A Beginner's Guide to Running Trails in Happy Valley

By Scott McKee 

As the remnants of a long cold winter began giving way to the first signs of spring, I found myself humming a song that has a way of randomly popping into my head from time to time: “Happy trails to you, until we meet again, Happy trails to you, keep smilin’ until then.”

Happy Trails could easily be a theme song for the central Pennsylvania outdoors community. The region boasts hundreds of miles of trails, from segments of the Appalachian Trail and Mid-state Trail to small locally known paths, lightly maintained and frequently used even if not well known. This abundance in turn provides fertile ground for the vibrant community of individuals, enthusiast groups and businesses that look to these trails for recreation and connection with the natural world.

The milder temperatures of early spring have a way of jump-starting my trail adventures, especially through hiking and trail running.

Enjoy the Great Outdoors on a Happy Valley Trail

One of my primary motivations for writing about these topics is to encourage others to explore the outdoors, and I can think of no simpler way than these two activities. Many of the simple day hikes my family and I do in central Pennsylvania can be accomplished in sneakers, especially on warm sunny days. I recommend a decent pair of water-resistant or waterproof hiking boots for longer hikes, as weather can turn unexpectedly; additionally, the more rugged tread and ankle support are valuable in protecting the bottoms of your feet, toes and ankles from bruising--or worse. However, sneakers are just fine to get started with short woodland walks, on pleasant days.

Hiking is truly a minimalist endeavor; you are the transport for anything you bring along, so choose wisely. Sound shoes and a bottle of water are all I generally carry on short (1 – 2 hour) walks. Other useful items for these or longer hikes might include a small first aid kit, a light snack or meal (I like granola based meal/energy bars), a map and a compass if not familiar with the trail in question, a light wind and water proof jacket or light fleece jacket and a good walking stick. A small pack to carry these basics (other than the stick) rounds out my basic kit.

For safety’s sake it is best to err on the side of caution and be judicious in choosing hikes, especially when beginning or returning to hiking after a significant hiatus, and it’s always good practice to establish a check-in with someone. Let them know where you are going and when you anticipate your return, and be sure to touch base once you’re out of the woods so they don’t send the search parties needlessly!

Turn Up the Pace: Trail Running Offers Refreshing Alternative to Pavement

These last suggestions apply for my other favorite trail activity – trail running. To begin with, I am proudly a “back-of-the-pack” runner, when it comes to the handful of 5Ks I run each year. That being said, I truly enjoy running and I spend as much of my time on trails as possible.

For years I counted myself among those who “hate” running. However, my desire to increase my cardiovascular activity occurred serendipitously at the same time the YMCA of Centre County offered a “Beginners Running Class.” The gradual progression of the class, allowing for all ability levels began to dispel my antipathy for running and before I knew it, I had entered and completed my first 5K. Shortly thereafter, training guru Josh Cone, offered to introduce a small group of us to one of his favorite forms of exercise, trail running.

We met at the trailhead for Shingletown Gap Trail After and an initial scramble up a short steep segment, we hit a patch that actually allowed for running. The terrain proved to be one of the things I most enjoyed, and I found it to be helpful as the ground I was covering naturally dictated my pace and provided variety that I just didn’t get with road running. Rockier segments required me to carefully pick my foot placement to avoid loose rocks.

Minutes later I encountered a marked contrast. A long smooth patch of sparse grass and luxurious soft green moss cushioned each step and allowed me to run along that segment in a way I hadn’t done since childhood, for the sheer joy of it.

Some people have misgivings about this form of running, citing safety concerns. I’m not a gifted athlete nor do I have particularly good balance, the result of lost hearing in my right ear and the associated effect on the inner-ear function. Simply put, if I can do it, almost anyone can.

I use the same sneakers for trail running that I would use on paved surfaces; my feet require a supportive sneaker that happens to perform admirably on trails. Other runners opt for trail specific shoes. I always defer shoe questions to those who know running footwear and I’ve never been steered wrong by the folks at Rapid Transit Sports in State College. They understand how to properly fit running shoes based on the runner’s foot and running gait. 

Since that first woodland run, I have found a wide variety of trails, via different avenues; two of my favorite informational sources for either hiking or trail running have been the Delorme Atlas and Gazetteer Pennsylvania and the Purple Lizard Maps, both geared toward outdoors recreation. 

Getting Started

Central Pennsylvania has extensive state parks and state forests open to the public for outdoors exploration and I’ve spent the vast majority of my trail adventures on some combination of these amazing resources. Just getting started? Try somewhere like Bear Meadows Natural Area near Tussey Mountain. Shortly after leaving Boalsburg on 322 East, the right turn onto Bear Meadows Road leads past the ski area and to a conveniently located parking area on the edge of the Rothrock State Forest. I recently discovered a great web site for hiking in Pennsylvania, which has a decidedly central PA focus - http://www.pahikes.com. It has some very nice entries for Bear Meadows which dovetail with my own experiences, as well as providing a couple of alternatives I haven’t yet explored.

And, in the end, some of my best adventures have been the result of lacing up my shoes and heading out the door to simply “get out there.”

Happy Trail Resources

STATE PARKS

Greenwood Forest*

Whipple Dam*

Poe Valley 

Poe Paddy

Bald Eagle

*nice trails around lake – ideal for walking and running

For a complete listing, see dcnr.state.pa.us

STATE FORESTS: 

Bald Eagle 

Rothrock 

Tip: Find Purple Lizard Maps specialized outdoors recreation maps for these state forest areas.

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