Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hickory Creek Wilderness Area & Hickory Creek Trail

The Hickory Creek Wilderness Area is nearly 9,000 acres of designated wilderness within the Allegheny National Forest.  The Hickory Creek Trail is a ~12 mile loop that meanders through the wilderness area.  Many people use this loop as a short, overnight backpacking trip or a long day hike.  The 12 mile loop has about 1,000 feet of elevation change, so it's not constant climbing, but the terrain changes enough to make it interesting.  Being a wilderness area, the trail receives very little maintenance.  This means that in many places the trail markers have faded, the trail is a little overgrown, and many trees have fallen across the trail. The Hickory Creek Trail was also recently mentioned in Backpacker Magazine.

On July 3, 2017 the Country Squirrel Outfitters owners, Steve and Miranda, decided to explore the Hickory Creek Trail.  A trail run / day hike was to be the method to tackle the trail.  Equipped with trail running hydration packs and some nutritional snacks, the "CSO Team" arrived at the trailhead around 10am.  There were 3 other vehicles in the parking lot.
CSO Owners, Steve & Miranda, at the trailhead
The journey begins with a 1.4 mile hike to the Hickory Creek Trail loop. At mile 0.7 you enter the actual Hickory Creek Wilderness area, which is indicated by a weathered wooden sign.  In another 0.7 miles (mile 1.4) you encounter a second wooden sign at the Hickory Creek junction.  This first section of trail is fairly flat with a few rolling hills.  The trail was marked with faded white/tan/yellow blazes on the trees.  It was pretty clear that the blazes hadn't been re-painted in recent years.  The trail also had a few trees that had fallen across it, but overall, this section of the trail was able to be run.  At the junction intersection, you encounter another small wooden sign that indicates the south and north loops.  We decided to begin the loop by heading south.
After beginning our trek on the Hickory Creek loop, we quickly realized that the running portion of the journey was going to be a slow one.  The first major obstacle we encountered was a very sizable patch of stinging nettle.  By "sizable," I mean about 2 miles worth of stinging nettle.  After tiptoeing our way through this patch of evil and wicked plant, we continued on our way.  The stinging nettle really slowed our pace as we tried to avoid touching the nettles as much as we could.  The trail would continue to wind through the wilderness area, which included a few climbs up and over rolling hills and a few jumps over some small headwater streams.  We would encounter another couple and their dog.  The couple was from Ohio and they had done an overnight backpacking trip on the trail.

Unfortunately, the stinging nettle would continue to be a theme throughout the day as we would encounter several smaller patches of nettle throughout the trail.  We would also find many, many down trees across the trail.  Many of these trees had recently fallen in one of the severe storms the area experienced.  Most of these trees were quite large and required a detour off trail to work your way around the fallen trees.  In some cases, we had to climb up and over the fallen trees. In some portions of the trail, there were so many downed trees that "trail running" became nearly impossible.  You could only run for about a hundred yards before encountering another fallen tree. 

Steve surveying one of the many large fallen trees and trying to locate the trail.

Miranda climbing over another one of the clusters of trees blocking the trail

Steve climbing through yet another large cluster of trees

We encountered another coupe of hikers around the midway point of the loop trail.  They had started the loop by heading north.  This was also the first significant stream crossing, which we surveyed with the other couple of hikers.  We all managed to find a safe crossing and keep our feet relatively dry.  However, dry feet would soon come to pass as we would encounter another significant stream crossing in another mile or two.  This is the location where we temporarily lost the trail for a few minutes and had to do some exploring to try to locate the trail.  We would cross the stream several times while trying to locate the trail and would eventually give up on trying to keep our feet dry.

Along the way we would encounter several locations that had been used throughout the years by backpackers as their campsite for the evening.  These were primitive sites, but a couple of them had included fire rings constructed of native stones.  One campsite location was also equipped with a table that had artfully been constructed of flat stones. (Note: This is a wilderness area, so impacts to the environment, including moving stones, should be kept to a minimum and avoided whenever possible).

Steve checking out one of the campsites, which included a rock "table"
Overall, the Hickory Creek Wilderness area is just that - a wilderness.  The trail is a relatively easy hike, but it is sometimes hard to follow and has a lot of fallen trees that are blocking the trail.  Being a wilderness area, I don't foresee these trees being cleared any time soon.  So, if you plan to hike, backpack or trail run this trail in the near future, expect to climb over fallen trees.  However, despite the fallen trees and evil stinging nettle, the trail is quite beautiful and we both greatly enjoyed our trail run/ day hike.

Miranda taking a quick break under a few hemlock trees along one of the many beautiful sections of the trail.
Steve running through a large patch of ferns along the trail
When we reached the end of the trail, my Suunto GPS watch indicated that the entire journey was 13.95 miles in length.  Much of the literature and online information indicates that this is a 12 mile hike.  My distance included the navigation around many of the fallen trees and a little bit of exploring when we temporarily lost the trail near the midway point. Regardless, the entire hike is definitely a little longer than 12 miles and would more accurately be 13 to 13.5 miles in total length.  It took us 4 hours and 32 minutes to complete the trek.  The Hickory Creek Wilderness Area and Hickory Creek Trail are definitely something that you should put on your "to do" list.  In our journey, we managed to see abundant amounts of wildlife (a young black bear, several deer, two turkeys, a garter snake, and many, many chipmunks).  It's a beautiful area and if you are okay with a remote trail with minimal maintenance and minimal trail markings, it's a great trail for a day (or two) of adventure. 

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