The 2020 Pennsylvania Environmental Council Public Lands Ride seeks to showcase state parks and forests across the greater central region of the state. Throughout the month of September, cyclists are encouraged to ride as many of the suggested routes as possible and share their experiences on social media for a chance to win swag from one of our partners. You can find more details about this virtual event here, and stay tuned for more route descriptions to be published throughout the summer.
Laurel Ridge/Forbes State Forest
Weighing in at a respectable 60.7 miles with 5,963 feet of climbing, this route is no slouch! Riders get a chance to warm up atop Laurel Ridge before dropping 1,000 feet over 2 miles to a gentle middle section, which is the calm before the storm. “Storm,” in this case, means “climb,” and the climb is — literally — breathtaking. This ride should have a punch-card for all the different surfaces riders will experience: expect maintained, fast-rolling gravel; grassy, double track snowmobile trails; high-clearance, washed-out forest roads; crushed limestone; chunky ballast-rock; and even some asphalt.
Laurel Summit State Park, centrally located in the main tract of Forbes State Forest, is the starting point for this route, with a generous parking lot and pavilion and picnic tables. Expect rustic toilets, but no running water, so make sure to fill up beforehand.
From the park, head left on Laurel Summit Rd. for a 3.5-mile warmup on a well-maintained gravel road. Just past the Warming Hut, turn right and pass through the gate, picking up the doubletrack Beam Trail, part of the PW&S Trail System. The PW&S is based on the former Pittsburgh, Westmoreland, and Somerset RR corridor that hauled timber from 1899-1916. Around mile 5.5, the trail has a split that branches to the right. While the surface looks better in this direction, keep to the left. Otherwise, Beam Trail is easy to follow with few deviations. Close to mile 11, the trail seems to disappear among tall grasses and thistle. Head straight through the tall stuff and jog left at the next gate to stay on course. Soon, you’ll see the intersection of Beam Trail and Zufall Trail. Keep right for Zufall Trail. Motorized Campsite #2 is directly on Zufall Trail, which is something to keep in mind should you wish to spend the night.
Zufall crosses Hickory Flats Rd. and turns into the Marshall Fields Trail. Stick with the Marshall Fields Trail and follow the signs for the Turnpike Bridge. Soon enough, the trail merges with the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Turnpike Bridge. This unique crossing of the turnpike is a gem! The bridge is only open to hikers, bikers, and snowmobiles. If you’ve spent time on the western side of the PA Turnpike, it’s likely you’ve passed under this bridge.
On the south side of the PA Turnpike, you’ll pick up the edge of Tunnel Rd., a gravel forest road. The PA Turnpike originally went under Laurel Ridge (or Laurel Hill) at this point. The tunnel still exists and has been used for some interesting projects since its abandonment. At the intersection of Kuhntown Rd., continue straight through the gate and onto an overgrown section of snowmobile trail. It’s slower moving than the gravel, but this is a worthwhile shortcut of Tunnel Rd.
The snowmobile trail leads to a rowdy descent down Auckerman Rd. Just because you’re going downhill doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy! Auckerman Rd. is open to motorized traffic, but is best classified as a high-clearance, 4×4 road. It is deeply rutted and has plenty of loose rocks to keep you on your toes.
A right turn from Auckerman onto the Mountain Streams Trail wiggles riders closer towards the valley. Traditionally, the Mountain Stream Trail was muddy puddle after muddy puddle. The Bureau of Forestry has since filled in many of these with large ballast. While you might not get as mud-flecked, the ballast provides its own challenges. Nearing mile 22, a spur to the right leads you down a steep chute that empties onto Rt. 381. Be careful approaching this crossing as motorists are not always expecting a rider to come flying out of the woods. A quick descent alongside a farmer’s field brings you to the end of the Blair Brothers Railroad Grade. Blair Brothers is only about a mile and a half long. It’s an easy stretch that follows Indian Creek. Riders then hop on Rt. 381 for just a few hundred yards before reaching Rt. 31.
This crossing also requires caution. While sightlines from the left are pretty good, visuals from the right are somewhat obstructed. The Indian Creek Valley Trail is directly across Rt. 31, though there’s really not much signage indicating so. A wooden staircase drops from Rt. 31 to the trail. The ICVT is built upon the former Indian Creek Valley Railroad, another small timbering railroad that served the small towns of Champion, Melcroft, and Indian Head. The trail is crushed limestone and the creek at this point is much broader and slower than along the Blair Brothers section. Our route turns away from the trail around mile 27.5. Before leaving the ICVT, continue for another mile or so and take the spur on the right into Melcroft. G&D Market is your typical country market and the perfect spot to refuel. You can pick up sandwiches from the back counter, ice cream sandwiches, snacks of all kinds, and plenty of fluids. Fill up outside, or across the street in the park. It’s a good idea to stretch too, as the next portion of the ride features a heaping serving of climbing, with a side of climbing.
Head back across the spur bridge and retrace your route to Fowl Hill Rd. The Fowl Hill Rd. climb is short, but it tops out at over 12% grade and loose gravel makes standing up to climb a test of tire traction. After reaching the top, a quick descent brings you the paved Back Creek Rd. The smooth-rolling pavement is short lived though, and you’ll soon turn left onto Dahl Rd. This is where the climbing begins in earnest. Riders are in for about 4 miles of steady climbing on gravel roads that have seen a minimum amount of maintenance over the years. Halfway through the climb, bear right to stay on Longwood Rd. Longwood Rd. leads to Dumbauld Rd. and, yes more climbing.
The reward for all your climbing could be a glassy paved road where you can go wide open. Instead, the route brings you back to wooded doubletrack along Gary Run. Take a break at the bottom along Blue Hole. The creek gives you a chance to soak your cap before a gradual climb out of the valley. Take Blue Hole Rd. and make a hairpin right on to Cole Run Rd. Head left at the next intersection on Glade Rd. Alternatively, stay on Cole Run Rd. for another ½ mile and you’ll reach Cole Run Falls, definitely worth the side trip.
Reaching the top, you’ll meet Pritts Distillery Rd. This paved section definitely sees more vehicular traffic than others along the route, so catch your breath and make a cautious right onto Pritts Distillery Rd. At mile 42, stay left on Pritts Distillery. Another left on Triple Creek Rd. winds you under a heavy tree canopy and some vacation homes as you approach County Line Rd. and descend towards Laurel Hill State Park.
Shortly after heading into Laurel Hill State Park, riders are greeted by a monument to the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. Though it’s cancelled for 2020, the Laurel Hill Bluegrass Festival is worth the return trip in 2021. There is potable water available at the campground, but it’s best to check in at the gatehouse before filling up. Continue through the park passing the lake and beach on your right before picking up Buck Run Rd. Follow Buck Run Rd. to Camp Conestoga Rd. Stop to enjoy the views of Laurel Hill Creek, a riffle-run stream that works its way south before meeting the Casselman and Youghiogheny in the town of Confluence. There’s a convenience store at the intersection, as well as a pizza shop nearby. Pick up Bakersville / Edie Rd.
Bakersville / Edie Rd. bends to the right and becomes West Bakersville / Edie Rd. Stick to West Bakersville for about 3.5 miles. This stretch is a gently rolling, two-lane road wending past a few residences and ag land. As the longest asphalt-paved section of the route, expect more motorized traffic on West Bakersville.
The road crosses the turnpike once again. Turn left at the ‘T’ and start the long approach back up the ridge. Old Hickory Flat Rd. gives way to Hickory Flat Rd. Enjoy a tree-lined climb on smooth gravel all the way back to Laurel Summit State Park. Turn in your completed route surface punchcard to your riding buddy for a hearty high five!
In The Area
At over 60,000 acres, Forbes State Forest provides plenty of opportunities to ride, fish, hike, camp, hunt, snowmobile, and just about anything else you can think of doing in the woods. Forbes also holds a number of special areas like Roaring Run Natural Area, Quebec Run Wild Area, and Spruce Flats Bog. Ohiopyle, Laurel Hill, Laurel Summit, Laurel Ridge, Linn Run and Kooser State Parks freckle the Laurel Highlands Landscape. The Great Allegheny Passage, running southeast from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, MD, is one of the largest recreational attractions in the region.
Ligonier is the nearest town with a full suite of amenities. You’ll have no trouble finding food, drink, and other bits. You won’t find a bike shop nearby though, so be sure to pack wisely. This route hits a few state parks, with a number of others in the area. Ohiopyle State Park is the most notable of the outliers and is worth a visit.
Throughout the summer and into the fall, Ligonier hosts the Ligonier Country Market. This isn’t your typical locals-only farmers market. Think large-scale New England market with upwards of a hundred vendors. You can find good coffee, bread, meats, cheese, and prepared foods at the market.
Where to Stay
You have a few good options for camping close to the start. Linn Run State Park has a few different styles of cabins that can be reserved online. There are two motorized campsites near Laurel Summit State Park. A third is along the route near Blue Hole. Contact the Forbes State Forest District Office in Laughlintown to check availability.
Laurel Hill State Park has a large campground with tent and RV sites. You could camp at Laurel Hill and start the ride directly from the campsite as well.
For something a bit cushier, pick up a room at Seven Springs Mountain Resort.
Sunrise Cottages in Ligonier provide another good option. Fully furnished, the cottages would be a great place to crash after a long day in the saddle. You can find them right along Rt. 30 a few miles off the ridge.
Get the map!
For alternate route options and additional exploring in the area, grab the Purple Lizard Maps Laurel Highlands map!