With some 60,000 acres spread across the Laurel and Chestnut ridges, known collectively as the Laurel Highlands, Forbes State Forest is a collection of 15 separate tracts comprising six state parks and a handful of wild areas. Picture rolling, rocky hills through hardwood forest streaked by small creeks springing to life as part of the larger Ohio River basin. Though a diverse set of users take advantage of the vibrant forest year-round, spring and fall provide weekend adventurers the best weather and trail conditions to stay and play. And at just 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the Laurel Highlands tract of Forbes also presents an excellent overnight opportunity that’s otherwise uncommon across the forested hills of western PA: free primitive camping.
From Pittsburgh, there are a few different ways to access the Laurel Highlands area of Forbes State Forest. The most straightforward approach (and with the best options to provision and refuel a camping venture) is from the north through Ligonier, entering the forest via Laurel Summit Drive from State Route 30.
Individuals and small groups (up to 10 people and two vehicles) can camp for free in Forbes State Forest in one of two ways: dispersed improvised campsites throughout the forest boundary, or in one of six motorized campsites.
Dispersed primitive camping is open to individuals and small groups anywhere in the forest, so long as one is 100 feet from any stream or open water source, 200 feet from (and out of sight of) roads and parking areas, and 25 feet from (and out of sight of) the nearest edge of a trail. Though most dispersed campers are thru-hikers on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, others will park on the road and hike in with their equipment to set camp, with some more commonly used sites near the Wolf Rocks and Beam Rocks overlooks.
Beyond the rules requiring that distance from roads, trails and water, dispersed campers are encouraged to follow Leave No Trace guidelines, packing out all trash and utilising field privies, which must be at least 200 feet from any open water source and buried at least six inches. While you do not need a permit to camp for a single overnight within the forest, it is highly recommended. (If you plan to stay for more than one night, a permit is needed regardless.) Overnight parking depends on the tract of forest you plan on visiting, so call or email the district forest office for specific details, and also to let them know your vehicle information.
If the idea of primitive camping appeals to you, but you’d prefer to have your vehicle nearby, you can reserve one of six motorized group sites spread across Forbes State Forest. Each site has its own foibles with regard to location (most are on or near trails and require that none of your equipment impedes access), but each has a fire ring and picnic table. Motorized sites require a permit prior to arrival, and Site 1, in a preferred location near Wolf Rocks and Bobcat Trail, requires an advance combination to unlock the access gate.
More Info: dcnr.pa.gov