Photo: GO Laurel Highlands

Forbes State Forest - Laurel Highlands Area Camping

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.

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. 

Getting There

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.

Camping

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 

Photo: GO Laurel Highlands

Activities 

There’s a healthy outlet for everyone here, with a number of multi-use trails for hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners and horseback riders. A portion of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, which extends from Ohiopyle to Johnstown, runs through Forbes State Forest.

More Info: dcnr.pa.gov  

Fish

If the idea of stalking a 3-foot-wide pool to cast a fly in the hopes of pulling out a brook trout is your idea of heaven, then you’re in luck. Many small, coldwater trout streams run through Forbes State Forest. There's Linn Run, Indian Run and Fish Run, for starters. A little farther south, Roaring Run between Painter Rock Trail and Fire Tower Road is also worth a look.

Hike/Trail Run

Whether you want to stop and smell the mountain laurel or are trying to top a personal best, there are many trails of varying degrees of difficulty to explore. Be sure to check out Fish Run Trail which follows Linn Run as it meanders down the mountain.

Bike

Colloquially known as “Laurel Mountain,” the mountain biking in Forbes SF has everything from forest service roads to singletrack trails comprised of rocks and boulders. The 3-mile Spruce Run trail is a good litmus for those new to the area (be aware, this trail crosses the yellow-blazed Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, which is limited to foot traffic only).

Gallop

All of the forest trails (with the exception of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail) are open to equestrians looking for a place to jaunt their large animals. The gated Jacob Miller forest service road offers a good spot to start things off.

Nearby Highlights

History buffs should visit the well-preserved Fort Ligonier. This once-British stronghold served as an outpost for General John Forbes during his campaign to take Fort Duquesne in what is now modern-day Pittsburgh.

If architecture is more your thing, Frank Lloyd Wright’s FallingWater is a must see. The mid-century masterpiece requires advanced ticket purchase, but is well worth the effort.

The Powdermill Nature Reserve has wildlife and ecology exhibits, and is a functioning environmental research center funded by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Bonus: It’s free. 

Refuel

Head into downtown Ligonier via Market Street and you’ll find a bustling little shopping district. Just off the Diamond, or central square, grab coffee at either Abigail’s Coffeehouse or Connections Café, both of which have pastries and sandwich-type fare. Or if you’d prefer a pint of beer and steak or pasta, check out Carol and Dave’s Roadhouse. Top it all off with a double scoop from Ligonier Creamery.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.