The Pinchot Trail is a 23-mile loop in the Lackawanna State Forest on the Pocono Plateau. It can be done in one day or it can be neatly divided into a north loop and a south loop to be done in two. To reach it, first take I-80 or I-476 to Blakeslee, PA. From there, take 940 to Locust Ridge Rd, turning left. At the end of the road, turn right and take the first left onto Bear Lake Rd. You will see signs for Lackawanna State Forest and soon after a sign for a parking lot and trailhead for the Pinchot Trail. This lot is a great start point for the north loop as well as the trail in its entirety. There are other parking areas off nearby roads that are better for exploring the south loop alone.
This is a long day hike. Itís the sort of hike that forces you to check the almanac the night before so that you can be sure youíll have enough hours of daylight to finish it. But itís too short, in my opinion, if split in half to be done over two days. Itís at that awkward stage that hikes reach after 17 or 18 miles and before they reach 25 or so. Elevation change can play a role, but thatís not the case here. The Pinchot Trail has one optional peak and it isnít a killer. So what do you do?
If youíre going to do just half the loop I would suggest the northern half. It makes the logistics of parking and choosing a trail progression quite simple. If you make it a multi-day excursion then the logistics donít matter so much as long as youíre prepared to spend the night. If youíre going to do the whole loop in one go then read on. I usually donít get these things right on the first try, but I think this time I got it.
As I mentioned before, I began at the parking area just north of Bear Lake at the Powder Magazine Trail. Side note here Ė each segment of the Pinchot Trail has its own name that Iíll refer to in order to make sense of where I am on the trail map. All the trails I mention are part of the Pinchot Trail System. As I also mentioned, the logistics are fairly simple if taking the north loop alone: you take the Powder Magazine Trail to the Pine Hill Trail, climb the tower at Big Pine Hill, then continue on Scrub Oak Trail and make the loop back to the parking area with a minimum of backtracking.
If youíre looking to do the south loop after the north loop then youíve got choices. You can hike the trail in a counter-clockwise fashion and skip the Pine Hill and Frank Gantz trails, but thatís no fun. You can do the north loop as I described it and then walk 3/4 mile down the road to where the south loop can be picked up. Iím not fond of walking down the road while Iím still in a hiking mood, and besides that I didnít want to end a 23 mile hike by overshooting the trailhead to the north and sweeping around the Frank Gantz Trail. If I did that, I might be tempted to shorten the hike then and forget about the Frank Gantz Trail. Better to avoid that by removing the possibility entirely. So the way I did it was to hike the north loop as above and then a short portion of the Pine Hill Trail a second time in order to get to the Frank Gantz Trail, coming down the west side of the south loop.
Throughout this hike and especially on the north loop, I was struck by the excellent maintenance of the trail. The path is neatly cut through the undergrowth and never disappears even after an entire summerís worth of brush has grown across it. Often, the path is on a visibly different level beneath the surrounding vegetation, indicating that someone went to great length to dig it out. The only other place Iíve seen this kind of trail building was at the Five Ponds Wilderness in the Adirondack Park, but that trail system has the New York State Ranger School at one end of it. How does the Pinchot Trail get such attention?
Besides the workmanship of the path, there is its cleanliness. I remember a single piece of trash that I saw throughout its 23 miles. During this time I saw about a dozen people (and, oddly, as many dogs). It might be that being in the Poconos is cause enough to make people more respectful of their surroundings Ė Adirondack trails are also clean Ė but it is still impressive and noteworthy. Those are just the minor points that make the trail stand out. Theyíre the icing on the cake. However, there would be no substance without natural beauty, and this forest certainly has it.
After walking the wide, flat trail of the Powder Magazine with its knobby roots and branches, the Pine Hill Trail appeared markedly different. The change was sharp and came after crossing the road to Big Pine Hillís summit. The trees became taller and straighter; the undergrowth was dominated by ferns. Acres of ferns. Fields of ferns growing beneath the towering giants. The trail itself became narrower here as though the ferns were reclaiming it. It went on like that until I reached the Scrub Oak Trail.
The Scrub Oak Trail is really full of oak, as far as I can tell, and short scrub. There is so much variation within this single forest! The variety kept the trail fresh throughout the hike, despite its length. As the Scrub Oak Trail became the North Line Trail, the shrubbery began to overtake the trees until it comprised the majority of the landscape. Returning to the Powder Magazine Trail and then to the Frank Gantz Trail, I felt like Iíd barely begun to hike despite having gone nearly 10 miles at this point. Iím sure that the crisp air of a beautiful, clear morning in early September helped win me over, but the trail itself played no small part. Each trail segment had its own character that I felt curious to discover whenever I saw a new trail sign.
On its own, the south loop is on par with many excellent trails, but I couldnít help being a bit disappointed as I walked its length and compared it to the north loop. There are tall forest corridors. There are glimpses of a stream that winds with the trail and accompanies it for several miles. There is a different kind of beauty than that of the north loop in the trails that pass along barely used dirt roads and occasionally follow them for a way. Certainly, there is nothing lacking in this loop, but there are little bothersome issues with it. The maintenance, so immaculate on the north loop, is sometimes lacking in the south. I found myself looking around a few times, wondering if Iíd missed the trail. I had, but only once, which is better than many other trails Iíve hiked. In places the trail was completely uncut and became a wide and muddled path through undergrowth. Even the signage, obsessively keen on the north loop, was lacking completely on long stretches of the south loop, where it would have been more greatly needed. It is still a great trail, but the south loop is at a definite disadvantage vis-a-vis its northern kin.
Accordingly, I didnít take as many photos of the south loop as I did of the north. On the other hand, I also tend to taper off my photography when I hike so that the end of the hike will rarely get as many photos as the beginning unless I find it particularly worthwhile. Two places that I do wish I had taken pictures of were the Stone Lookout and McClintlockís Gate trails. The Stone Lookout is remarkable for the vegetation and terrain at the top of the hill that the trail crosses. As I reached the hillís summit, the terrain began to look like the alpine terrain at the top of an Adirondack high peak. The ground was hard and rocky, the trees stunted, and the grass short and sparse. All around, the forest grew normally, but those last few feet and the entire summit appeared completely out of place. Unfortunately, I couldnít find a good shot to take and didnít want to stay long as I was already, at this point, inching toward 20 miles of hiking.
Similarly out of place, the landscape of the McClintlockís Gate Trail reminded me of a southwestern desert oasis like those Iíd seen in Arizona. Like the top of Stone Lookout, the trees here were short and sparse. The undergrowth was thick, but also short. There were more shrubs here than grasses. All it needed were cacti. The landscape quickly became forested again, but for a short span of a mile or so it gave the impression of walking somewhere else entirely. It was not quite enough to refresh me at this point in the hike, but looking back on it, it is one more mark on the list of interesting features on the Pinchot Trail.
The road walk that I had put off until the end of the hike came back at this point and felt much longer than the 3/4 mile or so that it appeared to be on the map. I was quite happy to reach my car at the trailhead and happier still to discover that I hadnít earned too many blisters for my trouble. Again, my boots had proven their worth. The Pinchot Trail was a real stretch of a day hike, at least for me, but well worth it. Iíd recommend it to anyone planning to come to the area looking to challenge their endurance while sampling the natural treasures available here.