The pinnacle of Pa. is Somerset County's Mount Davis
Sunday, August 01, 2004
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Curt Chandler, Post-Gazette
Aaron Williams, 6, is king of all he surveys while standing atop a brass map of the terrain 50 feet below him at the summit of Mount Davis -- the highest point in the state. Aaron climbed the tower, and the map, while on an outing with his sister, Ellen Carlson. They are from Summit Mills.
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Hitting the Trails
This story is part of a weekly series spotlighting hiking and biking trails in the region. Publication of the series coincides with the Hike for Health project promoted by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, state Department of Health and other agencies to encourage folks to get fit on foot..
If you go: Mount Davis
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Find previous installments of this series at our Hitting the Trails Index
More pictures from all the stories in this series: Hitting the Trails Photo Journal
West Penn Trail, Westmoreland County
Temperatures are a little more brisk on Mount Davis, where a mountain laurel leaf has already turned color and fallen onto the High Point Trail.
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Some people build their hiking resumes around treks to the highest elevation in each of the 50 states. There's even a Highpointers Club, founded in 1986 by Jack Longacre, who, until his death two years ago, lived on 1,772-foot Taum Sauk, the highest spot in Missouri.
Visiting some of the high points -- like 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska or 14,494-foot Mount Whitney in California -- can be a demanding test of your ability to put one foot in front of the other.
But gaining the highest ground in many states is an easier, though still fun, way to chart a hiking history. At 3,213 feet above sea level, Mount Davis is Pennsylvania's highest point. It sits on a 300-million-year-old bump of Pottsville sandstone on the Allegheny Plateau in southern Somerset County. And although you could drive to within a couple of feet of the top spot on a Forbes State Forest road, a more sporting way to get there is a three-mile hiking loop that starts at the pretty Mount Davis Picnic Area.
The route is not as difficult as the one to the only other state highest point I've hiked to -- 5,267-foot Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin, the end point of the Appalachian Trail in Maine -- but on a recent Saturday afternoon, it proved just as memorable. From the picnic area parking lot, cross to the right end of the rolling meadow to find the wide, well-marked trailhead under a maple, oak and sassafras canopy. Although you might expect the High Point Trail would involve a climb, this trail is as flat as a pancake.
And, as my wife, Carole, discovered while still within sight of the car, for much of July it was a blueberry pancake.
That's because wild blueberry bushes mark this trail much more frequently than its blue blaze tree markers and make it a supremely tasty trip. We drank a water bottle empty just to fill it with blueberries as we moved haltingly through the Mount Davis Natural Area, barely noticing that the trail had turned rocky and sandy as it winds through trees stunted by the ridge top's poor soil, high winds and sub-zero winter temperatures.
Because we ate more than we plunked into the bottle, it took longer than it should have to cover the less than one mile trail that ends at the High Point near four bed-sized slabs of sandstone. These slabs bear interpretive plaques detailing the geologic history of 30-mile-long Negro Mountain, on which Mount Davis is situated.
There is also plaque information about the mountain's animal and human inhabitants -- there are many more of the former than the latter -- and brief accounts of local legends. One recounts how 10-year-old Lidyia Shultz was sent into the woods to gather the cows in 1830 and was lost for months, living off the land and becoming as wild as the rattlesnakes and bobcats that still live there.
The actual highest point is just behind those sandstone slabs on a Volkswagen Beetle-sized rock that my 10-year-old daughter, Coyne, her friend Clare and my son, Jack, 6, scale to read the U.S. Geological Survey disc bolted into its top.
Within feet of the High Point is a 50-foot-tall fire tower. A climb up its steep metal grate steps is worth the vertigo. From the top, on clear days, ridges like the folds in some great blue-green blanket form a horizon that, amazingly, shows few signs of man's hand.
After descending from the tower, we find the well-marked Shelter Rock Trail, which peels off a roadway closed to vehicular traffic that loops around the tower. Wide and flat at first, the trail soon narrows and begins a gradual but steady descent off the east, more sheltered, side of the ridge. As it loses elevation the trees get taller and the blueberries bluer. We begin filling a second empty water bottle with more berries, and the hiking slows to a crawl.
On the plus side, the midsummer day is long and we are eating well. It is of only passing interest that, in the middle of the trail, a big pile of bear scat, black and loaded with seeds, signals that we are not the only ones sampling nature's bounty.
After a mile, the Shelter Rock Trail ends at Shelter Rock Road, an old logging and state Forest Bureau road, now closed to vehicles, that serves as a hiking trail along the eastern boundary of the natural area.
We turn left, going north, and immediately meet our fellow diner.
The large black bear is seated at the side of the grassy, overgrown trail no more than 20 yards away, calmly chowing down on the blueberry buffet. My daughter starts moving in for a better look but we holler to stay close, causing the bear to look over its shoulder but continue to eat.
Since he is blocking the trail back to the car, we begin to clap our hands and shout in an effort to get him to move. After several minutes that seemed a lot longer, he finished with the patch and ambled off into the woods.
We moved quickly past his dining area, where a large swath of the waist-high grass was flattened, and up the trail, occasionally stealing glances behind us just to make sure we weren't being followed.
The road-turned-trail was hot and slightly uphill.
To complete the loop we turned left onto the Tub Mill Trail, which links back to the High Point Trail near the parking lot. Near the end, I asked my son, who had hitched a ride on my shoulders for the last half mile through the tall, itchy, grass on Shelter Rock Road, if he'd enjoyed the hike.
"I liked the eating part," he said through lips stained blue, "better than the walking part."
But the walking part had its high points, too.
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