John P Saylor trail Somerset County

July 22nd, 2022

If you're looking for a less-traveled trail that has overnight options, flexible mileage, a unique water crossing and little elevation change, the John P Saylor trail in northeastern Somerset County might be right up your alley. That is, as long as hiking with wet feet isn't a deal breaker... On the other hand, If you're a forager and looking for a new mushroom hunting area, you might want to buy waterproof footwear because... you may have just hit the motherload.

After the Loyahanna Gorge trail, I was looking for a great save in the form of an easy trail that provided some unique aspects to the hike and I was sure I'd found it in the John P Saylor trail in Northeastern Somerset County. Studying the maps, it looked great and the only real downside I could see was that there were some online reports of it being very muddy.

I'm an eternal optimist and thought that I could solve that issue by tackling this trail later in the summer when it would be dried out and, as June and July had seemed extremely dry this year, all looked good leading up to the hike.

The JPS is a 12 mile loop through the Gallitzin State Forest and it intersects the 5 mile long Middle Ridge Loop trail somewhat close to the mid-point so that, together, they form a double loop of 17 miles. The elevation change throughout the system is minimal and there are a few options to shorten the mileage if you wish to section hike and bite off smaller chunks. Both trails lie within the state forest so minimum impact, dispersed camping is permitted wherever you wish (as long as you follow the guidelines).

I had planned the hike as an easy overnight and there were, reportedly, some established campsites near the junction of the two trails. My initial thought was to hike to the junction, set up camp, day-hike the Middle Ridge Loop with minimal gear and complete the JPS the following morning. I thought it would give me about 18 miles or so total but 5 or 6 of those miles would be without gear (I know, that's cheating... I never claimed I wouldn't cheat)

As my friend Cathy had suffered through the Loyalhanna Gorge trip, I suggested she join me for an easy loop this time. She was game, as usual, but, as she did not have all of her overnight gear in PA, she suggested we start early and do the whole trail as a day hike. It seemed do-able as we'd done the West Penn trail (12 miles) the week before in about 4 1/2 hours and both felt great afterwards.

We arrived at the Babcock Picnic area around 9am and found the JPS, which is blazed orange, along the woods to the left of the road. We parked near the playground and were on the trail by 9:10 starting out clockwise. The trail was grassy but mowed and was easy to follow as it ran parallel to route 56 on a snowmobile trail for about a half mile or so. It then became a rocky footpath as it crossed Verla drive but the terrain was almost level and we were making great time despite the wet grass quickly soaking through our shoes ("water resistant" is never "water proof" but, frankly, I always expect them to resist more than they do... they could certainly learn a few things from my kids).

As always, we take the good with the bad, the wet feet for level(ish) terrain and the missing bridges with the solitude of the lesser traveled trails. (oh yeah, we quickly came to the first bridge... and it was missing. Luckily, it wasn't the wet foot crossing we'd encountered on the 6 to 10 trail and the blazes were easy to spot on the other side so we didn't lose much time with the balancing act to cross what remained of the bridge.)

We then found one potentially awesome aspect of this trail when we discovered these lethal-looking mushrooms (that turn out of be Eastern Black Trumpets... not only edible but are sought after). We would, throughout the day, discover that this trail system might be a wild mushroom hunter's dreamland.

As the trail turns away from route 56, it becomes blazed with blue as well as the orange. As near as we could figure, there is another trail (the Tenderfoot trail?) than runs on top of the JPS for awhile. There are a few places where this happens... just keep following the orange.

The trail was well blazed and easy to follow, the bridges were where the should be and we came to the first of the established campsites a little over 4 1/2 miles into the day. (GPS: 40.193354, -78.737102).

While checking it out, I found that the 2nd site is right across the stream from it so that you can see one fire ring from the other. Neither is, of course, 100 feet from the water (the further one is on an island) but there are a ton of flat, level places for tents on either and both were well off the side of the trail.

I caught up to Cathy (she doesn't like to stop) and we soon reached the point where the Middle Ridge Loop crossed the stream on a swinging bridge (approx 4 1/2 miles from the start). There appears to be a limit of 2 people at a time on the bridge but the sign was missing on the north end so we didn't know that until we were on the way back. (not that it mattered, there were only 2 of us and Cathy didn't want to be on the bridge with me so that the swinging would be limited)

It was actually very stable and seemed like a great way to span wider waterways... I was left wondering why nobody built one over Medix Run instead of re-routing the Quehanna trail.

After the bridge, we turned right and paralleled the stream on what appears to be an old logging trail except that someone went to a lot of trouble to build up the lower side with a stone wall and level the ground. We had to assume it was logged by train sometime in the distant past.

It was very wet in areas but it was usually possible to bushwack alongside the trail on higher (and drier) ground.

We found the first mile marker and were congratulating ourselves for having turned the "correct" way on the loop. We later realized that they are marked on both sides and the mileage was displayed according to the direction of travel. (ie: This says 5 on the far side)

As there was such an abundance of wildflowers, mountain laurel and mushrooms, we really didn't miss having vistas.

We were a bit concerned about missing the left turn where the JPS leaves the old roadbed since the Forest Service map shows another "clearly defined trail" continuing on but, again, the turn was well marked. The trail climbed gently but steadily until, just after crossing a small stream, a meadow appeared slightly uphill on the left.

This meadow contains a small shelter that the Forest Service office described as "a bit rough but access is such that repairs are difficult". Honestly, I didn't think it looked too bad... Even if you didn't want to sleep in the shelter, there was a ton of space in which to set up tents and there was a stream close by (actually less than their own 100 foot rule) so it would be a good camping spot.

We continued on and, shortly after that we came across some awesome fungus, the first of which I have no idea what it was but the second I'm fairly sure is Chicken of the Woods. (maybe even sure enough to eat it... I always remember that: "There are old wild mushroom eaters and there are bold wild mushroom eaters but there are no old, bold wild mushroom eaters")

The next mile marker indicated mile #4 and I suspect someone had pulled it up and turned it 180 degrees. If I'd thought about it at the time, I could have tried to fix it but I didn't and, shortly thereafter, the trail began to descend steeply and returned to a very swampy section. The grade was pretty significant and, if you prefer to go uphill rather than down, you may want to do the middle loop clockwise instead as the descent would be much more gradual in that direction.

The rest of the way around the loop was uneventful, we managed to avoid most of the mud and even saw the exit trail without walking past it. We rested briefly at the bridge, estimated the remaining distance as 7 miles and turned left to look for the other established campsite.

We found it about 10 minutes later (GPS: 40.191356 -78.742833). It was well off the trail, there were a lot of places for tents and, although it too was far less than 100 feet from the stream, I would have no qualms about using it.

From there it was more elevated old roadbed much of which was muddy and some of that mud could not be avoided. Cathy fell victim to one such area when her shoe got sucked off by the mud; she lost her balance trying to retrieve it and wound up sitting in the puddle.

I (rather wisely, I think) opted for helping her up instead of reaching for the camera so there is no photographic record of the fall.

I briefly lost my balance as well and almost went down beside her as even a light pack changes our center of gravity more than we realize sometimes.

There were places which would have been completely impassable if not for the boardwalks that had been constructed. We were both very appreciative of these and a couple of them were quite long.

After we left the old roadbed the trail became a footpath that was, thankfully, dry and, although very rocky in places (typical of PA), it was very pretty and easy to follow as it wound its way back toward the car.

One major hurdle that remained was the climb to Wolf Rocks. While the climb itself was not particularly steep, the trail was so rocky here that we were both glad to finally reach the top where we could sit, rest and curse "Rocksylvania" thoroughly.

The remainder of the trail was pretty straightforward although we briefly got off trail as there are multiple paths that cross the JPS as you get closer to Babcock Picnic Area. I noticed a color change on the blazes but didn't turn around until my (now dried) hiking partner took over as navigator and steered us back.

At 17 miles in 88 degree heat, it turned out to be a long day hike and we were glad to see the car and its air conditioner. I think it might be a great place for a novice to get their feet wet (pun intended) on an overnight backpacking trip as it would afford the luxury of being able to change the mileage depending on how the newbie was holding up.

If I were to try that, I would likely do it later in the summer and certainly not after what was pretty much a solid week of rain.

Overall, I really enjoyed the JPS, we didn't see another human all day and, despite the lack of vistas, we both felt that the trail was very pretty. Surprisingly, I only heard "I'm going to kill you" once on this trip and, believe it or not, it was NOT when she landed in the puddle.

...seems the inReach took a bit to start tracking... start & finish were the same on this trip.