail well-blazed and well-maintained so hikers rarely have to search for the route. Throughout the hike, this section of trail meanders back and forth across the top of the ridge in order to highlight views, rock outcrops, and other points of interest. Enjoy the views here, and there, and everywhere along this magnificent ridge.
Most day hikers aren't going to set up a shuttle vehicle and hike 17 miles all in one day. Which is why this section is so great - there are multiple cut-off trails along the ridge to facilitate shorter hikes. We'll include pics of many of these side trails and there signs in this blog, but do beware, many of these side trails are used infrequently and so can quickly become overgrown and somewhat difficult to follow. Rainbow Trail, pictured above, leads to Indian Lookout and Colerain Park. Learn more about trails in this area here: Yellow Arrow Trail and Indian Lookout.
Although it may feel as though you're on an isolated ridge, there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen, heard, and experienced in this part of the forest. Small lifeforms such as lichens, moss, and insects (like the walkingstick bug shown above) are readily available to view along this hike.
Turkey vultures and black vultures will try to photobomb almost every photo you'll take of vistas along this hike (like the photo above). Large birds of prey such as hawks and eagles can be seen soaring across this ridge many times of year. This ridge is an excellent place to spot these birds during the spring and fall migrations!
Follow the orange blazes of the MST from Rainbow Trail north to Colerain Trail and then Colerain Road. If you have time, be sure to walk a few yards down Colerain Road to experience another great view, which is noted on the Rothrock Lizard Map with a purple lizard icon!
Now the trail gets seriously rocky! Take your time to stumble through the rock gardens and follow the orange blazes, some of which are painted directly on the rocks.
The rocks continue past the intersection with Wheeler Trail. Although short, this trail drops significantly and quickly down to Brady Road. Wheeler Trail is not used often, so if you are planning to hike it, expect some deadfalls to navigate around.
There are several excellent views along this section when the leaves are in full summer bloom. Still more views exist in late fall and early spring when the leaves are on the ground.
The views and rocks refuse to quit on the MST between Wheeler Trail and Brewer Path.
After so many vistas, you'll finally hit the intersection of MST and Brewer Path. There is a nice trail sign here, which notes a water source downhill and eastbound on the yellow-blazed Brewer Path. It's about an 400 foot descent along this trail to find flowing water (most times of year), but it is definitely worth it if your water reservoir is empty. There is a campsite or two surrounding this trail intersection, so it may be a good place for those looking for an overnight backpacking trip. You are about half-way through this ridge on the way to Jo Hays Vista!
Take note of the random mailbox just about a mile further north along the MST past Brewer Path. Of course this isn't a random mailbox, but in fact, it is a trail register provided for hikers by volunteers. Be sure to sign the register and take note of the information left in the register by previous hikers. Although not noted on the Rothrock State Forest Map or the Rothrock Lizard Map, there is actually a slight hint of a trail which leads downhill to a seasonal spring near Brady Road. The path is difficult to follow, and the spring is difficult to find (and sometimes dry), so we really don't suggest this as a viable option for most hikers. Still though, it is something to consider if you are low on water.
The section between Brewer Path and Tussey Trail is roughly half-way between the parking area near Barree and the parking area at Jo Hays Vista. In fact, the amazing vista shown above is probably the midpoint of this hike.
Reach the well-signed intersection with Tussey Trail. Although Buckeye Spring is noted on the sign, this is another spring that is well off the ridge. It is useful for long distance backpackers, but dayhikers will find it much easier to carry extra water all day rather than dropping off the ridge to find the springs along Brady Road.
Continue along the ridge to the intersection with Ewing Path, which is similar to the other side trails you've encountered along the way. The MST is now predominantly filled with moss covered rocks, so be sure to pick your tired feet up as you walk towards Penn Furnace Road.
Pennsylvania Furnace Road is an excellent place to leave a shuttle car for those not looking to hike it all in one push. There is also an excellent vista just downhill along the road here, so be sure to stop to see this Lizard Spot if you have the time.
The next notable trail intersections after this road are for Indian Steps Trail (northbound) and Indian Steps Trail (southbound). From here to Jo Hays Vista, the MST shares the path with a popular hiking loop known as Ironstone Loop. Read more about that hike here: Hiking The Ironstone Loop.
Reach a few more vistas, which look southeast towards Shaver's Creek Environmental Center and Stone Valley Forest.
After the vistas, MST intersects with Campbell Trail before continuing on to a trail register/mailbox. Be sure to sign into the register, which is monitored by folks from MSTA.
Just beyond the register, the MST crosses a wide power line right of way, which affords excellent views looking both northwest and southeast. This is a very popular spot to see local hikers, since the vista is not far from the parking area. There is also a great trail sign just before Jo Hays Vista, which beckons to those who enjoy a long walk.
You will reach the parking area along Route 26, which can be a busy stretch of roadway. Be sure to check out the vista looking north in the parking area. From here you can see all of State College, Mount Nittany, Scotia Game Lands, and the Allegheny Front in Moshannon State Forest in the distance.
We hope that you and your friends get out to enjoy this hike. Be sure that all of your pals wear some blaze orange during hunting seasons (generally Oct-Feb and April-May), and lookout for snakes during the summer months too. The dirt and gravel roads that you see on your Rothrock Lizard Map that you may chose to use for shuttle-car purposes, can all be considered to be in good shape (for forest roads anyway).