Pittsburgh Hiking: Standing Stone Trail’s Thousand Steps

Journey up Central Pennsylvania’s Historic Sandstone Stairmaster.

The Standing Stone Trail (SST) is a bit of a misnomer. There’s not much standing around, and plenty of stepping stones on this technical and stunning 84-mile trail spanning state and municipal parks, state forest land and private property over three counties in central Pennsylvania. Hiked south to north, the SST is a rigorous endeavor that can be done as a thru-hike over multiple days, or enjoyed as challenging out-and-back day-hikes. One such day-hike, located in the middle portion of the SST, is the hike’s premier challenge: Thousand Steps.

This section has a much more accurate name. Imagine one of those stair treadmills at your local gym, but instead of symmetrical treads—ergonomically cushioned and imbued with grippy rubber to give you purchase with every step—you had slabs of sandstone. And not sandstone cut into equal measures of rise and depth, but highly irregular and slick with the silica constantly in production by the friction of those that tread before you. That commute to work was the reality for early 20th-century workers at the Harbison-Walker Ledge Quarry, mining rich sandstone ganister reserves (used in the production of silica bricks) from the steep hillsides of the Juniata River near Mount Union. 

Thousand Steps, built by workers to access the quarry, now stands as a testament to industry—and human endurance. Hiking Thousand Steps is hard, but it is simple. At least there is some ease in the rote action: You’re just climbing some stairs after all. The hike’s difficulty is also two-fold given the inconsistency of the rise and depth of the treads, and the steepness of the incline. The irregularity of the stones that make up the steps can range from a 3- to 24-inch rise and a 6- to 18-inch tread, throwing off cadence and pattern which would be comical if you weren’t scaling the things without a guard rail. The incline can’t be understated. Though only about a half-mile in length, you gain some 850 vertical feet in elevation, making the angle somewhere in the 68° vicinity. 

Once atop, nice vistas of the surrounding ridges await you. Bring a snack, revel in the knowledge that you don’t have to mine a quarry for the next 10 hours, and prepare the cartilage in your knees for the return trip. For first-time visitors, the descent can be an unexpectedly difficult undertaking. Having blown up your quads on the ascent, those same muscles are now threatening to strike. 

Remember those misshapen steps? You may be tempted to curse the whole enterprise. But, like all things strenuous worth doing, a little hardship makes it all the more rewarding when you shakily emerge onto the shoulder of the highway, already planning your return. 

Getting There

Thousand Steps rises unceremoniously from the westbound shoulder of U.S. 22 William Penn Highway between Mount Union and Mapleton. A gravel lot running parallel to U.S. 22 is hard to miss and usually has a few cars parked there, especially when the weather is nice.


Stop at Boxer’s Cafe in Huntingdon (410 Penn St.) for a pint of specialty IPA and an all-beef (or black bean, or veggie) burger, or any one of the other fabulously comforting sandwiches or entrees on offer at this family-owned (and family-friendly) pub.

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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.