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.