The Thousand Steps

(all 1200 of them)

August 28th, 2022

1000 of anything can be a lot. 1000 miles from my home in western PA can put me in Baton Rouge or somewhere in Nebraska. It's the same distance that the Reid brothers would walk to fall down at your door.

1000 dollars can buy a car (although, these days, it probably won't run). 1000 degrees is the average internal temperature of a well built campfire and 1000 gallons of gasoline could cut my lawn (just kidding... I'm a notoriously irresponsible gardener, I rarely mow my lawn and would, most likely, use the gas to go camping where, conveniently, I cannot even see my lawn).

Finally, 1000 steps could get you to work.

In the case of our latest adventure, 1000 stone steps (actually 1200 but we'll get to that) could have gotten you to work in a quarry above Mount Union, PA excavating sandstone for the brick plant 1200 feet below.

We often hear about how soft people have become these days and I sometimes agree. Consider, for example, the Thousand Steps in Huntingdon County.

Constructed around 1936 by the miners who worked the quarry above, the steps were their daily commute to and from work.

To put this in perspective, imagine working on the 86th floor of the Empire State building (the lower observation deck made famous by An Affair to Remember, Sleepless in Seattle and, of course, Barney Stinson's "he's not coming" ploy).

Now imagine that what you do for work is breaking rock from the mountain itself and loading it onto rail cars. Finally, imagine that the elevator doesn't work and you have to take the stairs... up and back... every day.

The aforementioned 86th floor sits 1250 feet above the street in Manhattan... about the same distance that the ledge quarry is above route 22 in Mount Union, PA.

Our Journey started at a large parking area (GPS 40.391776, -77.914613) about 9 miles east of Huntingdon, PA and right along busy route 22.

The parking area is huge (it accommodates hunters in the game lands and fishermen in the Juniata river as well as hikers) and it ended with a path along the berm that is protected by a heavy concrete traffic barrier and soon turns left into the woods. The trail starts climbing and there are short courses of stone steps here but, for some reason, they don't count.

Note: wear orange during hunting seasons as this hike is completely within the game lands.

72 steps later we arrived at a kiosk with information on the construction and preservation of the Thousand Steps as well as a sign that indicates that the Standing Stone trail comes in from the left and goes straight up the steps.

The SST is an 80(ish) mile trail that connects the Tuscarora and the Mid-State trails. The Great Eastern trail (still being developed) runs on top of the SST in this section and the orange blazes along the steps are actually the SST.

Interesting side note: At the time of this report, PA and Maryland are the only states where the Great Eastern trail is complete (Alabama is also complete if the route stays on the Georgia side of the border when it leaves the Pinhoti trail). Sections are open in 7 other states and it will eventually run from Alabama to New York with a brief overlap (52 miles) on the Appalachian trail and 2 connector trails to the North Country trail. Anyway... back to the story...

When we last saw our heroes, they were about to climb...

The steps officially start at the kiosk / SST junction and are marked (maybe with Sharpie?) every 100 steps.

They are not one continuous staircase but are broken intermittently by flat(ish) areas that look like old railroad grades. The longest 2 runs were 199 and 185 steps and most of the rest were 65-90 steps each.

Two aspects that made the climb more difficult were that the steps are of random height and we came to dread seeing the tall ones which were more difficult for Cathy as some were almost knee high. (try stepping up onto your average kitchen chair a few hundred times)

They were also often sloped to one side or the other which made our trip more sketchy at times (and we had dry weather!). Some of these would have been very tricky in the winter and I, again, did not envy the quarrymen their daily walk to work.

I would imagine that OSHA would have a problem with both of these issues if the steps were still being used for commuter traffic. (but, then again, maybe we're just "soft")

We saw quite a few others on this Sunday afternoon. Some of whom scampered right past and others who encouraged us to go on ahead and, around the mid-point, there were 2 young girls coming down who, somewhat facetiously, told us "good luck".

We weren't really sure if they had made it to the top or turned back but, although they did look tired, they were still moving reasonably well so I assumed that they had made it and were simply worried about "the old people" (imagine eye-roll emoji here).

We paced ourselves, didn't try for any speed records and we stopped often to hydrate.

Near the top, beside step number 800, there was a cut off tree that may be instinctively touched by every hiker to climb the steps. I was amazed by how polished the wood felt when I grabbed the top to help pull me up the hill. When asked, Cathy said that she was sure she'd grabbed it too... I had to wonder what percentage of hikers actually do touch it??

Next, we came to the step marked 1000 but, wait, we weren't done... there were still steps above it! It turns out that the top step is actually number 1037 and, from here, you can follow the blue blazed trail to the right 3/10 of a mile to a couple of really nice vistas, the last of which shows Mount Union far below

We then backtracked to the top of the steps and followed the sign to find out what a "Dinkey Shed" is.

As it turns out, the Dinkey was the railroad that hauled the rock off of the mountain and the Dinkey Shed was a garage at the top where the engine could be serviced. There appears to have been a mechanic's pit (which has been filled in) in the floor and the building, though pretty heavily graffitied, was still in very good shape (stone buildings do tend to last and there was certainly no shortage of stone with which to build).

From there, we noticed a sign on the right that indicated another vista just 1/2 mile further so, naturally, we went.


Up more steps...

Another 92 of them to be exact.

Once to the top of these, it was a nice, though uphill, walk to the site of the Ledge Quarry where there is a scenic vista overlooking Mapleton and, trust me, pictures just do not do it justice.

Not ready to head back down and hoping for an extra overlook, we hiked about a mile north on the SST. We didn't find any more vistas but the trail was enjoyable nonetheless.

We arrived back at the site of the Ledge Quarry and there appeared to be a trail leading through the quarry in the direction of Mount Union. We followed it for a 1/2 mile or so until it entered private property but only found one minor vista and it was right at the Ledge Quarry site. (We also found a large campsite which I thought was poorly situated because there were no water sources nearby but, being in the game lands, it is illegal to use it anyway)

One thing that I found remarkable was how big the quarry actually was. It's hard to see with all the trees regrown now but, in its' heyday, it must have been something.

From there it was back down the hill, past the Dinkey Shed and down the steps to the trailhead.

The trip back down seemed to be a little slower as both Cathy & I find it a little easier to go uphill than down.

We met a group where one girl said it was their first hike of the season (helluva pick but they were near the top so they, almost certainly, made it) and a young couple with 2 dogs at the kiosk.

She was already thinking she wasn't going to make it (after 72 steps) but I hope she took her time and persevered.

In case you weren't counting; that's 72 before the steps, 1037 in the steps themselves and an additional 92 to get to the quarry for a total (at least by my count) of 1201 and a total elevation gain of about 1250 feet in just over a mile.

There is certainly an argument to be made for previous generations being tougher and I don't really envy the men who built the steps and travelled them daily to do the back breaking work in the Ledge Quarry. No doubt about it; they were tough.

It's a different time now though and maybe it's important to remember: They made the trip because they had to and I doubt many did it who were pushing 60. We did it for fun and, in case you're wondering, it's certainly worth it.

Just do it.

Do it for fun.

Do it for the challenge.

Do it so that you can post the pictures on social media with a Ghostbusters meme.