Tuscarora Trail offers the road less traveled

May 04, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

If a hiker cares to follow poet Robert Frost's advice and take the road less traveled, then the choice is the Tuscarora Trail - a four-decade-old detour from the far more famous and heavily hiked Appalachian Trail.

Painted blue blazes point the way on the Tuscarora Trail as it winds its way through nearly 100 miles of Pennsylvania along the Tuscarora Mountain ridge before heading down into Path Valley toward its final destination in adjoining Perry County. There, it again meets the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail.

The two trails meet at a point on Blue Mountain west of Harrisburg, Pa., where the Appalachian Trail heads for the Cumberland Valley on its way south. They separate there and don't meet again until the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia near milepost 21 on Skyline Drive.


Not many Franklin County residents seem to realize that the north half of the Tuscarora Trail runs along the western edge of their county. It passes through Cowans Gap State Park on the Franklin/Fulton county line.

The demarcation line between the north and south sections of the trail is the Potomac River and C&O Canal in Hancock.

The trail's south half crosses the Potomac there and enters the Indian Springs area before crossing into West Virginia. There, the route takes the Tuscarora through Morgan and Berkeley counties along Sleepy Creek Mountain before it heads into Virginia.

According to a guide book on the north half of the trail published by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club in 1997, the Tuscarora Trail got its start in the early 1960s. At that time, there was concern that the Appalachian Trail, which runs more than 2,000 miles from Maine to Georgia, could be closed to hikers in parts of Virginia by owners of private land it crossed over.

The Appalachian Trail Conference identified one endangered area as northern Virginia between the Shenandoah National Park and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., the guidebook said.

It was decided to create a bypass to the west using public lands as much as possible. At the time there was an existing Tuscarora Trail that ran along the mountain ridge that bears its name, Tom Johnson, PATC president said.

"We picked a ridge that already had a trail on it," Johnson said. "We don't like to reinvent the wheel."

The Tuscarora Trail had been built and was being maintained by the Keystone Trails Association, which maintains hiking trails, said Christopher Firme of Blue Ridge Summit. Firme is active in the PATC's North Chapter which maintains the Tuscarora Trail in Pennsylvania today.

Firme said he has hiked the entire trail.

By the late 1980s, gypsy moths had wiped out most of the oak trees along Tuscarora Mountain, Firme said. "Dead trees had fallen across the path and the underbrush had grown up to cover the trail, he said. "It was a big mess."

The Keystone Trails Association abandoned the trail in the early 1990s. "They didn't have enough manpower," Firme said.

Members of PATC's North Chapter decided to reopen the trail, according to the guidebook. They came armed with chainsaws, tools and blue paint. By 1995, the trail was back in business.

"It's in excellent shape today," Johnson said. "The Appalachian Trail Club held a big conference last June at Shippensburg University and hundreds of hikers walked the Tuscarora," he said.

There's no way of knowing how much the Tuscarora gets used by hikers, Johnson said. "I was on it on Sunday in Virginia and I didn't see one other hiker," he said.

The PATC has been buying or otherwise securing land for the Tuscarora Trail south of the Potomac in Virginia and West Virginia, Johnson said. He said the club is negotiating for a 50-acre tract in West Virginia. He declined to say where it is.

The task is more daunting in Pennsylvania, where much of the land the trail crosses in privately owned.

"They're mostly handshake agreements. The Keystone Club didn't have much money. The trail is almost completely protected in Virginia and West Virginia," Johnson said. Landowners in Pennsylvania are becoming less inclined to allow hikers on their property because of illegal use by ATV owners.

"They don't want ATVs on their land and we can't guarantee that they won't be there," Johnson said.

PATC wants to buy land to protect the trail in Pennsylvania, he said.

North Chapter members are seeking out and identifying the owners of the land where the trail crosses, Firme said.

Another goal for the Tuscarora is to make it more hiker friendly by building more shelters. There are only five shelters along its 252-mile length, Johnson said. Three more are planned, including one in Pennsylvania east of McConnellsburg, he said.

Shelters are available to hikers every eight to 10 miles on the Appalachian Trail, Johnson said.

The guidebook said the Tuscarora "is equal to, and in many ways superior to the more traveled Appalachian Trail. It is possible to travel for days on the Tuscarora Trail without meeting another hiker."

Guidebooks and maps of both sections of the Tuscarora Trail can be bought by calling the PATC in Vienna, Va., at 1-703-242-0315 or on its Web site at

The Herald-Mail Articles