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5.03.2020

Gallitzin State Forest Recreation Guide: Awesome Hiking, Views, and More

Gallitzin State Forest is a wonderful asset in the state forest system of Pennsylvania. It features two main divisions that preserve wooded and rugged lands that restore tracts of land that have been heavily scarred by human industrial activity over the last few centuries. This seemingly remote area is located just on the outskirts of the Johnstown area, with large portions of the property that were formerly owned and heavily used by logging companies for timber, and the former Bethlehem Steel Plant for coal, quarrying, and use as a water source. This left much of the land as a barren wasteland, though some major coal strip mining and logging still occurs in land adjacent to the Babcock Tract.
Trillium covered Clark Run Gorge in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area, Rager Mountain Division

The two major divisions are the Rager Mountain and the Babcock Divisions. Rager straddles the edge of Cambria and Indiana Counties on one rim of the Conemaugh River Gorge, and is home to the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area. The northern trailhead for the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail picks up directly across the river from this spot.
The Charles F. Lewis Natural Area was named after the second president of the legendary Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which has lead Western Pennsylvania towards preserving and rejuvenating natural areas for the public good. Their efforts lead directly to the creation of state parks such as Ohiopyle and McConnells Mill. This natural area is named in his honor.
The bottom of Clark Run Gorge. Note the old bridge piers from an old right-of-way
I went into Charles F. Lewis Natural Area not expecting much, since a lot of the stuff mentioned online talks about the high tension power lines that lead from a nearby nuclear power plant, but the elevation profile is what attracted me, with a combined elevation change of 2400 feet, which equates to 1200 feet ascent and descent on a 6 mile loop. Those kinds of numbers attract me to a hike, for I love making huge elevation gains on hikes. With those numbers, it could be a barren hellscape and I would still be interested in hiking it. I was pleasantly surprised at just how beautiful the hike was, especially when in the gorge of waterfalls in Clark Run Gorge.
One of the most amazing parts of this hike was seeing the gorge walls, which were covered in the most spectacular display of trillium I have ever seen.
The slopes up and down from creek level were legitimately COVERED in white trillium, with some red trillium and other species mixed in.
Once you reach the top of the gorge on the Clark Run Trail you have two options.
You can go straight and proceed onto the Rager Mountain Loop, which has a gradual elevation change through to the top of the Conemaugh River Gap, with some views of the gorge, albeit with the main clearing obstructed by power lines, and see some neat rock formations, and more.
You cross these high tension power lines twice. The clearing give you the clearest view of the Conemaugh River Gorge. In the distance you can see the nearby nuclear power plants.
A cool rock formation at the pinnacle of Rager Mountain, the highest point on the hike. Note how blackened the rocks are from the old charcoal production in old steel making, through more modern times under Bethlehem Steel, and the former coal power plant.
The remainder of the climb up Clark Run Gorge at the beginning of the Rager Mountain Loop
The Rager Mountain Loop rejoins with the Clark Run Trail Loop and takes you through the beautiful Rock City in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area and then back down to the trailhead.
The start of the large rock city in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area
Your other option is to turn left and proceed on the Clark Run Trail Loop and head right to the rock city in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area and then back down on the loop to the trailhead and bypass the Rager Mountain Loop. If you are pressed for time, you should turn left and finish the Clark Run Trail Loop. If you are not pressed for time, I recommend taking in the whole trail system and proceeding onto the Rager Mountain Loop outside of the Natural Area and into Gallitzin State Forest.
The hike was fantastic and exhilarating, and ended up being one of my absolute favorites in Western PA. This is a hiker's hike, with outstanding elevation change, nice waterfalls, awesome rock formations, and some nice views. About a quarter mile in on the Clark Run Trail, in the gorge portion of the trail, there is a very large tree that is down, near the top of the gorge portion of the hike. It took some major maneuvering for me and CeCe to climb over, but it was not insurmountable. If you are unable to pass it, you are most of the way up the gorge at that point, and around the most spectacular display of wildflowers that is offered on this hike. We started our hike on the Clark Run Trail and took a right up the stairs and went into the gorge, took the Rager Mountain Loop, and then went back down the remainder of the Clark Run Trail loop.
When I go back to do this hike again, I will probably do it in the other direction, because I believe the ascent up to the rock city will be easier.
The descent was steep and challenging, with lots of jutting rocks that I like to call ankle busters. It would definitely be easier to go up this portion than go down it like we did.
This is the most difficult part of the hike, but it is very nice and has a cool stone outcropping that gives you a cool view of the Clark Run Gorge and Conemaugh River Gorge. As it warms up, be on the lookout for snakes through the Rock City, for this area is definitely prime for them.
Map Courtesy of DCNR
The Charles F. Lewis Natural Area of Gallitzin State Forest is home to one of the premier short hikes in Western PA. The loop trail is about 5 miles long, but has over 2400 feet in elevation change (1200 foot ascent, and 1200 foot descent, along creeks, boulders, rock formations, and fantastic views right up the rugged Conemaugh River Gorge, the deepest river gorge east of the Mississippi. We highly recommend it!

Charles F. Lewis Natural Area Trailhead Coordinates
40.410929, -78.985118

Babcock Division
The Babcock Division is larger and is located 22 miles southeast of the Rager Mountain Division, on the fringes of Cambria, Somerset, and Bedford County, and is home to a picturesque Bog/wetland, the Clear Shade Natural Area, enormous boulders, the John P. Saylor Trail, Turkey Trail, and County Line Trail, and spectacular scenic vistas off of the Allegheny Front. The trails in this section are numerous and lots of fun. While not terrifically challenging, they are very rocky, giving me pause on giving them easy status, but as far as distance hikes goes, the John P Saylor Trail is about as easy as it gets. It is often used by beginner backpackers or those just looking for a quick and easy jaunt into the woods.
The John P Saylor Trail was named after a Republican member of the House of Representatives who represented the region from 1949 through his death in 1973. He was a hero for the environment, creating legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways Act, and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. His efforts are memorialized with the creation of this wonderful trail within his former district in Gallitzin State Forest.
The Bog and Boulder Trail is a spur trail off of the main John P Saylor Trail whose name is pretty self explanatory.
This part of the trail is my favorite, for it leads to a wooden observation tower.
The tower gives you a view to look over the wetlands and bog area, and the flora and fauna that call it home.
It also leads to a boardwalk over the portion that is more of a bog.
You can get within inches of some of the carnivorous plants, which is truly spectacular.
You can then hike back to a Y on the Bog and Boulder trail that will lead you up to the boulders of Wolfs Rocks. These rocks are beautiful and many are covered in moss. The second growth forest is beautiful and you will be sure to see some wildflowers as well.
The Lost Turkey Trail is more challenging and goes 26 miles, starting on the ridge of the Allegheny Front in Gallitzin State Forest, and runs all the way down the ridge, and across to the next ridge to the second highest point in Pennsylvania, Blue Knob, at Blue Knob State Park.
The County Line Trail is very easy and graded 10 mile loop trail that gives numerous fantastic views across the Allegheny Front Mountain Ridge. It offers access to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders.
The views are incredible and especially excellent for birding in the spring and fall months during the migrations, where you may see hundreds of bald eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and other raptors. The two best scenic overlooks are pretty easy to access and well marked if you are driving instead of hiking.
The first overlook is about a quarter mile hike down the easy County Line Trail from a pull off point along the trail on Buffalo Road, to a wooden deck and picnic table that gives stunning views over Bedford County and to the next sets of ridges. This is a great place to hang out for a while.
Just under a mile further down the trail, when you hike up to Skyline Drive, you will see an even more tremendous vista, also marked with a wooden deck. This one you can drive right up to.
Map Courtesy of DCNR
Overall, Gallitzin State Forest is a wonderful place for some outdoor adventure. Its location near Johnstown makes it really easily accessible for most people in the Pittsburgh area and southwestern and south central PA. The area around Johnstown is also tremendously underrated as a scenic place and it is well worth spending some time in the area, checking out the scenic views, hikes, and historic places, including the Inclined Plane, Johnstown's historic train station, the nearby Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, Historic Stone Bridge, Johnstown Flood Memorial, and lots more.

Babcock Picnic Area Coordinates:
40.215411, -78.762700
Bog and Boulder Trailhead and John P Saylor Trailhead Coordinates:
40.214665, -78.727024
County Line Trail Trailhead
40.199543, -78.697783
Skyline Drive Overlook Coordinates: (accessible by hiking or by car)
40.233063, -78.660506

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