If you do enough backpacking, it’s likely you’ll come across a trail you keep coming back to again and again. For me, that has been the relatively new Allegheny Front Trail (AFT). The first time I hiked it, I declared to my backpacking companions I was going to complete it in all four seasons within the year, which is exactly what I did. Often times in the past as I’ve hiked a particular trail, I’ve wondered how different the experience would be in another season. Changes in the foliage affect views and how one perceives the trail, while weather and temperatures can affect moods. With the AFT I was going to find out.
Located in Moshannon State Forest in central Pennsylvania, the AFT is easily accessible within a few hours drive from most of the mid-Atlantic. It’s a 40ish mile loop, with a connector trail heading down the center and splitting the loop into east and west sections, each of which could be a 30ish mile loop of it’s own. I consider the AFT to be a mild-mannered trail, yet it manages to maintain enough variety in views, elevation changes, and forest environments to keep even the most veteran backpacker interested. Highlights include several vistas along the southeastern section as the trail traverses the edge of the Allegheny Plateau, regarded as some of the finest views in Pennsylvania. In the northeast quadrant, the trail follows several streams, the highlight for me being as it traipses along the rhododendron covered Benner Run. In the northeast the visual draw is Moshannon Creek, its startling red color, the result of past mining in the area, showing the human impact to the region. To the west, the trail follows the pleasant Six Mile Run, and for a stretch wanders through tall straight pines where the area was reforested by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). In the south, the trail becomes swampy and damp as it coincides with the Mosse-Hanne Trail within the boundaries of the Black Moshannon State Park.
My first time around the AFT was in the glorious colors of fall. There are recently logged stretches of the AFT, but this means the fall colors of the young growth surround you within a few feet of eye level. Other stretches are the opposite, having my favorite Mid-Atlantic forest environment – broad areas with a full canopy above, a heavy forest floor covering, and very little in-between in the understory. Here the forest floor is covered in either the muted golds and browns of ferns complimenting the canopy colors, or contrasting brilliant reds of blueberries. I may be biased because I love fall backpacking, but this was my favorite season on the AFT.
Winters in the mid-Atlantic have the challenge of short days, some snow on the ground, and close to freezing temperatures. That was the case for my second time around the AFT. Fresh snow and cold winds blowing across the semi-exposed Allegheny Front brought on some cranky moods, despite the fact that the lack of foliage allowed for mostly unrestricted views along the entire stretch. The previously boggy southern section was frozen solid, making for easier walking, although snow-covered bog logs made for slick spots that required extra care. The biggest change came in the last mile or so of the trail, just when we could almost see the cars – what had previously been a pleasant walk along a level grade in the fall was now a frustrating battle against snow and ice-covered rhododendron that literally had us crawling on our hands and knees to pass on through. This was the most challenging season on the AFT.
Spring brought a new direction to the AFT as I headed counter-clockwise this time. The weather was damp and rainy, guaranteeing a wet slog through the southern section of the loop. But as spring rains do, it brightened the greens of buds and new leaves and darkened the brown and gray tree bark to provide fantastic contrast. Fiddleheads, may apple shoots, and blueberry bushes contributed to bright greens bursting out on the forest floor. I could almost see the fiddleheads of the ferns unfurling as the weekend progressed. Trilliums, my favorite spring flower, were out in full bloom, along with the brilliant yellows of barren strawberries. There was something about spring that added a vitality to the trip, as this seemed to be the easiest season to complete the loop.
Late summer in central Pennsylvania can be almost fall-like, yet in mid-September the trail still presented itself in a different manner from fall of the prior year. This time I started on the eastern side of the loop, whereas the prior three times I had started on the west side. The tall undergrowth would at times make stretches of the trail feel totally unfamiliar, even though this was my fourth time hiking it. Areas that had previously been wet underfoot were dry. Much warmer temperatures made climbs a touch more miserable than I had remembered, and some of the miles seemed to be more draining in the heat and humidity than they had in other seasons. Again it may be my personal bias against warm humid weather, but summer seemed to take the most energy to complete the loop.
Tackling the same trail in a variety of seasons and with alternate itineraries turned out to be a wonderful experience, and one that I would highly recommend.
Information on the Allegheny Front Trail can be found online at: http://alleghenyfronttrail.info and http://www.pahikes.com/trails/allegheny-front-trail.
A free copy of the latest printed AFT map may be obtained from the PA DNR by calling them at 814-765-0821.
Books with chapters on the AFT include: AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to 30 of the Best Multiday Trips from New York to Virginia by Michael R. Martin and Backpacking Pennsylvania: 37 Great Hikes by Jeff Mitchell