The Quehanna Trails wanders through 75 miles of the most remote, wildest places in Pennsylvania. Peace and quiet? Oh yeah, it has that. Challenges? Steep climbs and scrambles to lowland meanderings and tricky crossings dot the entire length. Cell service? Non-existent in most places. It’s one of the great Pennsylvania trails that gets bucket listed, and with good reason. But do you have time to take a week to hike its length, especially if you’re in the area to check out the elk of Benezette, Kinzua Bridge, and the dozens of other sights in the Pennsylvania Wilds? Probably not. You do have the time to do a little day hiking in Quehanna, though.
The greatest thing about day hiking in Quehanna is that there are so many little, well-blazed trails inside and connected to the larger trail. It’s easy to build custom routes, and there is so much to explore. And every single one of these trails- from the narrow, foot-traffic only trails to the old access roads- walks you through the past and gives a taste of the Quehanna.
What is the Quehanna? A fuller history can be found here, but here is a quick summary:
Quehanna Wild Area
The Quehanna Wild Area is a 75 sq.mi. wildlife area in Cameron, Clearfield, and Elk Counties, Pennsylvania. It’s the largest wild area in Pennsylvania and is shared by parts of Elk State Forest and Moshannon State Forest, so it’s well-maintained and carefully looked after. This means that within its confines, travelers will find a virtual trail paradise. A hiker’s heaven, if you will.
The history of the area is as varied as the trails. The Susquehannock and Iroquois Native Americans called the area home and hunting grounds. In 1784, the area was purchased by the U.S. for settlement and soon found its first use as a logging area. Due to the needs of industry in the 19th and early 20th century, logging for white pine, hemlock, and hardwoods was heavy. Most of the area was clear-cut. This led to forest fires and desertification, turning it into “Pennsylvania’s Desert.”
In the 1930s, Pennsylvania bought the land for the State Forests. They installed multiple CCC camps throughout the area in an effort to improve and restore it. In 1955, the Curtis-Wright Corporation bought up 80 sq.mi. of State Forest land to develop nuclear-powered jet engines. The program closed in 1960, but a series of other industries came into the area, including radiation-treated lumber. Throughout the 1960’s the state bought back land to re-establish it as a wild area. A massive cleanup effort has started to restore the Quehanna to its pre-industrial days.
Today, the Quehanna Wild Area still sports scattered scars of the past, but the second-growth forests and natural areas are quickly reclaiming the region. It’s an important area for eco-tourists, elk-and bird-watchers, hunters, and, of course hikers and backpackers. There is almost always someone day hiking in Quehanna.
While there are enough trails in Quehanna to detail many posts, I’ve picked my favorites. Whenever I don’t have any new hikes planned, we’re day hiking in Quehanna. Or when we’re shaking down for a backpacking trip, we’re loaded up and day hiking in Quehanna. There is enough variety in trails here to get a good, solid feel as to how we will handle our loads on the larger Quehanna Trail.
Also included with these descriptions are areas of interest near the trails. Some of them are easily within hiking distance (or on the trails), while others require a little drive.
The Quehanna Wild Area is on the Allegheny Plateau, so the elevations are less than the Appalachian Mountains. Regardless, this region lays in the unglaciated section and shows a lot of bould-strewn streambeds. It is characterized by blended northern and southern flora and fauna. The latitude here also shows longer and more brilliant fall coloration than most of the country. The vistas aren’t as vast as other parts of the country, but the wild streams and stunning fall colors more than make up for that fact. Because of this, Quehanna is a popular destination during the spring thaws and autumn leafing, though it is ideal to hike any time of the year.
Kunes Camp Trail
Have you ever hiked a trail that goes through boulders? Yeah? What about one that goes right through a camp?
That’s exactly what this trail does. The camp dates to before the acquisition of the land by Curtis-Wright. Today the camp is little more than two walls wedged between boulders and scattered remnants. One has to marvel at the ingenuity of the builder, though. With thick rock making up the bulk of its sides, the camp had to keep pretty damn warm in the dead of winter.
The northern trailhead is found just off of the Quehanna Highway between Three Runs Road and Chipper Road. It is little more than a pull-off with a sign. The trail works its way through a second-growth forest before heading downhill towards a tributary stream of Twelvemile Run. The camp sits right at the crest of this hill, and seems to pop out from nowhere as the landscape gets rocky. The trail then bisects Erie Camp Trail (a shared-use trail), and then swings north along another tributary to Chipper Road. From here, you can either follow Chipper Road back to the Highway, reconnect with Erie Camp Trail to form a loop, or explore the eastern section of Panther Run Trail. Kunes Camp Trail itself is roughly 4 miles long, and is a relatively place to go day hiking in Quehanna.
Be forewarned, the area around the camp is very rocky and boulder-strewn. It is prime territory for timber rattlesnakes. When you’re moving around the camp, feel free to explore, but be very cautious. The snakes will warn you, but a misstep could easily get you bitten.
North Mosquito Creek to Dieble’s Run Vista
The Quehanna Highway breaks this trail into northern and southern sections. The entire in-and-back trail (roughly 14 miles) is a little long if time is limited. It is a good challenge, and the Crawford Vista spur trail in the south offers a great view of Mosquito Creek below, but we’re hiking the northern section.
Despite the name, the northern section does not follow Mosquito Creek. It doesn’t even go anywhere near the aforementioned creek. I would have named it Deible Run Trail or something like that, but it connects to the south, so Mosquito Creek Trail it is! There are 3 primary ways of reaching the vista.
The safest option is to park at the Forest Headquarters, cross the highway onto Lincoln Road, and follow it to the trail. The laurel up here is full of deer. Every time I’ve hiked this, I’ve seen at least three deer. They’re alert, though, so they’re easy to miss. The trail then drops onto Deible Road outside of Marion Brooks Natural Area. It continues on this road for around 1/2 mile and then turns west across a rocky bench to connect with the Quehanna Trail. From there it’s a very short distance to the vista.
The second option is to park off of Mud Lick Run Road (off Loesy Road) and hike east on the Quehanna Trail. It’s about the same distance with very little elevation change. The third option is a little longer (right around 4 miles), and is tougher. Park on Grant Trail and hike north to the Quehanna Trail and then head east. The trail meets up with Mix Run at the bottom of a steep hill, turns to meet Deible Run, crosses it, and then goes uphill 350 feet. At the top is the vista and a small campsite.
Little Quehanna Loops + Table Falls
I’ve detailed these trails in another post, but I’m not ashamed to give them another plug. If you want more complete descriptions of these trails, take a look at my post on The Little Quehanna Loops. Even after a whole post on just them, they still needed to be mentioned as great day hiking in Quehanna. That’s how much I love these trails!
Farther east along the Quehanna Highway are a cluster of 4 loops that are a 6-mile preview of the entire Quehanna Wild Area. These interconnected trails sit alongside the Marion Brooks Natural Area and just inside of the Wild Area and are about as remote as you can get without bushwhacking. If you’re limited to one morning in Quehanna, hike these trails.
Why choose these trails? They customize to difficulty level and time constraints. The larger loop touches a Natural Area, three vistas (with one that is absolutely stunning in the fall), and an impoundment dam full of wildlife. If you shorten the hike (or make a special trip), there are hunting lodge ruins to explore.
Table Falls requires a little drive. Follow the Quehanna Highway east until it reaches the spot where Red Run Road and Lincoln Road nearly meet. Follow the narrow dirt Red Run until it goes downhill at a sharp curve. There are a couple of parking spots along the road and a sign for Table Falls on the right. Don’t try this road in the winter.
I also wouldn’t bushwhack to the Falls along Paige Run. I’ve hiked it from the Falls and it is really rugged. Pretty, but downright brutal. Boulders break up the ground along the stream, and the laurel is so thick that I felt like I was squeezing through a jungle.
Old Hoover Trail + Jet Bunkers
The roughly 2-mile trail starts at the point where Wykoff Run Road meets the Quehanna Highway. Road noises fade as the trail makes its way into the second-growth forests of the M.K. Goddard/Wykoff Run Natural Area. The trail stays at about the same elevation all the way to Old Wykoff Run Road. From there, you can explore Old Wykoff, Baily Log, Powerline Loop, and Gore Loop Trails (all shared-use trails), or head back. There is quite a bit back here, and we’ve made many trips exploring this area. The neat spot, however, are the bunkers.
Curtis-Wright built these two bunkers for the observation of test jet engines. This was ground zero. If an engine got loose, the surrounding forest and hills would stop them before they went too far. This is why the Wild Area has a weird, circular shape.
The map aptly labels the access roads to the bunkers as Bat Cave Road and Bat Bunker Road. The southern bunker is buried under a mound of dirt, but an upper access hatch is still present. The northern bunker still stands as it did in the 1960’s. Both bunkers are vented, contain bat boxes, and are (usually) welded shut. Heavy concrete mounting blocks are scattered around the bunkers.
Old Hoover touches the southern bunker and comes within 1/4 mile of the northern bunker. Hike the access road to reach the northern bunker. It’s an easy hike, and one that is a bit eerie. You can almost hear and smell the jet engines roaring out of the past. Or maybe it’s just road hum from Quehanna and the smell of degrading tar on the road. I prefer the latter as it’s more poetic. To reach the southern bunker, take Old Hoover Trail (though you can hike the shorter access road, if you wish).
David Lewis Trail + Hoover Farm + Riddle Road
We found this route by mistake. My family and I were looking for a way to reach Crawford Vista near Lost Run/Reactor Road (where the nuclear facility stood). We realized the route would be too difficult for our 3-year old. Rather than waste the day, we found a second option right up the road.
Both sections of this route are easy hikes for younger kids, and it comes with a payoff at the half-way point.
The yellow-blazed David Lewis Trail starts off of Lost Run Road, right before Reactor Road. Head east at the Panther Run/David Lewis trail intersection. This trail offers technical skill practice by navigating wet areas. It crosses multiple environments as it works its way gently uphill into thicker forest until it connects with Riddle Road. Just beyond that intersection, though, is the Hoover Farm Viewing Area. There is a parking area here with interpretive signs, maps, bathrooms, and, of course, the viewing blind.
The blind overlooks a PA Game Commission-maintained food plot, and is a great place to see elk. Though they aren’t always there (it isn’t a zoo, folks), the blind area is always busy with birds. Keep in mind that it is a popular area, though most visitors just stop off of the Quehanna Highway to use the bathroom and don’t bother walking the 1/10 of a mile to the blind.
People are weird.
When you’ve had your fill of viewing, either take David Lewis Trail back or head west on Riddle Road. Riddle Road is a shared-use trail that goes along a long section of open woodland, and is very easy to walk. This is a prime deer and elk spotting location because it’s forested and free of a lot of underbrush. For best chances of spotting something, try walking it in the early morning or evening. Riddle Road comes right back to the same trailhead as the David Lewis Trail, so you could do either one first.
The Quehanna Trail
You said this trail is 75 miles long. That is not a day hike.
True, but this trail has a ridiculous number of day hike-able sections. It can be broken up into section hikes and done one hike at a time. The longest the Quehanna goes without crossing some sort of road is 10 miles. Nearly all of these roads are remote, improved dirt or drivable trails, so there is very little traffic. I’ve hiked miles upon miles of these at a time without seeing a single person or vehicle. I also had no cell service for most of those miles.
Remember to come prepared.
I’ve already touched on a few places along this trail, but feel free to explore. Many times when I’m day hiking in Quehanna, the entire plan revolves around a single section of the long trail. Pick up a map and carve out your own route!
Okay, so where do you get these precious maps? Unless you’re a local, you likely have no idea what the hell I’m talking about with all these trails. While I could provide maps of the area on this site (like I do with single/group trails), there are better sources.
- Elk State Forest provides maps on their website in .pdf format. Quehanna is broken into the Eastern and Western sections. They also have a number of key, “bucket list” trail maps, like Fred Woods and the Elk Trail.
- Moshannon State Forest also provides maps on their website. Again, Quehanna is broken into two sections.
- Trailheads marked with parking, almost always have Quehanna maps, as well as Elk State or Moshannon State maps (depending on where you are). Look for their large, roofed sign boards along the Quehanna Highway (reached via Route 555 or Route 120).
- District and Park Offices have a variety of paper maps available. Check with the Moshannon State Forest Headquarters (off of Deible Road), Parker Dam State Park (close to I-80), the Elk State Forest District Office (in Emporium), or the Elk County Visitor’s Center (in Benezette).
- Purple Lizard Maps are my local go-to maps that rarely leave my pack whenever I’m day hiking in Quehanna or Moshannon (I mean, unless I’m looking at them). They’re packed with information, durable, and waterproof. I’ve spilled coffee all over them, and it wiped right off without a mark (the smell did linger, but not a bad thing). I probably wouldn’t have found Table Falls if it wasn’t for this map. Pick up one of these maps here.
Where to Go From Here
You have good options, you know where to get maps, and I assume you have some time. Why are you still sitting here reading this? There isn’t anything else below this section except some images, maybe an ad or two (I have affiliates and get a small commission on sales with no extra cost to you), some tags and legal mumbo-jumbo.
What’s that? You don’t know how? Planning a kid-friendly hike is a great place to start, and you don’t have to have kids to learn the basics. In fact, I encourage you to learn the basics. If you have kids with you, even better! Round out your hiking gear with my essential extras (they’re great to make hikes a little more kid-friendly, and safer).
Okay, now you should be ready. Plan a trip to the Pennsylvania Wilds and do a little day hiking in Quehanna already!