Loyalhanna Gorge

 Derry Twp, PA

July 4th, 2022

If you’re an introvert and like challenging climbs, have I got a trail (or two) for you! 

I’m unsure what year I became aware of the trailhead along route 30 in the Loyalhanna Gorge but I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time. 

The only information I could find on the internet seemed like it had waterfalls and scenic views (two of my favorite things… you can have your doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles) and so, with high expectations for this new, hidden gem, we checked it out on the morning of July 4th, 2022. (yes, “WE”… I assured my friend Cathy that I had found “an awesome trail in our own backyard!”… and I think we’re still friends…)

First of all, if you go, CARPOOL! The parking area is so small that “tiny” is an understatement.  If cars are properly stacked, I suppose it’s possible to park 5 cars at the trailhead but 2 will be parked in and one will be in the turn around. (Personally, I’ve never seen another car there.)

The trailhead is located along the westbound lanes of route 30 at GPS coordinates 40.287191, -79.314273. Slow down as you approach it and watch on the guardrail for a square of red paint.

(Note: if you miss it, get in the left lane and there is a causeway across the Loyalhanna Creek in about ½ mile. Cross the causeway, go east on rte 30 to Long Bridge, make the u-turn onto rte 30 west and try again)

It's really easy to miss 

There is probably room for 2 cars side-by-side here.

Heading up the trail from the back of the parking area, the trees are blazed with both red and white for the first few hundred yards and then the red blazes go to the left up the Alligewi Rocks trail and the white continue uphill to the right on the Great Gorge/Valerie Falls trail. 

(Note: I called the Westmoreland County Parks office on the 5th to verify names of these trails and the guy there said he was unsure if they’d been properly named or not. As the only info I could find on them was on hikingproject.com and these were the names used there, I saw no reason to use any others.)

PS: I’m done with notes and will try not to interrupt again…

We started out to the right and followed the white blazes. The trail is listed at 1.2 miles and I won’t dispute that but it seems much longer as it climbs steeply in places. There were the typical scourges of the unbeaten path: stinging nettles, greenbriers, vegetation attempting to reclaim the trail and fallen trees to climb over, under and around so we had to watch carefully for the next blaze but it was manageable and follows old skidder trails from previous logging operations. 

The sounds from busy route 30 below soon faded and the forest was fairly open offering some nice views into hollows and under the canopy. This helped with watching for wildlife although only chipmunks and birds were spotted this trip.

Neither of us is adequate at identifying birds as they seem to have only 3 categories: “pretty birds”, owls and “hawk-or-eagle”s but there was one particularly pretty one that stuck around long enough to get its picture taken.

The old logging trail had a switchback near the top to help ease the climb and I’m sure that the trail could be pretty muddy in spots during wetter weather (we’ve had very little rain in the past month and there were still spots that were pretty muddy). Additionally, runoff water seems to have adopted some sections of the trail as the preferred way down to the Loyalhanna Creek, so you might want to wait a day or so after heavy rains. 

We passed over a dry watercourse and a nice little spring as the trail started to level out then proceeded past a hunting shelter, some huge rocks just begging to be explored (a great place for Squatch to live, I’d bet) and finally came upon a small meadow with a large, white pipe sticking up in it. 

Meadows are always a bit tricky as you’re never sure which way the trail exits so we checked all around the edges to find that the only white things to be seen here were the blazes on the trail we came in on and the pipe. We did find another spring just slightly southeast of the meadow but no waterfalls and no vistas. 

We had to conclude that the pipe was the end of the trail (why else would it be there?) and the dry watercourse might be Valerie Falls(?) but this side of the trail was a great exercise in social distancing with around 760 feet of elevation gain.

We started back down the trail and found it a little tougher to follow downhill. When  coming uphill, there are a couple of places where one skidder track intersects another but they’re reasonably obvious… this is not the case going down.

At one point, we were cruising right along the old logging trail, climbing under and over fallen trees when we came across a couple that neither of us seemed to remember. Looking around, we could not find any blazes either so we backtracked a bit and found that we had missed where the trail turned left. (GPS coordinates: 40.17108 -79.18242, right after climbing under this tree) 

Other than that, the return trip went well and we arrived back at the intersection of the two trails (GPS 40.286294 -79.312355) a little disappointed by the lack of waterfalls but with some energy left. 

We, therefore, turned uphill in search of the “beautiful views of the Loyalhanna Gorge” as described on the hiking project’s site. (in the site's defense, the description appears in a comment and beauty is, as always, in the eye of the beerholder)

This trail is listed as 0.7 miles and I won’t dispute that mileage either even though it seemed twice that. We found that the red blazes showed up much better and were easier to spot but it seemed that all one really had to do was look for a path directly up the hill and there would usually be a red blaze on a tree nearby.

Like the Valerie Falls trail, this one also had an abundance of fallen trees. They were often welcome, however, as the pictures do not clearly show the gradient and many of the logs were at nice heights to rest on or against. Trust me, we broke no speed records on this trail and rested often during the climb. 

The steepest part of the trail is found at GPS 40.288552 -79.313478 and, if you can make it through that climb, the worst is over (still uphill, mind you, but just not as steeply). 

The trail does eventually level out with a switchback and a bushwhack as the forest attempts to reclaim the trail

trust me, there are red blazes on the other side

Near the top, there are some intersecting logging trails so watch carefully for blazes (it’s once again open in this part so they’re visible, you just have to look)

At 40.292858 -79.317020 there are 2 turns that could be problematic as there are roughly 5 trails that come together in just a few yards. Watch for red blazes to the right and head for the powerline.

When you get to that point, you’re almost there and we broke through onto the powerline to find a red-painted telephone pole, lots of young blackberry bushes and not much else. 

The view does not, in my opinion, inspire feelings of “wow, what a view”... you may feel differently and perhaps it would have been different with lower expectations.

(but I doubt it)

We, again, looked around just to be certain that the red phone pole was the end but the inspection was far less thorough than it was around the white pipe and we soon headed back toward the car. 

By this point, Cathy & I were both wishing that we’d brought more water (how much could we need for 2 miles, right?) but at least she was no longer saying “I’m going to kill you when we get to the car”.

Coming down, be careful around GPS 40.289644 -79.315743. There is a sharp left to make a switchback and we (very briefly) missed the turn and followed the logging trail past it.

There is a double blaze on a tree to the left but we managed to miss it. The trail is, however, blazed often enough that our error was soon obvious and we backtracked no more than 50 yards to the turn.

After that, it was, as they say, all downhill and neither of us was disappointed to see the car where, thankfully, she relented on her threats and decided not to kill me.  (honestly, why wait?  If she'd killed me near the top, she would have more water...)

According to my inReach, the elevation gain on the Alligewi Rocks trail was about 650 feet so total elevation gain for both trails (total of just under 4 miles roundtrip) was a little over 1400 feet. Certainly not New Hampshire but not a bad workout and you’re unlikely to see anyone so you can huff and puff while resting on a log and nobody will judge.