The Quehanna Trail: Finding Solitude in the Pennsylvania Wilds

With the exception of the AT, Pennsylvania’s trails don’t receive much attention outside of the Mid-Atlantic region. Many people are thus surprised to learn that the Keystone State hosts a pretty impressive system of backpacking trails.

Many of these footpaths lie within the two million acres of public land in North Central Pennsylvania known as the Pennsylvania Wilds. With one of the largest forested areas in the eastern US and few people, finding solitude here comes easily.

Located within the Pennsylvania Wilds, the 74-mile Quehanna Trail (QT) provides the perfect backpacking escape to immerse yourself in peaceful forests with abundant wildlife, tumbling mountain streams, and plentiful wilderness.

Quehanna Trail At a Glance

small waterfall tumbles into a pool on the quehanna trail

Length: 74 Miles
Location: North Central Pennsylvania in Elk and Moshannon State Forests
Trail Type: Loop
Approximate Time to Hike: 4 – 7 days should be enough time for most hikers to complete the trail.


view of forested mountains from the quehanna trail

The Quehanna Trail travels in predominantly hardwood forest with the occasional stand of coniferous trees. The trail passes through tunnels of mountain laurel as well as frequent patches of ferns carpeting the forest. The trail leaves the forest occasionally to cross an open meadow. Pretty mountain streams frequently flow along the trail. Several vistas overlook the surrounding forests and drainages traversed by the trail.


The Quehanna Trail travels along the Allegheny Plateau. Significant portions of the trail stick to the plateau with fairly long stretches of relatively flat hiking. The trail frequently leaves the plateau as it climbs and descends in and out of the various drainages that dissect it.

The northern half of the loop features more frequent and steeper climbs. While there are some steep sections on the southern half, it tends to stick to the top of the plateau for longer stretches. Generally the trail follows a traditional footpath, while at times, it utilizes dirt roads and old grades for short stretches.  Elevations range from around 1,100 feet near Wykoff Run Road to about 2,400 feet on Chestnut Ridge.

Getting There

brown wooden sign in woods that reads "quehanna trail" in white lettering

The vast majority of hikers with the goal of completing the entire Quehanna Trail will begin and end their trip at Parker Dam State Park. Maps and guidebooks begin their mileage and description from Parker Dam State Park.

Most trail users arrive via I-80. From I-80, use Exit 111 and continue north for 5.5 miles on PA 153. Turn right onto Mud Run Road  and follow it for 2.3 miles. Then turn right onto Fairview Road. After about a quarter mile, find parking here. Parker Dam State Park encourages you to check in at the office if you leave your vehicle there.

Wyckoff Run Road provides an alternative starting point, with a parking lot here. This trailhead sits on the west side of the QT, 40 miles by trail from Parker Dam State Park. From the north in the settlement of Sinnamahoning, travel 4.7 south on Wykoff Run Road. The decent-sized dirt lot will be on your left. From the south in the settlement of Karthaus, travel west on PA 879 for a mile. Turn right on the Quehanna Highway. At 8.6 Miles turn right onto Wyckoff Run Road. The trailhead will be on the right after 5.2 miles.

Other roads cross the trail with possible parking. The guidebook below would be your best source if you choose an alternative trailhead to access the trail.

Guidebook and Maps

trail through deciduous forest with fern carpet and red paint blaze on one tree

Guide to the Quehanna Trail by Ben Cramer thoroughly covers the entire Quehanna Trail and surrounding trails with all pertinent trail information. The guide comes with two waterproof maps that also show the elevation profile of the trail.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources also prints a full sized map of the trail that includes mileage. This map is free and will be mailed to you by calling the Moshannon State Forest District Office at 814-765-0821. Downloadable maps of the trail are also available on their website’s Map page.

Purple Lizard, a mapping company that specializes in outdoor recreation maps in Pennsylvania, also covers the trail on their Moshannon- Quehanna Map.

Orange blazes mark the trail regularly with good signage at intersections.

Why Hike the Quehanna Trail

wterfall tumbles into pool on quehanna trail

The Quehanna Trail offers something for less-experienced and veteran backpackers alike. Newer backpackers will appreciate the relatively gentle terrain and easy logistics of a loop. At 74 miles, the trail offers a good opportunity for someone looking to tackle their first hike longer than a weekend. It’s also ideal as a shakedown for a lengthier thru-hike. All backpackers will enjoy the wild nature and tranquility the trail provides.

The QT may not be well-known outside of the Pennsylvania backpacking scene, but with its obscurity comes solitude. Wildlife sightings far outnumber the people you will see. Numerous mountain streams, vistas, open meadows, and lush forests all make the QT an enjoyable trip.

Best Direction To Hike the Quehanna Trail

log bridge with footholds and railings across stream

Most people travel the loop counterclockwise from Parker Dam State Park. The mileage and directions in the guidebook and maps are laid out for a counterclockwise hike. Traveling this direction allows a build up in difficulty. While your pack is heavier at the beginning, you will encounter more gentle terrain on the southern half of the loop by traveling counterclockwise. By the time you reach the steeper drainages and more frequent climbs on the northern half of the trail, you will have less food weight to tackle the terrain.

As a loop, you certainly can hike the opposite direction. The biggest advantage, if starting at the traditional Parker Dam trailhead, would be tackling the more difficult terrain on the northern half of the loop early, while you are still fresh.


mountain stream surrounded by trees

The peak season for hiking the QT runs from May through October. The warmest temperatures run from June through September with normal daytime highs in the 70s and 80s with nights generally dropping into the 50s and low 60s. Occasionally the area will hit 90 during the summer. A late September frost isn’t unusual. A May or October hike brings more moderate temperatures.

Rain falls evenly throughout the year in Pennsylvania with 3-4.5 inches falling most months during the peak season. The highest average rainfall occurs in June. Thunderstorms are fairly common in the summer months. Humid and muggy conditions frequently obscure the views in the summer months.

Highlights of the Quehanna Trail

trail leads through clump of pink mountain laurel in full bloom

Wildlife: You will encounter more wildlife than people on the QT. While deer are most common, I also saw two bear, a timber rattlesnake, two barred owls, a family of grouse, turkeys, countless newts, and numerous species of birds. Raccoons and porcupines are a pretty common sight in this part of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the more common animals, the QT lies within the range of the Pennsylvania elk herd. That’s right, elk live in Pennsylvania. While rare, the elk range now covers most of the area around the QT and if you’re lucky, you may spot one. During the fall rut, you may be lucky enough to hear a bull’s bugle.

Quenhanna Wild Area: About 34 miles of the QT traverses the Quehanna Wild Area. At 50,000 acres, the Quehanna Wild Area stands as the largest designated Wild Area in Pennsylvania.

Solitude: The QT still sees relatively few people. If you are looking for a backpacking trip without the crowds, you will find it on the QT.

Foliage: The QT passes through large swaths of mountain laurel. Hikers in late May through mid June experience the laurel during its peak bloom. It’s quite pretty hiking through the blooming laurel.

Hiking in October allows hikers to enjoy nature’s color show. Hardwoods dominate the forest and Pennsylvania’s fall foliage shouldn’t be underrated.

Ferns frequently carpet the forest in lush greenery that conjures up images of Narnia or Middle-Earth.

Gear and Other Considerations

coiled up snake showing rattle

Wildlife: Bears are a pretty common sight in the Pennsylvania Wilds. The bears in Pennsylvania tend to be skittish and run when they notice you. While bear canisters are not required, an Ursack or solid bear hang technique will give you peace of mind, not only regarding bears, but also the raccoons that are pretty common in the area.

During the summer months, expect rattlesnake encounters on warm and sunny days. The population thrives in this part of Pennsylvania. Generally they will warn you. Give them a wide berth if you encounter one. They typically aren’t aggressive if you give them their space. Keep this in mind if you hike with a dog. Also keep in mind if traveling with a dog that porcupine encounters aren’t unusual.

Ticks: Unfortunately, ticks thrive in Pennsylvania. The area also sees its fair share of Lyme Disease cases. I strongly encourage you to treat your clothing and gear with permethrin and any exposed skin with picaridin or another insect repellent. Make frequent tick checks when you pass through brushy vegetation. Consider long pants rather than shorts.

Stinging Nettle: If you want another good reason to ditch the shorts for long pants, stinging nettles frequently grow in some of the drainages, particularly on the northern half of the trail. These unassuming plants cause frantic itching when your bare skin contacts the foliage. Generally, the itch subsides after a few minutes, but the itch can be maddening while it lasts.

Hunting Season: The majority of the QT travels through public land open to hunting. The season runs most of the fall and parts of the spring. A large population of hunters live in Pennsylvania. I strongly recommend wearing some blaze orange clothing to increase your visibility during hunting season.

Camping and Water Sources on the Quehanna Trail

stream waterfalls into small pool on quehanna trail

Most of the QT travels on state forest land that allows primitive camping at large. While there are no designated camping areas, the guide book provides site recommendations. Some of the recommended spots sport a large, well-worn sites. Other require a little more creativity to squeeze in more than one tent.

Generally, the trail never travels too far without a creek or stream. The southern half of the loop travels longer stretches along the plateau where you pass a water source less frequently. In a typical season, the longest stretches run about seven miles without water.

If hiking during an extended dry spell in the summer, some creeks see a significant reduction in flow and some may be dry. In an exceptionally dry year, hikers may encounter a ten-mile dry stretch between Mix and Medix Runs.

Closing Thoughts

swamp with still brown water and lush green grasses and trees

As a backpacker who grew up in Pennsylvania, I knew about many of the backpacking trails in the state, but dismissed them for “bigger and better” trips and destinations. More than a dozen years after I left the state, I moved back to the Mid-Atlantic region and finally started tackling some of those trails that I previously overlooked.

I realized that I had missed out on some great backpacking right in my backyard, including the Quehanna Trail. The QT travels through some of the most wild terrain in Pennsylvania. With its verdant forests, mountain streams, plentiful wildlife, wilderness, and ample solitude; backpacking the QT reminded me why I started hiking in the first place.

Additional Resources

forested mountains

Moshannon and Elk State Forests: The trail travels through these two state forests. Their respective websites feature maps, notices that might effect the QT, and general information pertaining to the forests.

Keystone Trails Association: The Keystone Trails Association (KTA) is an advocacy group for hiking and trails in Pennsylvania. The link directs you to their page on the QT. Maps and guidebooks are available through their website.

Pennsylvania Backpacking: 37 Great Hikes: This book by Jeff Mitchell covers the QT and provides alternate shorter loops utilizing the QT if you don’t have time to complete the full loop.

Backpacking the Quehanna Trail: My firsthand account of backpacking the QT in 2022.

faint trail through deciduous forest with vibrant fern understory

Featured image: Photos via Troy Zohner. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.

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Comments 2

  • Pat Wilver : Mar 28th

    I did the QT last September and really enjoyed it. I saw exactly one other hiker the entire time! Wasn’t expecting to see someone writing about it here on The Trek.

    • Tomcat : Mar 28th

      My experience was similar. I saw two groups in a June ‘22 trip of the QT.


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