Hiking and Backpacking the Pinchot Trail

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The Pinchot Trail is located in Northeast Pennsylvania, and is a great trail for beginner backpackers. There are no amazing scenic views on the trail, however it traverses several diverse natural landscapes, some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in PA!

It’s composed of a north and south section(bisected by the main road), and totals about 23 miles. There are also many side trails bisecting parts of the main loop, so you can even make some shorter day hikes out of it, or just hike to a closer campsite for an easy overnight getaway. The main trail head is located on Bear Lake Rd.

Pinchot Trail Hiking Plan Ideas

  • Backpack the full loop: about 23 miles – best as a 3 day 2 night trip.
  • Backpack just the north loop (10 miles) or south loop (11.5 miles), for a 2 day one night trip.
  • Day hike the north or south loop.
  • Day hike a small section.
  • Backpack a small section and stay overnight at a campsite close by.
Screenshot from my GaiaGPS map.

A Little History

The trail is named after Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946). He became the head of the Division of Forestry in 1898, and in 1905-1910 was appointed as the Chief of the newly created US Forest Service. He advocated for proper forest conservation and added well over 100 million acres to the national forests during his time served. Later in 1920,  he became the head of Pennsylvania’s Forestry division, and in 1922 the Governor of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the trail, the Pinchot State Forest was named after him, as well as Gifford Pinchot State Park, and Gifford Pinchot National Forest located in the state of Washington. You can also visit the Grey Towers National Historic Site, his old family home.

About the trail

Trail Markers

One of the best things about this trail is just how well it’s marked and maintained. As long as you have a map with you denoting the different trail intersections, you should be fine. You just follow the orange colored blazes for the main trail. At times you’ll see several of them all in the same view on multiple trees going down the trail.

There are also several side trails, and even dirt roads intersecting the main trail as well. So if you decide you want to back out, or have an injury, you can hopefully get help and won’t be too far from a road. This makes the trail really good for beginners!

One thing to note, is that the “Pinchot Trail” is not labeled as such on the trail signs you’ll come across. It’s actually made up out of a lot of smaller trails with different names. Be sure to follow a good map that has these old trail names labeled, and always follow the Orange Blazes.

Terrain

As for the terrain, it’s mostly flat, with some low grade hills here and there. The path is well trodden as well, so except in a few places you won’t have any worries about wandering off trail. Some parts can get a bit rocky however, and other parts can be muddy too depending on the time of year and rainfall.

Also depending on the time of year, parts of it can get quite overgrown and buggy. Wear long pants and long sleeves, or a bug net suit along with bug spray just to be safe.

One of the rocky sections of the trail.

Water

There are 2 sources of water that you can filter: Painter’s Creek-which is about halfway through the North loop, and Choke Creek-about halfway through the Southern loop. Painter’s Creek is very small, and you only come across it once. Choke Creek on the other hand you follow for several miles along the Southern loop, and is much larger. If you like to fish you might have an opportunity at Choke Creek.

Parking

The main parking lot has plenty space for several cars. It’s located on the north side of Bear Lake Road. There are a couple smaller pull offs to the west of that parking lot, on the south side of the road. They’d probably be ok to park at if you’re day hiking the south loop or maybe doing an overnighter there. But I’d personally feel safer putting my car in the main lot.

Rules/Permits

There’s a trail register book that you should sign in to, not too far from the trail head parking lot heading north. Otherwise there are no permits needed to hike or backpack this trail as per PA State Forest Rules-unless you are at the same campsite for more than one night, or are with a group larger than 10.

There are also no fires permitted from March 1-May 25th.

Campsites

There are many campsites throughout the trail. Most of them are small, good for just 1-3 tents. However there are a few larger group sites around too. There’s also a lot more places to camp along the southern loop.

The nicest spots are nearby each of the creeks. Painter’s Creek only has 1 or 2 spots, which are close to each other and not very big. Choke Creek however has many spots to choose from, and are more scenic. So don’t worry too much if the spot at Painter’s Creek is taken. The only thing to note there is that there are no close by campsites to Painter’s creek on the western end of the trail. There is one nearby on the eastern side however.

All the campsites have a fire ring, and many of them have logs or stones to sit on around it too.

I’ve marked all the campsites that I found which you can check out on my GaiaGPS map.

There are some really nice campsites along the trail! This was one on the north loop.

Hiking the Pinchot Trail North Loop

When I first hiked this trail I did the 10 mile north loop as a long day hike in August. It was a couple days after the last rain, so I didn’t encounter any muddy spots. The bugs weren’t bad at all either, didn’t get any ticks! Me and a friend headed counter-clockwise from the trailhead parking lot, with the plan to do 5 miles to Painter’s Creek, have lunch there, and then 5 miles back to the parking lot.

The start of the North loop

Along the first half of the trail, we encountered very tall grasses, ferns, and bushes along the more open parts of the trail. We were happy we both had long pants on! The trail was very narrow, and sometimes you couldn’t see much more of it than a few steps away. But as I mentioned, the orange blazes on the trees marked the trail very well.

Some of the trail overgrowth

I have to admit this part of the trail was probably the least scenic, but if you enjoy nature it’s still very beautiful! Many deciduous trees, some pines and open areas here and there.

After Painter’s Creek, we walked about another mile, and my friend’s feet were in a lot of pain(bad shoes). So thankfully we encountered a dirt road. She waited there while I hiked the last 4 miles back to the car, and I was able to locate the road on a map, drive up and come get her.

Towards the end of those last 4 miles, I took the Frank Gantz side trail, thinking it might be a shorted distance to the parking log, but it was about the same distance, slightly longer. The side trail was a little more overgrown than the main trail, but it was still well marked and easy to navigate. If you want an alternate path that doesn’t require any road walking, I recommend the Frank Gantz trail if you’re just doing the North loop.

Backpacking the Pinchot Trail

North Loop

My second time on this trail I went with another friend and we did a 3 day 2 night backpacking trip. We started around 1:30pm, hiking counter-clockwise from the main parking lot at the North loop. It was October, so the vegetation was starting to die off, it wasn’t quite as overgrown in spots as it was in August. The trees were starting to turn colors, the temps were in the 60’s during the day, low 40’s high 30’s at night, it was a really beautiful time to go!

I love hiking anywhere in the fall. These maple trees were gorgeous!

We planned to camp by Painter’s Creek, but a group passed us by as we were getting closer, so we decided to stop at the campsite just before the creek instead, knowing that the spots at Painter’s might be all taken up.

That said we didn’t regret it! There was plenty of space for our 2 tents, a nice fire ring and stones to sit on next to it.

Can’t beat a campfire at the end of the day!

The next day we packed up camp and hiked down the hill, one of the few on this trail, making our way to Painter’s Creek. We checked the area out, and filtered water into our bottles. Where the trail continues is a little hidden here, basically when you come down the hill you’ll see the creek in front of you, and you’ll make a left. You’ll have to walk a little bit down the trail, and you’ll cross the stream here, where the trail continues on the other side. Thankfully we were able to walk across several rocks, and using our trekking poles for support didn’t get our feet wet. If the water was running high that might have been more difficult.

Painter’s Creek

Along the second half of the North loop, the forest opens up quite a bit, and you walk along a hilly, rocky slope. It’s really pretty here. You’ll cross a dirt road or two, and the last part, a long section of it, is walking along a wide grassy pathway until you get to Bear Lake Road.

South Loop

After crossing the road, not far into the start of the south loop there’s a campsite on the right hand side. We stopped and had lunch here. It was a nice spot under a big evergreen tree.

Continuing on you’ll come to some beautiful rhododendron tunnels! Perfect spot to take some photos.

Beautiful rhododendron tunnels!

This area, the Behler Swamp trail portion heading south, is where we encountered the muddiest section of the trail. In fact we didn’t really have any mud issues up until here. There were long stretches of the trail that were slow going, as we were trying to avoid having our feet totally covered in mud lol. Thankfully, there were some logs, rocks, and we walked along the sides of the trail in parts and were able to manage. It’s easy to get a foot soaked in mud though, so be careful!

The forest will eventually start opening up a bit more, underneath some hemlocks, and you’ll cross a small section of Choke Creek as it winds its way down south. After about 4 miles from the main road, we reached the main part of the creek and the first campsites along it.

Choke Creek

This area was the most beautiful part of the whole trail. The creek was a reddish brown, possibly tinted that way from tannins, but thankfully it was safe to drink, we had no problems. We found a nice campsite a couple miles down along the trail and made our home there for the night.

The next day we casually made our way down the trail alongside the creek. The last major spot along it was the highlight: Choke Creek falls. Great place for lunch and to enjoy some time soaking up the scenery!

Choke Creek Falls

As we started making our way back north, we passed by some more open parts of the forest, where it looks like the ground could get pretty swampy, a couple small stream crossings, and then we hiked a ways up a long gravel road that the trail followed. That was probably the least interesting part of the trail. I prefer natural trails, and we were quite tired by that point, the road became slow going.

Around a half mile past that section however is another good place for a break, at the “Stone Tower”. It’s a big open area with large rocks in the ground and a small tower built out of rocks there. You can’t miss it.

The Stone Tower

Continuing to the end you’ll pass through some very pretty forest sections, more rhododendrons, and open area with low shrubs which is so colorful in the fall! The very last section is a half mile walk along the road to the parking lot.

Fire Tower

Lastly, either before you start or when you get done with your hike you definitely should check out the Fire Tower for a beautiful view of the surrounding area.

Less than half a mile east past the main parking lot is Pittson road, which you’ll make a left onto. Follow it north for around a mile, then make a left onto Pine Hill Road.

There’s a small lot to park your car, and from there you’ll have to follow the rest of the gravel road to the top on foot until you get to the tower. It sits atop Big Pine Hill at 2264 ft. Be warned if you do this after your big hike: it’s an uphill walk for about a quarter mile-my legs were not happy with me after doing 10 miles already that day! lol.

View from atop the fire tower

Hope this guide helps you in your hike or backpacking trip! You can check out my entire picture gallery on the trail here.

If you have any questions about the trail, or have been on it and have any good information to add, post in the comments below!

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