Running the Black Forest Trail

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As part of my preparation for Hellbender 100 I set out with my friend and co-worker Mike Templin to attempt the entire Black Forest trail in the Tiadaghton State Forest in PA. The Black Forest trail is a rugged, remote, 42ish mile loop, chock full of steep climbs, creek crossings, and sweeping vistas. Unfortunately for Mike and I the mountains were draped in a thick fog for most of the day obscuring some of the best views.

Mike and I arrived in PA around 4pm on Wednesday. We stayed at the Hotel Manor the night before and after our attempt. After unpacking our gear we decided to embark on a short shake out run after talking with Mark, one of the hotel owners, about possible routes. We left from the hotel and ran a short 1.5 miles of rail trail before embarking on a steep 1,000 foot climb to a spectacular vista that looked out over the town of Slate Run. After a short stop to take in the view we descended back down and headed to the hotel bar for dinner. Shortly after we packed up our gear for 42 self supported miles and tried our best to get some sleep.

Our alarms went off at 5 am. After a quick breakfast and some last minute preparation we hit the trail at 6:30, choosing to travel in a clockwise direction. After a short ascent on the road we ran along slate run for a mile or so, stopping just once to sign in to the hiker log alongside the trail. Soon we turned off our headlamps and headed up the very first rocky climb. The weather was damp and foggy and the humid air and occasional bouts of rain made the numerous roots and rocks very slippery. Heading up or down hill could be very treacherous with loose terrain and a blanket of damp leaves making up most of the footing.

The opening miles of the trail are difficult while traveling clockwise but soon Mike and I fell into a rhythm and the miles started ticking by. The trail was very well marked for the most part, blazed with orange and also with signs and arrows on rocks and trees. Things seemed to be going very smoothly until after finishing up a long descent and following some double track along a creek we realized we had not seen a blaze for quite some time. After back tracking we realized we had added at least a mile and a half on to the 42 we were attempting. Not the best news at only 9 miles in!

After more climbing and descending we stopped to fill our water bottles and refuel. We filled our bottles from a fast flowing stream and after treating the water with a steripen enjoyed some of the coldest, freshest water either of us had tasted. This was my first time going such a long distance self supported and drinking from the streams was something I had stressed about in the days leading up to the run so I was very pleasantly surprised when the water tasted great and we had no issues with debris or grit in the water.

As the miles began to pile up the constant ascending and descending was starting to take its toll and my legs were beginning to feel heavy. Luckily around mile 23 or 24 the trail plateaued and there were some very enjoyable flats and downhills that would lead us into the last quarter of the trail. Somewhere between the upper 20s and lower 30s in mileage the trail began a gradual climb that ran parallel to a creek which it must have crossed at least 20 times! The cold rushing water was a relief to our feet which were starting to feel the burden of so many miles. This was one of the most memorable and fun sections of the trail.

At this point in the run we were beginning to anticipate the finish. We knew that there was one more climb coming but we had no idea that it would be the worst of the day. After a steep, quad smashing downhill the trail began to follow a creek up the side of a mountain through a field of sharp rocks and large boulders. The weather was also starting to turn and the occasional rain drops were beginning to turn into a downpour.

When we finally reached the top of climb we realized we were slowly becoming enveloped by a thick fog. The sun had also set and it was starting to become dark. We took a moment and put on our headlamps. Mike’s watch beeped and we displayed our distance as 42 miles. We broke into an enthusiastic jog, believing that our final descent to the bridge across Slate Run and the Hotel Manor was near. Around the next bend our hopes were dashed. A wooden sign read : Black Forest trail to Slate Run 3.6 miles.

Disbelief soon turned into determination. Our progress had slowed to a crawl. The combination of the rain and fog reduced visibility to less than 10 feet. We trudged on through the worsening conditions, carefully moving forward while being mindful not to lose the trail in the dark. Soon we began to descend and our spirits lifted. The trail emptied us out onto an exposed ridge and we marveled at the dark shapes of the mountains we could barely make out in the night. This would have been an amazing vista in the daylight. More descending led us through some ancient rock formations where our headlamps eerily reflected off the stones. In the distance we saw the lights of the hotel and before we knew it we were crossing the final bridge over Slate Run and jogging into the parking lot. At 8:50 pm we had completed the Black Forest Trail.

Gear Used: Solomon Advanced Skin 12 pack, S Lab Ultra shoes, Steripen UV water treatment. The Advanced Skin 12 carried more than enough gear and nutrition to support a 12+ hour effort. The S Lab Ultra shoes were adequately protective for technical trails and dried quickly through the numerous stream crossing. I wouldn’t hesitate to use the Steripen again, with the caveat that we did carry chlorine treatment tabs as a back up.

Hotel Manor: For anybody attempting the Black Forest trail I would recommend staying at the Hotel Manor. The hotel is conviently located on the trail, and the owners were very accommodating and knowledgeable about the area.

-John

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