Hike of the Week: Pennsylvania Grand Canyon West Rim Trail

Pennsylvania Grand Canyon West Rim Trail

Welcome to Paria's “Hike of the Week” series. Reading about and seeing pictures of a great trail often inspires us to see it for ourselves. We hope the posts in this series motivate you to do the same!

Each week we highlight one of the best trails from around the world. This week's focus is on the West Rim Trail in Pennsylvania.

Featured Photo: Pine Creek Gorge by David Oakill

Why This Hike?

Pennsylvania is known for many things. Great hiking opportunities are usually not one of them. That's why you may be surprised to learn about Pennsylvania's “Grand Canyon”. This unique feature is actually the Pine Creek Gorge. The West Rim Trail is located in Tioga State Forest in north-central PA. The path runs along the gorge's western rim. This affords magnificent views of the expansive valley.

  • Length: 30 miles, point-to-point
  • Difficulty: Moderate to difficult
  • Elevation gain: 5,648 feet
  • Best time to visit: Spring through fall (Autumn offers some wonderful foliage, though...And fewer bugs!)
  • Breathtaking views of the Pine Creek Gorge (with lots of vistas along the way)
  • Other highlights include the Barbour Rock overlook and the Allegheny Plateau.
  • The trail passes through varying forest types. Wildlife viewing opportunities abound.
  • There are lots of campsites to choose from. Many are near water sources. Those that aren't offer vistas, so you can choose your trade-off.
  • Many streams are available for filtering water. Keep in mind many of these can dry up in the hot summer months.
  • Many side trails offer plenty of areas to bail if you need to.

Before you pack your bags, keep the following in mind:

  • Hazards to watch out for include black bears, rattlesnakes, and stinging nettle.
  • Don't think you'll get a break from elevation change once you reach the top of the plateau. The trail goes through a lot of side canyons.
  • There are precipitous drop-offs along some sections of the trail. Watch your footing!

How Do I Get There?

If you will need a shuttle, we recommend using Pine Creek Outfitters. It doesn't really matter which direction you do this trail. But, we recommend going from south to north for a couple of reasons. First, there are fewer water sources in the southern part of the trail. Better to cover that area when you're still full. Second, you get the hardest part of the trail out of the way right off the bat.

That said, Greater Rochester International is the closest major airport. From here, you'll get onto I-390 S from Airport Road. Follow the signs and stay on this for 69 miles. Eventually, merge onto I-86 E and continue for 23 miles. Take exit 44 A-B and continue on US-15 S for 17 miles. Take exit 191 and merge onto PA-287 S. Continue 14 miles before turning right onto US-6 W. After a little over 8 miles, turn left onto Colton Road. The parking area will be on your right a half-mile down. Drive time is about 2 ½ hours.

Map of Recommended Route

The following map outlines our recommended route. Click the "Load Interactive Map" button to load the correct map. Once loaded, you can navigate along the route and view recommended campsites.

For even more detailed mapping, including being able to print a copy for yourself, click the "Open in CalTopo" button at the top of the map once it's loaded into view.

  • Day 1-Southern Trailhead to Campsite 1 (10.5 miles)
  • Day 2-Campsite 1 to Campsite 2 (9 miles)
  • Day 3-Campsite 2 to Northern Trailhead (10.5 miles)

Trail Description

Day 1 - Southern Trailhead to Campsite 1

Get the hardest part out of the way. You'll ascend about 1,000 feet over the course of the first 2 miles. Not long after reaching the top of the Allegheny Plateau, you'll pass an old dynamite shed. Cross West Rim Road and you'll find a great lookout point less than a mile from here. It highlights Gillespie Point, the “Matterhorn” of Pennsylvania. Don't worry if the weather isn't cooperating. There are plenty more lookouts along the trail.

The path continues along the edge of the gorge. You'll come across many more campsites and a few spots you may find water. You'll eventually come to your “room with a view” near Good Spring Hollow. Set up camp and enjoy the view!

Day 2 - Campsite 1 to Campsite 2

Be prepared for a fairly precipitous descent to start your second day. You'll lose about 500 feet over a mile descending into the hollow. Not terrible, but it will definitely get your heart pumping in the morning. You'll find more vistas near the Bradley Wales Picnic Area. There is also a water fountain here, so fill up while you can.

The trail today winds back and forth to and from the gorge. Many side canyons and streams force the path to sidetrack around them. But, there are still quite a few water sources and lookout points along the way. Speaking of which, the tradeoff of today's campsite is there is water nearby, but no view like the first night. The woods is nice and peaceful, though.

Day 3 - Campsite 2 to Northern Trailhead

You'll follow the canyon closely at the start of your last day. But, you'll quickly find yourself back in the woods, dipping in and out of more side canyons. You'll pass a few potential water sources through several miles of forest. After that, finally find yourself next to the gorge again. This section has some of the most spectacular views of the whole trail. Enjoy one last picturesque view of the canyon from Barbour Rock Overlook. From there, it's a little over 2 miles and downhill to the northern terminus. 

What Do I Need?

Average highs April through October for Tioga State Forest range between 53° and 76°F. Lows range between 31° and 54°F. Don't let these reasonable temps fool you, though. It can be downright humid in the summer. A versatile down quilt will keep you nice and toasty on cooler nights. But, you can just use it as a blanket on warmer ones.

A lightweight backpacking tent will also serve you well. If you're visiting during the muggy summer months, a tarp and mesh bivy can save you some weight too. Don't forget your sleeping pad!

Paria Outdoor Products Zion Backpacking Tent

The Zion 2P Backpacking Tent makes a great, lightweight 2-person shelter for enjoying the views from the West Rim Trail.


You'll need something to cook your meals in, of course. Consider a very light, but very durable titanium cooking pot. Their sporks will last darn near forever too!

Ticks can be bad on this trail. Be sure to treat your clothes ahead of time with permethrin. And, although they aren't required, it's a good idea to bring a bear bag or canister.

If there's anything else you need to complete your pack, visit our full line of high-quality, affordable backpacking gear.

Shop Backpacking Tents
Shop Ultralight Tarps
Shop Backpacking Quilts
Shop Down Sleeping Bags
Shop Insulated Sleeping Pads
Shop Backpacking Pillow
Shop Folding Trekking Poles
Shop Titanium Cookware
Shop Tent and Tarp Accessories

Finally, to make sure you don't forget something at home, use our Ultimate Backpacker's Packing List. It even includes a convenient printable checklist!

Do I Need a Permit?

While not required, backpackers are encouraged to pick up a free camping permit ahead of time.

Resources

Pine Creek Outfitters Shuttle Service
Guide to the West Rim Trail

Conclusion

Pennsylvania's West Rim Trail is a fun, scenic getaway if you're looking to spend a few days in the woods. Have you completed this or any other trails near PA's Grand Canyon? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!

Read Next

If you're looking for more hike ideas, read our "Best Backpacking Trips in the Eastern U.S." roundup post. Also, the following Hike of the Week articles cover other great hikes in the eastern states.

Hike of the Week: Triple Crown Loop
Hike of the Week: Great Range Traverse
Hike of the Week: Pemi Loop Trail

For even more amazing backpacking trips, visit The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up like this one.

The Trailhead - Interactive Map of Backpacking Trips

Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.

Hike of the Week USA East

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