Trip Report: West Rim Trail; Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon

Location: North Central PA

State: Pennsylvania

Miles: 30

Days: 3

Type: Shuttle

Day 1

I woke up at 3:48 am, ten minutes before the alarm. That’s pretty damn early if you ask me, but sometimes you have to suffer if you want a good piece of trail. I shut off the alarm and got out of bed, feeling pretty good despite the fact that I had already covered 72 miles of trail in the previous five days and thinking how nice it was to sleep in a bed, at home even, for two whole nights in a row; yet, I was itching to get out again, consumed by wanderlust . . . . I dressed quickly and bounded down the stairs only to find that Neville lying on the couch, awake but not yet up. I rousted him out, we jammed our packs in the car and before you could say, “HolycraptasticfastBatman!” we were on our way to the trailhead.

The 3+ hour drive passed quickly and we nearly arrived at the Northern Terminus on time. Patrick and spindle were already there, standing in the snow-covered parking lot, all bundled up and shuffling about to stay warm. We waited around for about an hour for HikingFF77, but he didn’t show up and we really couldn’t wait much longer so we packed ourselves into spindle’s Saturn, a small troop of backpacking sardines, and headed for the trailhead at the Southern end of the WRT. When we got there I saw two cars in the lot, and as we started out I hoped that one of them belonged to Steve (HikingFF77), as there was a single set of footprints in the snow and they looked pretty fresh.

The trail started out on a very gentle slope for the first hundred yards or so. We got to the trail register I opened the box with every intention of signing in. Unfortunately it was frozen solid. There was no way were signing that thing and I felt compelled to prove it to the rest of the group by pounding the little ice-bricked notebook against a tree; thus, rendering the evidence indisputable. Oh well . . .

We continued onward and upward, following Lloyd’s Run, but the stream dropped away quickly as the trail ascended steeply up to the ridgeline, climbing nearly a thousand feet in the first mile. Pretty soon I found myself leading the pack, making brief and frequent stops in order to allow the others to catch up and get their breath.

Finally we reached the top and the trail leveled out. We stopped to take pictures of the dynamite shack, hoping beyond hope that no one would really store dynamite in there since it was rather dilapidated and the small lock on the door could easily have been compromised. Then set to putting down some miles.

This was no easy task as the views of the Pine Creek Gorge are not only spectacular but numerous. On top of that it was a gorgeous, sun-warmed, blue-sky day and I found myself stopping frequently to take pictures. Eventually we made it to the first real vista, meaning it was marked on the map, and the tracks we had been following from the start clearly showed that our mystery hiker had rested here. Since we had taken a lunch break about 15 minutes earlier we did not stop for long, and as we started out again I continued to hold out hope that the tracks belonged to Steve.

The snow was not deep, maybe three inches at best, and the footing was pretty good, and as the trail leveled off it headed away from the lip of the canyon. As a result we started making pretty good time, closing in on the mystery hiker ahead and finally, at about 5 miles, just as the trail cut back out to the canyon rim, I turned a corner and saw the the mystery man standing there, waiting. “Are you Steve?, I asked. “Are you John?” was the reply. And so we’d found our man. We waited a minute for everyone to catch up. Introductions were made and then we were off down the trail again.

Somehow I ended up out in front again and I picked up the pace a bit. We had gotten a late start and it was already 1:00. We still had 7-9 miles left if were going to hit one of the targeted campsites, and now that we had everyone together I was eager to make up some time in order to get in at a decent hour. So I trucked along trough the snowy blueberry bushes that crowded the trail, making a mental not to do this trail in the rainy season as wet blueberry bushes are a 100% guarantee that nothing below the knee will remember what dry feels like. Even now the snow brushing off as I passed made me very aware of the vulnerability that comes with wet feet. I grumbled spastically at the blueberry bushes for a moment and set myself to the task at hand: making up time.

But no matter how hard I tried it seemed like we weren’t getting anywhere. I was setting a pretty good pace but the rest of the crew wasn’t keeping up so I did a lot of stopping and waiting. Then again, my legs were in pretty good shape after hiking the New Jersey section of the AT earlier in the week. Not surprisingly spindle, who did the New jersey trek with me, had moved up to the second slot and she was staying pretty close behind me. At around 3:00pm it became pretty apparent that we were not going to make either of the targeted campsites. Fortunately there are a LOT of campsites on this trail so which allowed for a good deal of flexibility.

spindle and I stopped to wait for everyone else to catch up and we discussed our options and formulate a plan. Here’s what we came up with: no_granola and spindle go scout ahead and stop at the first good-looking campsite. And that’s exactly what we did.

The first likely spot was about a mile and a half away in a nice stand of pines, just off the lip of the gorge. We dropped our packs and quickly set up the tent. I went about collecting firewood while Michele worked on getting the fire started. The rest of the crew rolled in just as we were getting started on the latter tasks, and thanks to NJ Packer’s secret fire starter recipe, we had a blaze going in no time.

Having accomplished the main tasks I stopped and took a moment to look around. The site was relatively flat, sheltered, with plenty of fire wood and an almost-view across the canyon. In fact, it was perfect in every way except one: there was no water. Patrick and spindle volunteered to hike down the hill and look for a stream. Bless them I say. I was prepared to set 5 pots of snow by the fire and let them melt down, but they came back with gallons of filtered water: crazy!

Then spindle started passing around the Trailgaritas and it was dinner time. Being the swell guy that I am, I had carried in package of bus, some secret sauce and a stack of the best f***ing hotdogs ever, figuring I’d be the camp hero, which I was for about 15 minutes until Patrick reached into his magic 80 pound bag of food and started making fresh and tasty pizzas. He’d carried in a giant zip lock bag of pizza dough and warmed it up in his jacket to let it rise a bit. Then he fried it on both sides, slapped some tomato paste on it, sprinkled it with garlic powder and oregano and smothered it in cheese. That was definitely the best pizza I ever had while backpacking!

Needless to say we all ate well that night. Dinner was followed in short order by a healthy batch of Trailgaritas and over all we had a pretty damn good time before we went to bed . . .

Day 2

We were up early, but not too early. Over the past week I had quickly developed a morning ritual of waking up and snuggling down all nice and toasty in my bag for a while before getting up. This day was no exception. I heard some movement of in the general direction of the fire pit and listened quietly as wood was broken to feed the hungry flames. Finally I got up.

Opening the vestibule zipper I was confronted with the obnoxious discovery that it had snowed during the night: not obnoxious in and of itself but for the shudder that wracked my frame as I cringed under the sheet of chilly powder that had fallen on my head and the back of my neck and melted into a collection of cool slithering tributaries to the chilly rivulet that weaved its way along my spine. Of course I was thrilled once I got over the initial shock. The morning was calm and some flakes were still falling, making their way silently to the ground.

Patrick and Neville were awake and starting in on breakfast so I joined them. spindle came rolling out a few minutes later, a look of wonderment on her face. From what I could gather she was confused by the fact that she was actually enjoying herself in the cold weather and the snow, which she had previously thought impossible based on er previous experiences. But I think her nice down jacket and cozy down sleeping bag and snuggly down booties went a long way toward making her comfortable. For those of you who are vehemently opposed to cold weather/winter backpacking I say this: the secret is in being prepared to deal with the conditions. If you dress right you’ll stay warm and dry and you’ll find that the madness does not have to stop in October. Backpacking fever can easily be a year round affliction. In fact, deep winter is the best time of year to go since there are no insects, no snakes and no bears and no one is afraid of bunnies and deer.

Anyway, we hung out and had breakfast and after a while I started making some loud comments aimed at Steve. I let him sleep in as long as possible but we really needed to get an earlier start then we had the day before so it was time. After a small piece of prodding and needling he finally emerged from the tent and set about trying to warm up his boots by the fire. The rest of us began to slowly break camp and I was not the last one done for once. In fact, I think I had my pack loaded and ready even before spindle, which NEVER happens when I hike with her.

We got under way shortly after 9:00. The plan was to try to make up a couple of extra miles since we had come up a bit short of our goal for the previous day, and we started off down the hill at a pretty good clip. But once we crossed Good Springs run, about a quarter of a mile from our campsite, the trail turned back upward toward the ridge top.

At this point spindle and I quickly put some distance between us and the others. It was our seventh day on the trail in the past eight, and our legs had grown accustomed to the effort. We quickly hit level ground atop the ridge and kept going for a few minutes before we stopped to wait, giving everyone a chance to catch up and take a break before we continued.

We passed a few pretty easy miles and then dropped down into the Bradley-Wales Picnic Area, just shy of the half way point of our trek, where we stopped for lunch and squeezed some rusty water from a well pump. An old timer came down the road in his truck, heading up to the overlook. I stopped him to ask if he’d heard a recent weather report and he proceeded to chat at me for about ten minutes. Then he went on his way and we sat down to finish our lunch. Steve was feeling a bit out of sorts and decided that if the old fellow came back he would ask for a ride out. Sure enough the truck pulled back into view shortly. Steve hailed him and ran over to place his request. But the old man wasn’t having it; gave some excuse about bad roads and a recent accident and not wanting to drive back down the mountain, so Steve was stuck with us.

After checking the maps we headed out again. There were a couple of quick overlooks so we had to stop but we were soon on our way again and it was more of the same: rolling along the ridge, sterile blueberry patches and all of those terrible views of the gorge . . .

After a few miles we dropped down to a small stream bed and took a break. Since I was making good time and my legs were feeling pretty good I decided to hang back and take it in while the rest of the group went on ahead. I was quite taken with the spot. There were thick icicles dripping off the overhanging logs, just above the chilly, gurgling churn, and the silence of the woods blended seamlessly with the water’s snow-muffled voice. For a moment I forgot everything as I stood there, awash in a wave of solitude, lost in a distant reverie . . . Unfortunately I woke up from my little dream. About ten minutes had passed and it was time for me to catch up, so off I went.

I put my legs to work and after about 15 minutes of hard hiking I saw Steve trudging up the hill in the distance. I judged that it was not prudent to run by and leave him to fend for himself so I decided to hang back, knowing that Steve was tired and that he hadn’t had a lot of experience in cold weather hiking. That’s not to say that I’m a cold weather expert, but I’ve done a few trips and a lot of reading and probably had more experience than the rest of the group, and I didn’t want to leave him struggling by himself if anything should happen: safety first and all.

We went slowly. At one point while were descending the bank of Slate Run we saw Patrick and spindle heading up opposite bank. They were clipping along pretty good and that was the last we saw of them for another hour and a half. Eventually we caught up to Neville as we were moving into mid afternoon. Stopping to look at the map and get our bearings I judged that we were about 3 miles from our destination and that spindle and Patrick would have a roaring fire going by the time we got in to camp just after dark. So we hit again, hoping to pick up the miles while the light held . . .

Boy was I ever wrong. We strolled in to camp about 20 minutes later. The fire was not started yet, but Patrick had pulled together a pretty impressive pile of wood. spindle had cleared the pit and was about breaking out the firestarter.

So we pitched our tents and sawed up some of the wood that Patrick had collected. Before we knew it the fire was going pretty good and out came the Trailgaritas and Patrick’s magic bag of Edibility. Much to our delight, he cut fat discs of raw cookie dough off of a Tollhouse log and passed them around. Now that’s a good idea and a half right there. He tried to bake a few slabs wrapped tinfoil and set by the fire, which was a burnt failure and really couldn’t compare to the raw fleshy goodness the dough itself. Needless to say, I will be sporting a raw cookie log on my next cold-weather adventure.

The night wore on and the tequila went down. And I lost my Moon Pie virginity, but not until after I lost a Moon Pie! Neville gave me a Moon Pie and I had placed it inside my jacket to warm it up, then wandered off to hang the food on the bear line across the creek, promptly forgetting about the hidden chocolate-covered marshmallow delicacy in my tequila induced stupor. We searched and searched but the mischievous Moon Pie was nowhere to be found. Neville, despite his disgust at my obvious mistreatment and lack of respect where reverence was due, offered me the last Moon Pie, presumably in the hope that I would learn the value of the Moon Pie. I accepted his offer humbly, my head hanging low with shame, and quickly unwrapped the proffered morsel, determined not to have a repeat performance. I waved the chocolate disc back and forth before the fire, occasionally flipping it around to warm both sides, so close that I could barely stand the heat. As the smooth surface began to melt and glisten, the sticky sweetness gripped my fingertips in warm ooze and I realized that this was no trifling thing I was doing. I stood back from the flames, spindle and Neville watching me earnestly as I paused a moment on the brink. And then I placed the Moon Pie in my mouth, plunged my taste buds into the open maw of the awaiting chasm, the gulf of culinary ecstasy. I was converted instantly. I am now a proud member of the Order of the Moon Pie, still a novice, but a brother nonetheless . . . And sweet dreams ensued . . .

Day 3

Sunday morning. The stoves and pots and cups and packets of instant oatmeal had become a familiar scene over the past week. But this was a special day as Patrick continued to pull trick out his bag of magical culinary delights. The treat of the day was fresh baked cinnamon rolls smothered in frosty icing. We licked our chops, tossed down the cinnamon rolls and licked our fingers. Then went about our morning business of eating and slowly packing up. In the packing process spindle let out a little yelp of glee from the tent, and we all looked to see what was the matter as she emerged from the tent with the previous evening’s errant Moon Pie. Apparently she had moved my windshirt to get at some gear and heard the unmistakable crinkle of a Moon Pie wrapper. She came over and presented it me and I heated it up and greedily gulped it down! I now owe Neville two Moon Pies and my undying gratitude for introducing me to The New Church of the Moon Pie Nazarene . . .

Despite our slow progress the first two days, the last day promised to be shortest mileage day in the trip plan. After a brief discussion we determined that the group would break into two and take different routes out. Patrick, Steve and Neville were going to cut out at mile marker number four and take the road back down to the Northern Terminus parking area, effectively cutting off about a mile, while spindle and I would follow the trail all the way out in order to insure that we hit our 100+ mile goal for the week. We also didn’t want to miss out on the open views between miles 3 and 4 where the map showed that trail cut right along the lip of the canyon for about a half-mile. Knowing that we had to make up some time the two of us set off and left the others. We also determined that we should really push ourselves since we wanted to beat them back to the cars.

So we were off again and we moved along a good clip. The views along this stretch were impressive to say the least. There were a lot of hunters out scouting, since the next day was the opening of rifle season in PA (statewide holiday), but we trudged on, not paying them much mind. It was a good hike and we churned out the miles with reckless abandon, stopping only briefly to snap a few pictures when we came to exceptional overlooks, then headed back down into the valley for the dreaded last mile. We both slowed our pace here, seemingly unconsciously. 8 days of trail, while anxiously anticipated in the planning stages, is also somewhat intimidating. Now the realization that we had nearly completed the trips and reached our goal was bitter sweet to say the least. We were proud of ourselves for having done it and we felt good. But neither one of us wanted the adventure to end . . . and of course it did.

We got back to my car, dropped our packs and waited for the others. When they arrived about 30 minutes later we all headed out to the Antlers Inn for the ‘morgasboar’ [SIC: according to an old toothless guy that told us about the feasting facilities while also insisting that The Bible says I should be married because I’m 37 years old . . . a whole other story . . .). We ate like hungry backpackers, shuttled back to the Southern Terminus and got the hell out of there.

What I Learned

1) It’s f***ing cold out there at the end of November.
2) Cookie dough rocks!
3) You can make pizza in a pan and it’s yummy.
4) There’s nothing like roasting the best f***ing hotdogs ever over an open fire at the end of the day
5) Melted Moon Pies are mighty tasty.
6) I really do need a white gas stove.
7) I know more about cold weather camping than I thought I did.
8) I planned a flexible itinerary, but my trip plans are more flexible than I thought.
9) In certain elite linguistic circles a buffet is referred to as a ‘morgasboard

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