Hiking the West Rim of the Grand Canyon…of Pennsylvania

A view of the Pine Creek Gorge from the West Rim Trail

A view of the Pine Creek Gorge from the West Rim Trail

The Pine Creek Gorge isn’t as deep, wide, or long as its counterpart in Arizona. It’s not even close, but that doesn’t stop the locals from lovingly calling it the “Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania”. Located in the Tioga State Forest, the gorge is home to one of my favorite weekend getaways: The West Rim Trail.

The West Rim Trail is 30 miles long and provides no less than ten scenic views of the Gorge. Normally, I hike it a few times a year as a one-night backpack and have found that it’s a great trail for introducing beginners to the joys of backpacking.

The orange blazes of the West Rim Trail

The orange blazes of the West Rim Trail

Due to brutal foot injury in 2011 and a recurring “belly-size issue”, I hadn’t pushed myself past 18- or 20-mile days in a long time. A poor attitude and a lot of self-pity had kept me from even trying, but I recently decided to make a more concerted effort to lose some weight and push myself past some of my mental roadblocks.

I started using many different activities as training: a “Boot Camp” class at my local gym, running in the park, trail running, weight lifting, the stair climber, the elliptical machine, and (of course) hiking. I’ve found that each activity challenges me in ways that the others don’t. I do one or more of the aforementioned activities for 1-2 hours per day, 5-6 days a week. I always take a day or two off every week to let my body recover. Along with a moderately strict diet, I’ve been able to lose 50 pounds over the past year.

The first real test of my slightly-less-fat body would be a 30-mile, one-day hike of the WRT on Memorial Day weekend. The posting on the Berks-Lehigh Hiking and Backpacking Meetup calendar received a few “Yes” RSVPs almost immediately. Failure was not an option. There would be witnesses now…

May 24th rolled around much sooner than I had expected. Feelings of doubt had caused several hikers to change their RSVPs to “No”, so I would only have a single companion for the day: Daryl.

Daryl and I met at the Northern Terminus of the WRT and shuttled south to start our hike. I blew him away as we climbed a thousand feet over the first 1.5 miles of the trail. He wasn’t a slow hiker by any stretch, but I had a lot of spring in my step that day. It wouldn’t be too long before Daryl started calling me “The Jack-rabbit”.

The (hopefully empty) Dynamite Shed

The (hopefully empty) Dynamite Shed

After hiking behind my companion for a bit and passing by the Dynamite Shed and Blackwell Vista, I felt the need to stretch my legs again. I went out ahead and picked up my pace, clocking a few 16and 17-minute miles. I continued to run out ahead for much of the day but would stop every few miles to let Daryl catch up, which didn’t usually take more than a few minutes, and I made use of the time by consulting the map, having a snack, or refilling my water bottles.

Near our halfway point, I met some backpackers and stopped for a quick chat. When Daryl caught up, they told him that I came speeding up behind them like a “grey blur”. Blur is a bit of an exaggeration, but the “grey” part was spot on. I wore grey shorts, a grey shirt, a grey visor, and a grey Gossamer Gear QuikSak. Now I had two new nicknames!

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the Grey Blur!

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Grey Blur!

The northern half of the WRT is far more scenic than the southern, as it passes countless vistas and several pretty streams. My body was starting to get tired at Mile 20 and my feet had been dragging for over a mile. The change of scenery recharged my batteries. I perked up and pushed through the fatigue without hesitation. I had just passed my first personal hurdle: hiking 20 miles in a day.

“If I made it 20, I can definitely do 30,” I thought to myself.

A lone tree clings to the edge of the Pine Creek Gorge.

A lone tree clings to the edge of the Pine Creek Gorge.

For the next 4 miles, Daryl and I played our familiar game of “trail tag”. However, at Mile 24, I was off like a shot. My partner was doing well, plugging along at his own pace, and I wanted to finish this hike strongly. With every vista I passed, I got a little more excited and pushed just a little harder. By the time I hit the final 800 foot descent, I was running.

I reached the Northern Terminus of the WRT in 11 hours, 17 minutes. I probably could have done it faster, but I was still ecstatic to finish strong and smash through Personal Roadblock #2: hiking my first 30-mile day!

I've reached the Northern Terminus with a smile on my face!

I’ve reached the Northern Terminus with a smile on my face!

Oh! I forgot to mention one very important detail! Daryl is 79 years old!

Daryl finished our 30 mile hike in just under 12 hours! I hope that I grow up to be half the hiker that he is. This hike was somewhat of a personal achievement for me, but hiking with Daryl gave me all-new lifetime goals for which to strive.

I leave you with one burning question: Should my trail name be “Jack-rabbit” or “Grey Blur”?

This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Dan Bortz. 

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