May 1-3, 2020
Thursday afternoon I began the long 5-hour drive to the trailhead. I drove through an intense rainstorm and new territory. I followed PA-120 (Susquehanna Ave) for 71 miles through the Pennslyvania Wilds and spotted many waterfalls through the woods and along the road. I was seriously in awe of the river and mountains and never realized how badly I needed them. And I got to see some Elk!
I arrived in Sitzerville State Park around 8:30 PM. The park itself was closed for camping due to COVID-19 but I slept in the backseat of my car in a fetal position. It was odd at first because I had never done that before and honestly, didn’t sleep too bad. I would wake up off and on to rotate but I knew I was safe. Bill’s car was parked right beside mine.
Bill and I woke up early to drive right past Sinnemahoning State Park and park near a private drive to start the trail. The trailhead parking is right at the end of a private gated drive. The owners of the house actually own the first 6-7 miles of the path alongside the mountain you climb. The owner had been out front sipping his coffee when we pulled up. There was a creek raging with water from the previous night’s storm nearby where we parked. “Hey, Bill where does the trail go?”
“Right across the road,” Bill stated.
“Uhh, what road? Is there a bridge?” I asked. Bill walked closer and realized what I was seeing. The creek/stream went right over the road and it was moving steadily. Towards the middle, it was difficult to judge how deep it actually was. I didn’t anticipate any fords and not one so early in the morning. Before grabbing our packs, Bill scouted the bank to see if there was a better spot to cross. There wasn’t.
Bill had decided our best chance was for me to walk up the private drive and see if the owners knew of a better way around. Not wanting to cross and get wet, I begrudgingly agreed to make the sacrifice of taking one for the team. Being female, the odds were in my favor.
I walked through the open gated drive and headed down the stone covered driveway. The guy was no longer out on his porch. As I got closer, thankfully, he came back outside. He must have seen me coming. He opened the door and stepped out on his porch followed by a brown labrador and a black labrador puppy. I could easily ignore the brown dog as it came near but there was no way I could deny that sweet pup some pets. I asked the guy if there was another way around. He said we could use the bridge behind the house to pass and backtrack to the trail. He asked how long we would be out and where we planned on camping. He shared a guy had come from Sitzerville and walked to his house (the end of the trail) and back. It took him 4 days and he fed him some soup. The gentleman didn’t seem that familiar with the trail as he wasn’t aware of the fire tower I mentioned we would be camping at. I was just happy we didn’t have to ford the creek.
I walked back to Bill and informed him of our good luck. We grabbed our packs and headed out. The man’s property was pretty nice. There were two large homes. Another guy was out back fishing and had waved to us as we crossed the bridge.
You climb up an ATV road about 2,000 feet until you reach the top of the mountain heading towards Sitzerville. It’s not a bad climb but my calves were feeling the burn. We passed some waterfalls along the wet trail.
Bill had last done this trail in August in 90-degree weather and reported there are no reliable water scores until the fire tower from a reliable pump. Well, with it being spring. There was endless water both on and off the trail. Spoiler alert: my feet were wet every day. After climbing the hill, you veer off into the woods and catch a few glimpses of view through the bare-less trees. There are several ascents and descents that day. We passed a few hunter’s blinds hidden in the trees as we walked along.
We spotted many deer and scat along the way. Eventually, you walk the hilly, grassy pipeline for about 3 miles passing a few nice properties hidden in the woods along with several water sources. We winded our way back into the woods for a little. We crossed a few roads with very little traffic that the PA-DNCR use along with hunters from “hunting camps.” I had never heard of hunting camps before but the government owns the land and leases it for 100 years to families that usually have a house on the land. You are allowed to legally camp on the land because it’s owned by the government.
We climbed one last hill to reach the fire tower (our intended camp spot for night 1). We reached it a little before one. Sadly, the fire tower had a barbed wire fence around it and you couldn’t go up. A small house/cabin with a firepit, trash can, and water pump resided close by. We primed the water pump and filled our bottles. We had to decide whether we wanted to camp on the lawn or keep going. I was fine either way. I felt safe camping there. Bill was leaving it to me. He was also antsy and didn’t want to sit around all afternoon. We had already hiked 10 miles climbing up and down. I studied the map and guide book from 1998 trying to get an idea of where the next possible camp spots were. Me being indecisive, Bill wanted to keep going to lessen our miles Sunday. We both threw on our packs and headed back down the trail.
The forest began to change into hemlocks and we crossed several branches of water, spotting the next campsite not too far after. We kept going and climbed up a gradual railroad bed. We crossed our last water source for a while where another site was to be located that we didn’t see. 1998
We crossed another road and headed back into the woods. The next known camping spot was along Hunts run near the bigfoot cave. It wasn’t really a bigfoot cave but a running joke from the last time Bill had hiked the trail two years ago. I had already made it clear I was not hiking 6 more miles to get to the bigfoot cave camp spot.
At one point, I was ahead of Bill. He can usually catch up but I was “annoyed/angry hiking” and hiking at a faster pace. We were in search of a spot in the woods and weren’t having much luck as I was descending down a ravine along a wet trail. Certain parts of the trail are so narrow and slanted like it was here that made your feet hurt walking at an awkward angle.
Bill didn’t catch back up until we neared the bottom of the ravine and I had stopped. At the bottom was a “hunting camp” aka a house but with 4 trucks, which meant a lot of people. Being a young female and seeing the movie Wild, I didn’t want to walk past alone. Bill had pointed out my hiking speed and said he had whistled because he had found a potential camp spot. You had to walk off-trail and up the ridge a bit and it was flat but by the time he scouted it out, I was bearly insight. I asked him what his purpose was for this trip. He had mentioned possibly getting out early at this pace and staying in Sitzerville to explore nearby trails. He said sometimes he gets in this headspace and just wants to go and gets antsy sitting around camp. Our purposes were not the same. The plan was to spend 3 days 2 nights out in the wilderness to relax, de-stress, and enjoy nature. My purpose to relax in nature and spend the 3 days out there to enjoy my surroundings without killing myself. He later agreed that I was right.
We walked past the lodge, where one guy was outside with tools and lumber. It looked like they were doing some re-modelling. Bill asked the guy if there was any nearby camping he knew of. The guy shared that pass the creek about a mile away, he knew of a spot. Another guy exited the house giving me a stare down…exactly why I didn’t want to walk by alone. He looked like a delinquent. We thanked the guy and continued down their driveway which was actually the trail. We crossed the trail to walk through a very wet area near the water. There was a parking lot at the end that I was half-tempted to camp, which was right along the road. It was flooded out for the most part.
We dropped our pack’s and Bill went to go scout out for a camp spot. He wasn’t even gone that long and I happened to turn around and notice a guy walking up the road… We were basically in the middle of nowhere.
“You stranded?” he asked.
“Uhh, no. I am with another guy. We hiked 16 miles and are looking for a spot to camp.” I responded back. The guy had an Irish accent. It was a strange encounter. We exchanged a few more words and he continued walking up the road.
Shortly, after Bill came back and said he found a spot. I informed him what happened and he said he shouldn’t have left me alone. I followed him down the trail, which resulted in a stream crossing over a thin tree. The drop wasn’t very far and the water wasn’t very deep but I wasn’t able to use my poles for balance. I didn’t feel confident with my balance and after seeing Bill cross I definitely didn’t want to do it. I walked up along the bank looking for a better option to cross. After bushwacking, it wasn’t worth it to go back to the log. I found a spot to ford the stream. We made it to camp and I had to cut a few treelings and make do. The camp did have an established fire ring but the camp clearly hadn’t been used in a while…1998. I should mention this is not a very well-travelled backpack and that’s why the map hasn’t been updated in 20 years. The spots were not that flat but it was workable.
After a rapid camp set-up from a passing shower, we began to relax at the camp and eat dinner. We were hanging the bear bag when I told Bill there was a guy walking up the trail… It turned out to be a hunter staying at a local hunting camp along Hunts Run. He was going fishing up the stream for trout. He didn’t expect to see any hikers on the trail and mentioned it was going to be a cold night. He also warned us that he hoped we didn’t have to cross Hunt’s Run because it was running fast. He and some other hunters would be walking by before dawn for the start of the turkey hunting season and hoped he wouldn’t wake us. He seemed normal enough but I still had an unease feeling.
I barely slept that night. I never sleep well the first night on the trail. Bill even mentioned the next morning I looked super paranoid around camp that night and pointed out I kept looking around into the surrounding woods. 🙂
I woke up to condensation on my sleeping bag. ugh. The forest was also pretty foggy.
Thanks to the hunter, he told us we had to ford the stream two more times, so we left camp in our water shoes. It was slow going and the trail was pretty muddy. We spotted a waterfall through the trees.
My legs felt heavier than normal but thankfully we didn’t have to climb up much today. It was pretty forgiving in terms of terrain. The only issue with going 17.5 miles the first day is that it offsets the original intended second-night campsite. We meandered through the woods and crossed a few creeks and stirred a few more deer. We walked across a bare plateau that in the summer is filled with berries.
Then the trailed headed down a rocky ravine and levelled out for a bit. We came down the ravine and followed a creek until a cabin came into view. We walked onto the lawn and behind the house and down the driveway to the road. We were approaching the bigfoot cave camping spot. It’s probably the best camping spot on the trail but it is close to the road. It’s surrounded with hemlock trees and sits along Hunt’s run. The bigfoot cave recited across the run-up the bank.
It turns out we did have to cross Hunt’s Run well a branch of it called McDuff Run. If it was anything like this I was out and willing to go ask a hunter to take me around. The water was much colder than the other crossings. We crossed a bridge over Hunt’s run and walked through my favorite part of the trip. It was a pine tree-covered hike at times that look down at the different runs intersecting down in a grassy meadow-like valley. It was boggy at points but Bill said it must have been re-routed because it used to be worse. The only complaint about this section is that it wasn’t as well maintained and my legs got scratched up from thorns.
There was another log to use as the possible crossing but it didn’t look secure. We forded the knee-deep crossing with success. Some spots looked pretty deep but avoidable.
We were a little uncertain of where we were going to camp that night. All we knew was we didn’t want to climb anymore. We passed some more boggy low-level areas that were buggy. As we walked, we were eyeing up a place to camp. There was one more reliable water source Bill knew of and didn’t want to camp past that just in case.
As we were walking, I spotted an open field across the creek, which was odd. We kept walking and decided to call it for the day. Bill had pointed out a spot back a little ways back that looked flat. We were nearing the end of the run and didn’t want to chance it. I decided to move ahead a little to scout for some other possible camp spots without luck. I headed back towards the other spot. In the meantime, Bill had walked up to the field and showed me a photo of it. He said there was a weird pipe coming out of the middle of the field but it was a possible camp spot. I wanted to see it for myself.
As we bushwacked up the hill, I saw at least three piles of deer scat and more was up in the field. Bill said he passed a pile of bear scat in the field. Nope, I’d rather camp by the creek even if I had to weed my camp spot. We only did 9.5 miles but Bill said he was “done.” I weeded my camp spot and set up…exhausted. I could have easily passed out for a nap but knew I wouldn’t sleep well. Bill went back up the field and spotted some more different scat, baby snakes, and bigfoot droppings. Great, another night I was probably not going to sleep.
We were lounging around camp and we actually saw another hiker coming down the trail coming it in the opposite direction. It was a solo female hiker and Bill had so many questions we wanted to ask her as she walked on. It was nearly 5 and she had planned to get to the bigfoot cave to camp. I managed to stay up until around 7:30. I put on some music and felt so exhausted. I fell asleep for 20-30 minutes and woke up for a little. I slept much better that night. It even rained for a bit. I slept with one of my doors open on the zpacks and got slightly less condensation this time.
The last morning we packed up and headed for the trail around 8. We had three climbs to make. Soon after leaving camp, we were met with our first one. It was a quick and painful one because my calves were screaming at me. The trail carried us back on to an old grassy road for a while and down a descent that followed along Slate Run, which was not dry. When Bill had done the trail in August, there was no more water until near the car.
Then it had us zig-zag up a slow gradual grade climb that never actually reached the top of the mountain. It was not a bad walk but just monotonous. We only had one more steep climb back to the car. We descended down into the valley stumbling upon another run and a bridge. Bill and I took a break, refuelling for our last climb with nice scenery.
You walk down the road for about a mile or so until you climb back up into the woods. The day was beginning to feel pretty warm and my calves did not enjoy the climb. Bill sneakily made me be the pacer up the mountain nearing the top he shouted that he needed water. I yelled back okay and kept walking, waiting for the terrain to flatten under my feet and allow my calves a reprieve. He yelled again. I guess I had to stop walking.
Once we reconvened, it was all downhill to the car. The viewless mountain top plunged down into another steep ravine that in August is full of stinging nettles. Luckily for us, that was not the case, but the trail crisscrossed the run a few times and was difficult to navigate without spotting the next orange blaze in front of you. Bill, eager to get back to the car, quickly become out of sight. I didn’t see him again until I arrived back at my car.
I had asked him if he used me as a pacer for the climb and left me in the dust.
He said yes otherwise he wouldn’t have ever made it up that mountain. He also said, “Congratulations, you are part of the elite group of AMCers who have completed the BuckTail Path.”
My response, “where is my certificate?”
In the words of Bill, “it’s going to take me two years to forget this trail.”