Photo: Monica Larcom/NPS

Plan Your First Thru-Hike on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

Most backpackers daydream about one day thru-hiking one of America’s spectacular long-distance trails.

But the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and other premier paths require a serious commitment of thousands of miles and several months of hiking. They also require advanced backpacking skills—not only the usual gear, layering, and cooking know-how of a weekend backpacking trip, but also the ability to plan mileage, figure out food portions, and get gear precisely dialed down to the essentials. In a perfect world, you’d be able to practice those skills on a shorter thru-hike before setting off on one of the big trails.

Enter the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail network. This 70-mile path wanders through the densely wooded mountains of western Pennsylvania, no more than a 90-minute drive from Pittsburgh at any point. Thru-hikers who tackle its length stay mainly on Laurel Mountain at the higher elevations of about 2,500 feet, tromping through hardwood forests and nabbing expansive ridgetop views. The LHHT features vistas of the Youghiogheny River, looming rock outcroppings, sprawling patches of mountain laurel, plus ferns, blueberries, and blackberries. Wildlife like white-tailed deer, great horned owls, spotted salamanders, box turtles, and pileated woodpeckers call it home. 

And though it’s certainly a worthy destination in its own right, The LHHT is also the ideal proving ground to prepare for longer thru-hikes: six trailheads make access easy; it’s well-marked with yellow blazes every 100 feet or so; bridges make creek crossings simple; water sources are plentiful; and there are shelters every 6 to 12 miles for camping. Here’s what you need to know to start planning your trip.

Photo: GO Laurel Highlands

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Trip Planner

Distance

70 miles

Location

The LHHT is entirely in the Laurel Highlands region of western Pennsylvania, from Ohiopyle State Park on the western end to Conemaugh Gorge, near Johnstown, on the eastern side. Laurel Ridge State Park holds most of the trail, but as the park exists in unconnected sections, you’ll also hike across state game lands and state forest. 

Time Required

Most hikers take five or six days to complete the LHHT, though you can speed that up by hiking more miles per day or stretch it out a bit if desired. 

Camping

There are eight designated camping areas along the LHHT. Each one features five Adirondack-style shelters with fireplaces; these fit four to six campers each. There’s also space for 30 tents in the area, plus two pit toilets. These designated areas are the only legal campsites along the LHHT, and hikers are limited to one night only per shelter. 

Shelters must be reserved in advance. You can book your spots up to 11 months ahead of time and as late as three days before your trip. Camping costs $4/person/night for Pennsylvania residents and $5/person/night for nonresidents.

Season

The LHHT can be hiked year-round, though advanced winter backpacking skills are required for the colder months. Spring brings abundant wildflowers (April is typically the peak month), summer features showy mountain laurel (June) plus rhododendron blooms (June and July), and fall has excellent foliage (October).

Shuttles

Wilderness Voyageurs and Coal Tubin’ provide hiking shuttle services; contact them for details. 

Food

Thru-hikers should plan to carry enough food for their itinerary. Bonus: You’ll skirt the Seven Springs Mountain Resort, which offers hot pizza and sandwiches at several restaurants, plus some artisanal groceries at Highlands Market (check hours of operation before you leave).

Guidebook

A Hiker’s Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail, from the Sierra Club’s Allegheny Group, Pennsylvania Chapter. 

Concerns

Black bears live in the Laurel Highlands, so make sure to hang your food appropriately or use a bear canister. You might also run into timber rattlesnakes (rarely a problem unless you step on one or otherwise bother it) or ticks (wear bug spray, tuck pants into socks, and do a thorough tick check daily; remove any attached ticks with tweezers).

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.