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Old 07-31-2019, 10:41 PM   #1
DSettahr
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Chuck Keiper West Loop, Sproul State Forest, PA 4/4 - 4/7/19


With the success of last Spring's Alternative Duck Hole Trip on the Chuck Keiper East Loop, the cadre of die hard Duck Hole fans was determined to make another spring trip work again this year. The location was obvious- we'd return to complete the entire 53 mile Chuck Keiper Trail by hiking the 31.5 mile Chuck Keiper West Loop. Holding the trip a month later (early April as opposed to early March) promised us longer days to cover more miles, allowing us to hike 30+ in the same time it took us to cover just over 20 the previous year. And with the warmer weather we were practically guaranteed to avoid conditions like the snow we'd encountered the year prior (or so we thought). A flurry of emails in the weeks leading up to the trip allowed us to iron out the details- our itinerary, who was coming (the same crew of Jackson, Sam, Bryan, and Sawyer, plus a newcomer- Jared), and build excitement for the trip.


As is typical with a group of different folks arriving from diverse directions, our rendezvous plans were a bit... convoluted. We again selected a 3 day, 2 night itinerary, starting and ending once again at the East Branch Swamp trailhead on the connector trail that divides the full CKT into the East and West Loops. Bryan and I elected to arrive a day early and camp out about a mile in on the East Branch Trail in a moderately-large site just south of Coon Run Road- exactly as we'd done the previous year.

And so Thursday night saw me arriving at the trailhead, packing up, and setting out in the dark to meet up with Bryan in camp. I'd remembered how muddy the East Branch Trail was the prior year- and had also read that the Little Beaver Trail, which provides an alternate route around East Branch Swamp, was hard to follow but dry. Dry sounded pretty good, so set out in search of the Little Beaver Trail.

Suffice to say, the comments about the Little Beaver Trail being hard to follow weren't wrong. No tread of this trail exists, and even many of the painted yellow blazes that mark it are faded. Following this trail in the daylight would be a significant navigational challenge. To follow it in the dark, as I was, demanded every bit of attention I had to give. Several times I was ready to give up and just shoot a compass bearing and bushwhack south to Coon Run Road- and each time I managed to find another faint blaze that set me on the path. (Still worth it to keep my boots dry, though.)

Eventually, I wandered into camp where I found Bryan. He'd carried in a group tarp, and as rain was in the forecast for the evening, he'd pitched it over his tent. I found enough room under the tarp for my tent next to him, and soon I was turned in for the evening as well.


Rain started not long after I crawled into my sleeping bag. I was certainly glad to be warm and dry and snug in my tent, under a ginormous tarp.

Around 3:00 in the morning I woke up to a sound that was definitely not rain- sleet and snow were hitting the tarp overhead. I'd known that the temperature was forecast to drop quite low and anticipated that we might see snow, but I still groaned inwardly a bit at the thought. In any case, we were well prepared and it'd take more than a few inches of the white stuff to stop us, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

After daylight dawned, we woke up to veritable Winter wonderland.


We had a little bit of time to wait for our first companion to arrive- Jared was set to join us sometime that morning- so we leisurely broke down camp and ate breakfast. The remainder of our group- Sam and Sawyer- weren't able to arrive until late in the afternoon and so would be playing sweep, following in our tracks. Our agreed upon destination for Friday night- a campsite somewhere on West Branch, 9 miles of hiking across relatively level terrain away- would allow them to follow in our wake and thus complete the entire trail without having to traverse epic miles in the dark.

Soon, Jared had arrived amidst a swirling flurry of snow flakes, and we were ready to set out for the day.


Apart from being longer, the Chuck Keiper West Loop is almost a perfect mirror-image of the East Loop. The south half, which we'd be traversing first as we were hiking the loop CW, was characterized by shallow drainages, with level or gently undulating terrain and few significant climbs along the way. The north half, in contrast, contains multiple deep valleys, with climbs frequently approaching (and a couple even exceeding) 1,000 feet of elevation gain. If the south half of the West Loop were anything like what we'd experienced on the East Loop prior, we'd be hiking through a lot of open forest on easy trails, able to make good time.

For the most part this was accurate. For the most part. The trail was generally well marked, and usually well maintained, but there were a few challenges along the way. The "obvious" path lead us to mistakenly cross Swamp Branch too soon- and we lost some time here until we re-crossed the stream and found the correct route (and the correct crossing, a well-built branch some distance upstream).




Open forest between Swamp Branch and Penrose Road provided nice scenery as we hiked along.


The trail got brushy between Penrose and Hicks Roads. At one point, one of my companions even remarked, "is this trail maintained by a vertically-challenged person?" Indeed, there were a large number of branches growing out into the trail, perfectly at head height, forcing us to repeatedly duck, dodge, or walk around them. We also missed a turn and briefly lost the trail again just before the Hicks Road crossing.




Despite the setbacks, however, we found ourselves starting down into the West Branch drainage with plenty of daylight remaining. Prior research had promised us 2 nice sites on the downstream end of the trail section that follows West Branch, and we'd elected to spend Friday night at one of these sites. Finding the sites themselves proved to be a slight challenge- we found a bridge across West Branch, which we'd initially assumed lead to one of the sites, but it turned out both sites were in fact still some distance downstream. We selected the site that was more downstream of the two, as it had plenty of room for our full group, and starting setting up camp. The snow had turned to light rain during the day, and now the precipitation was tapering off entirely.






Sam and Sawyer showed up in camp just before midnight, along with a four-legged companion, Maya. Before turning in, I quizzed them on their experience- they'd made some of the same navigational mistakes as we had, but by following our tracks they were more quickly able to set themselves right than we had. They also indicated that they'd been smelling the smoke from our campfire ever since they'd started down the West Branch drainage, about a mile back up the trail. "It was like a beacon of light and warmth guiding us to the campsite."

Even though our planned campsite for Saturday night- Burns Run- was some 14 miles away, with some substantial uphills along the way, we still took time for a somewhat relaxed morning in camp. Many of us hadn't seen in other in person for ~6 months, so there was some catching up in order as we ate breakfast and broke down camp.


It also didn't take long for recreational beverages to make an appearance alongside breakfast.


Maya waited very patiently for us to pack up, even though she was by far the most excited member of our party to get moving.


And after some morning stretches, we donned our packs and set off.


Our day started out with a mild climb up towards De Haas Road. A short distance before crossing the road, we crossed a pipeline ROW- and got temporarily confused here by orange blazes running along the ROW. It turns out that PA snowmobile trails are also marked with orange blazes, just like the official State Forest hiking trails- and one such trail follows the ROW here. A quick consultation with the map revealed our mistake and soon we were back on the right path.


After crossing De Haas, the CKT turned south along an old logging railroad grade into the Eddy Lick Run drainage amidst stands of impressively-sized white pine. The snow had been melting all throughout the night and morning, and indeed by now there was little of it left.


Eddy Lick Run itself was crossed on another impressive bridge. There was a nice campsite on the far side that we'd initially considered spending a night at when originally formulating our itinerary- and it turned out it was just as well that we'd chosen not to do so. Despite being nice, the site was rather small.




The next several miles of trail provided us with more pleasant hiking along a gentle uphill grade on another old logging railroad bed. We passed a few more small but nice campsites along the way, as well as the remains of a splash dam, and some nice stretches of creek with scenic riffles and cascades. This was a very pretty stretch of trail.










Our original intent had been to break for lunch near Yost Run Falls, which lay partway down the next drainage along (you guessed it) Yost Run. However, while crossing PA 144 at the height of land between Eddy Lick and Yost Runs, the warmth of the sun amid open hardwoods still without leaves was too much to resist. Soon, wet gear and clothes alike were spread out near the PA 144 parking area to dry while we relaxed and soaked up the sunlight and ate lunch.


With lunch in our bellies and our gear (mostly) dried out, we felt renewed vigor as we started down into the Yost Run drainage. Not far from the height of land we passed Yost Run Falls, a small but very scenic waterfall.


The rest of the Yost Run drainage had it's moments- cascades here and there, and a few small (and infrequently used) but otherwise nice campsites spread out along the trail. The trail itself, however, left a bit to be desired. As with the Boggs Run section of the East Loop we'd traversed the previous year, the Yost Run stretch of trail appeared to have been extensively re-routed at some point in the not-too-distant past, from the bottom of the hollow to lengthy side hilling sections midway up the side slope. Not only was there a distinct lack of any significant bench dug into the hillside to facilitate traversing the side slope, it was also clear that we were the first group to hike the trail since leaf fall in Autumn. What little tread there was on the steep slopes was buried deep beneath slippery leaves, which at times were knee deep. It wasn't long before our ankles started letting us know that we were to pay the price for traversing such a steep side hill, and the occasional slip on the leaves sent members of our party sliding down the hill (and no doubt incurring a few light bruises in the process). Some significant work is sorely needed on this stretch of trail to bring it up to even any sort of minimum standard for trail maintenance.




Continued in next post...
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Old 07-31-2019, 10:42 PM   #2
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Continued from above:

After several miles of ankle twisting fun, we reached a sharp bend in the trail. Here, the CKT made a quick turn to the east where it would make one of the steepest ascents of the entire trail, with over 1,000 feet of elevation gain from the bottom of the hollow back up to top of the Allegheny Plateau. We chose to take a short break here, to drink water and eat food in preparation for the climb. And, as it turned out, to do a quick tick check as they'd come out in force with the arrival of warmer weather during the day.




Most of the campsites along Yost Run that we'd seen up to this point were fairly small. There was an old, moderately sized campsite pretty close to the bend in the trail. Furthermore, downstream it appeared as if the drainage opened up considerably, with ample flat ground on either side of the stream. The potential for more nice sites further down along Yost Run seems good.

The climb up and out of the drainage was every bit as tough as expected. Steep and sustained, and with full packs with gear for warmer weather, we definitely felt it. Only the dog still seemed enthused about the whole business of hiking by the time we reached the top.


As the trail leveled off, we found ourselves passing a hunting camp (with a small spring nearby), and then entering a pine plantation atop the plateau. The trail was peaceful here, and a couple of really nice campsites set amid the pines were tempting- but water up here was in short supply (apart from the small spring back near the camp), and we'd heard nothing but good things about the campsite on Burns Run, only a few miles further. So we pushed on.




The drop down into the the Burns Run drainage was steep and a bit rocky but no where near as sustained a change in elevation as the climb out of Yost Run had been. Dusk comes early in the deep hollows of the Pennsylvania Wilds, and lengthening shadows caught us arriving at the bottom of the hollow before turning to hike upstream a bit along Burns Run to the campsite at the confluence of Packer Fork and Boggs Run.






The Burns Run campsite was everything we'd been promised and more. A ring of logs surrounded the fire pit, making for excellent sitting benches. The fire pit itself was divided into several sections, with a main section for the primary fire, and a separate side section to scoop coals into for cooking. Nearby, slabs of sandstone had been balanced atop upright logs to make for handy tables. A healthy supply of firewood had been stacked nearby as well. And a section of nearby Packer Fork had been divided off with rocks- presumably a make-shift refrigerator. It was clear that someone had put a lot of effort into making the site nice- and my companions and I debated who had done so and why (I'm still convinced that the site gets used annually as a hunting camp in late Autumn). It didn't take long for tents to get pitched and a fire stoked, and food (and more recreational beverages) were soon being heartily consumed. Conversation lasted around the fire until a bit into the evening until eventually, all turned in for the night.








Early Sunday morning brought with it fog in the hollows of the Wilds, and we awoke to gloomy and other-worldly scenery around camp.


The fog started to burn off quickly, however, and by the time we were packed up and ready to set out the sun with shining brightly. The final day's itinerary contained a few more climbs and descents- although none nearly as rugged as the climb out of the Yost Run drainage the day before. The climb up through and then out of the Boggs Run drainage was pleasant, with a sustained but short push back up to the plateau amid young coppice growth in a formerly harvested stand of hardwoods.




We passed through more open forest atop the plateau, where we made an interesting discovery- the abandoned sole of someone's boot, discarded and left behind along the trail. That must've been a rough hike out with a sole-less boot!




Fish Dam Run was also pleasant, and we stopped for a quick break in a small but nice campsite just off the creek. A few other campsites, similarly small but nice, were visible nearby.




As we climbed upstream along Fish Dam Run, however, we made an unfortunate discovery. Much of the upper portion of the Fish Dam Run drainage was covered with a dense understory of Japanese barberry- an incredibly invasive, non-native plant that has even been linked to the increased spread of ticks (and tangentially, lyme disease). More than half our group has a forestry background, and we were not too happy to see such a noxious plant growing rampant in the backcountry- in a designated Wild Area, even!


As we climbed further, the barberry infestation eventually thinned out and then disappeared entirely. Soon, we were huffing and puffing our way back up through open forest to the top of the plateau, were we stopped for a final lunch break of the hike.




From here, we had less than two miles of relatively easy hiking to return to the trailhead. Along the way, we passed a stone monument commemorating the site of Pennsylvania's very first game refuge, as well as the roadside overlook across the Fish Dam Run Wild Area on PA 144.








After 31.5 miles of (at times) rugged hiking through snow and rain and ticks, the trailhead was certainly a bit of a welcome sight to behold. After a quick stop for post-hike pizza in the (somewhat) nearby town of Bellefonte, we were each headed our separate ways.

Overall, it was a fun trip and I'm glad to have finally completed the full 53 mile Chuck Keiper Trail (even if it took 2 trips across 8 total days to do it). The CKT definitely has a few issues that need addressing- the side hill trail sections in the Boggs and Yost Run areas need improvement, and parts of the south half of the loop definitely need some trimming- but overall I still found it to be a trail worth hiking even though it's reputation may indicate otherwise. It may be lacking in the scenery of the Black Forest Trail, but it makes up for it in solitude (the trail clearly gets relatively little use), with some stellar campsites along the way, and some very pleasant sections of trail along cascading streams. I think it would perhaps be possible to thru-hike the entire 53 miles in one go in a 3-4 day weekend in warmer weather with a full ultralight setup, but the substantial ups and downs along the north half definitely put this trail in a class of it's own in comparison to easier trails of similar length (such as the Cranberry Lake 50). I probably wouldn't recommend the CKT as a great first foray into PA backpacking, but it's a trail worth traversing in it's own right for those who've completed some of the more popular options and are looking for new destinations.
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Old 08-06-2019, 04:50 PM   #3
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Also, forgot to mention: Thanks to forum user @jmitch for his information in advance regarding the condition of the trail and especially tent sites along the way. It proved invaluable to our trip planning.
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