LINKS
2017-08-04 / Features

ROTHROCKS!

There’s no good reason why you’re not in Rothrock State Forest right now.
Robyn Passante | Photos by Matt Fern

Sure, there are jobs and obligations and the occasional summer thunderstorm. But if a trip into the natural playground that’s right in State College’s backyard isn’t already on your calendar this month, it’s high time to add it.

At just shy of 97,000 acres, Rothrock is a wonder of old growth forest, trickling streams, sweeping vistas, valleys and ridges perfect for adventurers, families, hunters and fitness enthusiasts. With nearly 300 miles of hiking trails, more than 100 miles of trails open to mountain bikers, and 190 miles of mostly compacted gravel roads, there’s a perfect way for everyone to take in the scenery by car, bike or on foot.

Yet somehow, a lot of people still haven’t ventured inside its invisible, magical borders.

“Rothrock blows people away,” says Michael Hermann, founder of Purple Lizard Maps, a business that was literally launched by putting Rothrock on the map in 1997. “There are people who’ve been in State College and they come out here and say, ‘I had no idea this was here.’”

“Here” is just 6 miles from downtown, as the most popular entry point is on Bear Meadows Road just past Tussey Mountain Ski and Recreation. The forest was created in 1903 after then-forestry commissioner Joseph Trimble Rothrock convinced the Commonwealth to purchase 33,000 acres of land that had mostly been stripped bare of trees by the coal industry. Over the last century, aggressive acquisitions and mindful timber management have cultivated the forest’s growth in all directions — both out and up.

“A ‘mature forest’ is one with trees 80 years old or older, and most acreage in the Rothrock falls into that category,” says district forester Mark Potter, whose staff of 28 DCNR employees cares for the land and its resources.

If miles of trails, roads and majestic natural beauty sounds enticing but daunting, we’ve done the research to let you know exactly how to do Rothrock...



...ON FOOT

Rothrock is a hiker’s dream not just for its beauty but also for the sheer number of trails that are maintained in the forest. Some offer a challenging elevation change and others are fairly flat, but just about all of them have two things in common.

“Whether you’re mountain biking or hiking, the combination of rocks and roots is the blessing and the curse and the challenge of Rothrock,” Hermann says. “We have a little disclaimer on our map that says, ‘There’s no easy trail in Rothrock,’ because in many ways, there just aren’t. There’s always something. But I think it’s awesome.”

Grabbing a Purple Lizard Map of Rothrock State Forest is a hiker’s smartest first step. Then just trace a loop that suits the amount of time, energy and sense of adventure you have — and bring your map with you.

“I like the availability of so many loops here,” says Dave Gantz, an avid backpacker and “trail guru” with Purple Lizard Maps. “That you can come out after work and have a quick loop, or you can come out here for days on end and do huge loops. Some other places, there’s just not so many trails.”

Other than staying on trail and adhering to the “Leave no trace” policy, there’s no right or wrong way to hike the forest. There are designated parking areas, but parking alongside the roads is OK, too. (Note that public restrooms are limited to a few parking areas, so plan accordingly.)

“There are a lot of trails that intersect the Bear Meadows Road corridor, and since that’s anchored by Tussey Mountain Ski Area, people can always find it,” Hermann says. But once you get your feet wet, drive a bit farther into the forest to discover gems like Beautiful Trail, No Name Trail and Sassy Pig Trail.


...ON FOOT, FAST

There are three kinds of running in Rothrock — on the trails, on the roads and on a combination of both.

The compacted gravel roads allow for a scenic workout that’s virtually traffic-free and gentler on a runner’s joints (and offers far less risk of tripping on rocks than trail running). The 50-mile route for Mike Casper’s annual Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK ultramarathon and relay race, held this year on Oct. 8, is on Rothrock’s roads.

“The gravel surface is so much nicer for runners than sidewalks,” Casper says. “And in the summertime when it gets hot, it’s at least 10 degrees cooler because of the canopy.”

But if you want to hone your foot-eye coordination skills, try trail running. State College resident Tara Murray has been running Rothrock’s trails for almost 15 years. She says sturdy running shoes are OK, but trail running shoes are better for lots of miles on rocky singletrack trails. Besides that, bug spray, a good lay of the land and planning ahead are the keys to a good experience.

“I carry water on trail runs for shorter runs than I would on the road,” Murray says. “You never know, you could take a wrong turn or trip and sprain an ankle and end up being out there for longer than you thought.”

Murray suggests starting with a short loop, perhaps one that utilizes some trail and some road, and taking it easy.

“Run by effort, don’t worry about your pace,” she says. “On those trails, even if you run slow you’re going to get a good workout in.”


Look for the Lizards
When you peruse a Purple Lizard Map, you’ll spot lots of purple lizards. What do they mark in Rothrock, and how many are there? Hermann hasn’t counted.

“It’s based on however many interesting sites we think deserve a lizard for people to find,” he says.

“Typically they mark overlooks, waterfalls, special places that we find when we’re out doing field work and we think, ‘Wow, somebody should come here.’” 



...WITH A BACKPACK

If you’ve ever dreamed of doing some long-distance hiking but don’t know how or where to start, Rothrock’s 42-mile stretch of the 323-mile Mid State Trail, which meanders north to south across the Commonwealth, is the perfect primer.

“The Mid State Trail is a fantastic trail for people who are trying to sample what [long-distance hiking] feels like. You can just park your car and go walk out for a couple of hours and come back. Or you can arrange any number of car shuttles with your friends to do a point-to-point walk,” Hermann says. “And then once you’re comfortable with that, you can start doing overnights with a backpack.”

You can pick up the Mid State Trail at several points inside and along the edge of the forest, including trailheads at Jo Hays Vista off Rt. 26 near Pine Grove Mills and off U.S. 322 near Big Valley Vista in the Seven Mountains Region. The trail is clearly marked with orange blazes to keep you on track. And don’t forget to follow the forest’s “leave no trace” policy — everything you carry in, you also carry out.


...BY CAR

If you’re looking for a more leisurely way of experiencing Rothrock than traversing the trails on foot or on two wheels, you’re in luck. With 190 miles of gravel and dirt roads meandering through the forest, there’s plenty of flora and fauna to see right from your car windows.

A couple vistas to check out are the popular Jo Hays Vista off Rt. 26 south of Pine Grove Mills, Wampler Road Vista on Wampler Road just west of Bear Meadows Road (a great sunrise spot!) and Bear Gap Vista on Bear Gap Road.

Or drive south of Stone Valley Recreation Area to the Rocky Ridge Natural Area, where you can stop at the Stone Mountain Hawk Watch Platform off Allensville Road. The Hawk Watch is a 20-foot-by-20-foot wooden deck where visitors can watch and count migrating birds. “The vista is unbelievable, and migrating birds are running the thermals up and down this corridor,” Hermann says. “That’s really awesome.”



...WITH YOUR FAMILY

A great place to experience Rothrock for the first time with your family is at the Alan Seeger Natural Area. Its walkability and old-growth hemlock and oak stands — trees up to 350 years old — make it a winner.

“It’s gorgeous. There’s a little interpretive trail that isn’t even a mile, bridges over the water crossings, and it’s a trail suitable for 4- and 5-year-olds,” Hermann says. The area has multiple pavilions, picnic tables and streams. “It’s sort of a very relaxing, mellow time in the woods. The trail is really smooth and easy to follow. The bridges are really fun — kids love bridges. And the drive there is a big part of the adventure. That helps them wrap their heads around the forest.”

From U.S. 322, turn onto Bear Meadows Road and follow it all the way to Alan Seeger Road. Turn left, and you’re there.

Families will also enjoy a day spent at Stone Valley Recreation Area, where you can hike, picnic, rent boats and fish in lovely Lake Perez.


What the Cell?
You can’t count on cell phone service in every corner of Rothrock. And that can be a good thing, says Hermann.

“The whole point of being out here is to untether.”

Since it’s difficult to completely untether these days (and perhaps not exactly safe), try these tech tips when venturing into the woods:  

  • If you’re with a group, bring one phone (and portable charger) as an emergency backup plan and leave the rest in the car.
  • Make sure someone besides the owner of the phone knows the passcode, if there is one, and how to use the device.  
  • If you’re flying solo and want to bring your phone, put it on “airplane mode” to avoid the annoyance of electronic notifications while you’re getting your sweat and Zen on.
  • Don’t rely on your phone’s GPS system to keep you on track.
  • Carrying a map is always a good idea, but if you’re headed out for a short run and bringing just your phone, snap a detailed pic or two from your map of the trail and larger area as a handy reference guide. If you lose your way, and cell service, you’ll still be able to find your car. 


...ON A BIKE

There are three ways to bike Rothrock — through the trails, on the dirt and gravel roads, and on both.

“In Rothrock you can use a gravel bike or cross bike for most of the gravel and dirt roads. A mountain bike gives you the flexibility to do gravel and dirt roads as well as singletrack,” says Lisa Wandel, an avid cyclist and founder of the Women’s Adventure Club of Centre County. “There really isn’t anywhere out there to ride a road bike, as the pavement part of Bear Meadows ends in a mile or so.”

The mountain bike trail riding is among the most technical and prestigious, says Mike Kuhn, who founded and runs the Trans-Sylvania Epic multi-stage mountain bike race in Rothrock in May.

“The riding in Pennsylvania is unlike anything people are doing anywhere else,” Kuhn says. “It’s very technical riding. We have these incredible rocks that have fallen down and don’t erode and don’t ever get smooth, and we have long stretches of it.”

For a challenge, cyclists should try Tussey Ridge, which Kuhn calls “one of the most amazing trails anywhere.”



...AT SUNSET

On a nice evening, the Indian Wells overlook, a scree on the Mid State Trail with breathtaking views of Bear Meadows Natural Area, is an experience not to be missed.

“Get out here on a clear night, and the night sky will just blow your mind. The only light pollution you would remotely get is maybe just a hint from Lewistown, which is seven mountains away,” Gantz says.

“It’s a great place to come out for an evening.”

To get there, drive up Bear Gap Road and park along the roadway, taking the Keith Springs Trail as a connector to the Mid State Trail. Then head north on the Mid State Trail for less than a mile in the Thickhead Wild Area. On a clear night with a full moon, you won’t need much more than natural light to find your way back to your car, but a headlamp and sturdy sneakers or hiking boots are always a good idea.

If you want to catch the sunset from your car, Gantz suggests heading to Bear Gap Vista along Bear Gap Road, or the spot marked with a lizard on the Purple Lizard map that’s on Kettle Road near Coopers Gap.


Keeping It Natural
All of Rothrock is an environmental wonder, but there are eight designated Natural Areas, so named for having a special natural feature the state deems particularly worthy of protecting. A few great Natural Areas to check out are:  

  • Bear Meadows Natural Area: Recognized as a National Natural Landmark, this bog has good trails and an observation platform for viewing wildlife.
  • Alan Seeger Natural Area: Just north of Greenwood Furnace State Park, Alan Seeger boasts old growth hemlock and oak stands that are 250 to 350 years old.
  • Little Juniata Natural Area: This 624-acre area at a water gap in Tussey Mountain features a talus slope of Tuscarora sandstone and a horizontal thrust fault.
  • The forest also includes Wild Areas, which are given priority as a wildlife habitat. Those areas are more densely wooded and largely roadless, offering wildlife more space to roam free from human interaction. 


...WITH A TASTE FOR ADVENTURE

Looking for more adventure than a regular run or hike? Try rock climbing along the Standing Stone Trail in the Rocky Ridge Natural Area.

“That’s an amazing place,” Hermann says. “But keep your eye out for snakes up there.”  
If you want a physical challenge but are afraid of heights, there are plenty of tough trails with impressive elevation gains, some of which used to be old logging skid trails.  

“There isn’t peak bagging in Rothrock,” which means people don’t try to “collect” the mountains by climbing them all. “But people will name the trails. ‘I went up Spruce Gap Trail.’ That’s a really popular hard trail,” Gantz says. “It’s not so much ‘I went up to this peak’ but it’s ‘I utilized this trail.’” Shingle Trail and Kettle Trail are other tough treks to take, he says.

The Ross Trail heading south toward Greenwood Tower is another challenging trail with over 1,300 feet of elevation gain in 2 miles. “It follows the spine of the ridge, so it has a really neat character to it. But you pick up a lot of elevation in a short amount of time,” Hermann says. “But that’s part of the allure.”
And if you want to say you climbed to the highest point in Rothrock, pick a loop that will take you to the Little Flat Fire Tower off Laurel Run Road — at 2,430 feet, it’s the highest elevation in the forest, Potter says.


Be Prepared
A few key things to bring on a simple summer day hike:

  • Map
  • Bug spray
  • Cell phone (plus portable charger if possible)
  • Suntan lotion
  • First aid kit
  • Food and water
  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Appropriate clothing and shoes
  • Light jacket/raingear
  • EpiPen or other emergency medication in case of severe allergies
  • Fire starter
  • Flashlight/headlamp 


...OVERNIGHT

Free permits are needed for motorized camping in the forest. There are eight designated camping spots for vehicles and campers dotted around Rothrock; check the Motorized Campsite Locations map on DCNR’s Rothrock website, then call to reserve the spot you want.

If you’re “primitive camping” for one night in the forest, you don’t need a permit. If you’re staying more than one night in the same spot, though, you should call ahead and secure a free permit to do so. Backpackers can camp overnight anywhere except in designated Natural Areas, within 200 feet of a forest road, within 25 feet of a trail or within 100 feet of a stream or any open water.

Don’t forget to tie up your food in a “bear bag,” Gantz says, and make sure it’s 100 feet from your tent.
Most importantly, leave no trace that you were ever there, so that the next person who crosses that path can experience the true wonders of the wilderness. •SCM


Where In Blazes
Yellow blazes = Hiking only
Orange blazes = PA-designated long-distance backpacking trail
Red blazes = Shared-use trails, which includes horse, bike and foot travel (non-motorized
activities)

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