The North-Central Mountains
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “I haven’t seen a view like this since sitting in the Red Rocks outdoor amphitheater at the edge of the Rocky Mountains high above Denver. And I’ve taken in some darn good scenic views across North America.”
The last light of day was slipping away in front of us as we stood on the edge of Hyner View State Park, which overlooks the Susquehanna River rippling 1,300-feet below. As we were learning, Pennsylvania mountain country offers incredible scenery to go with some of the best snowmobiling you’ve probably never heard about.
My touring buddy, Ted Perkins, and I joined the Hyner Mountain Snowmobile Club for a few days in early March at their comfortable lodge hidden deep in the rugged mountains northwest of Williamsport.
These rock piles of antiquity might not be as big as their western cousins, but they are just as coarse. They escaped the glaciation that manicured the geography of Pennsylvania’s northern neighbor, New York.
Geologically part of the Allegheny Plateau, the high ground that comprises the northwestern half of the Keystone State are called the Northcentral Mountains. They are characterized by steep slopes and deep gorges with rocky creeks down the low points called “runs” by locals. Oak and other hardwoods predominate, but some areas have been heavily replanted with pine. The thick woods conceal deer, eagles, turkeys, bears, bobcats and other wildlife. It’s an outdoors-lover’s paradise and we felt privileged to be invited to ride here with people who know the territory well.
Pennsylvania State Snowmobile Associa-tion (PSSA) Vice-President Tom Davidson greeted us when we arrived. Soon we were out for a warm-up ride with Bill McGrail and Sharon Frank, Virginia residents who drive five-plus hours north to snow country.
Members continued to filter in, including Dennis Smouse and Harrison Langley, our trip facilitators. Soon we had a full crew and were ready to hit the trail to explore the area.
The Big Ride To The Big Gorge
Trail master Bob Bickel and his wife, Joan, led our group of a dozen riders. Bob’s route zig-zagged through a maze of mostly unplowed forest roads that are named and marked at intersections, but lack any trail numbering scheme. Some of the low-lying sections were so hidden from the morning sun that they felt more like tunnels than snowmobile trails. We were climbing or descending much of the time as Bob’s route wound around and over the rocky, uneven terrain.
Most of these trails were fairly narrow, typically 8 or 9 feet wide, and generally well-groomed. But a few were mogulled because the groomers could not access them. Club President Ken Hering explained that many of these routes (like “Narrow Gauge Road”) were originally narrow-gauge logging railroads from turn-of-the-last-century timbering.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) came through this area to modify and expand the system in the 1930s. In fact, Pennsylvania had the second highest concentration of CCC camps of any state in the union, and plaques and place names continually reminded us of those contributions.
Taking a break at scenic Spinning Wheel Vista, we were glad to be off to the side of the trail when a Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) groomer came by. Unlike most snow trail systems, this one is groomed in the daytime, which is nice for riders like us who get a freshly surfaced trail.
Pine Creek Gorge is commonly known as the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania. At 47 miles long, as much as 4,000 feet wide and up to 1,450 feet deep, this major rift in the earth’s surface was created by glacial melt waters thousands of years before rider-forward snowmobiling was invented. We dismounted and broke out the cameras at two scenic overviews in Colton Point State Park on the west rim of the gorge.
Following a stop for gas and then lunch at the Twin Pine in Ansonia, Bob led us back on a different route. We stopped again to relax in the afternoon sunshine while enjoying the incredible panorama from Cushman Vista.
“I’ve lived in Pennsylvania all my life,” said Langley, a southern Pennsylvania resident. “I knew they had good trails up here, but I had no idea of the scenery before I actually came up to ride.”
I had to agree. Growing up just across the state line in New York, but farther east, I had no idea what incredible views these mountains offer. They top anything I’ve seen in eastern North America, not to mention the high-quality snowmobiling.
As the afternoon progressed, we sampled the wide, rolling swath of open ground above a pipeline before turning back into the woods.
Four of us split off from the group for a fast run to catch the sunset at Hyner View State Park. By the time we got back to the lodge, we had logged 122 miles in three counties, and we were ready for the terrific spaghetti dinner featuring Dina Davidson’s meatballs and sauce.
More Fun In The Mountains
The next day’s excursion was a little larger as more members arrived at the lodge than departed. Henry Hartman, publisher of the Keystone Snowmobiler, also joined us for the day.
Bob led our expanded group north again, this time on high ground through the Black Forest on the top of Slate Run then on to Germania. As we approached the village, we broke out of the shaded woodlands into sunny open fields with expansive trails for the first time since our arrival. We also started to see snowmobile signs and trail blazes, which had been mostly absent in the state forests.
It took a while to gas up at the general store’s single pump before we headed across the street to the historic Germania Hotel for lunch. The sandwiches were excellent and the portions of everything were generous to say the least. The ride out of town was a little slower paced because of our full stomachs.
Heading south, we found the warming spring weather was turning the trails mealy, but snow coverage was still good overall. Bob led us up to Lebo Vista on a long, steep trail that is rarely passable in the winter. The breathtaking view of the Pine Creek gorge was now well downstream from our lunchtime observation. We were up so high that the valley village of Cammal looked like something you might see from an airplane window. It wasn’t the first time I’d had that feeling on the trip, either.
Exiting by an easy trail, we crossed the one paved road in the area and hit the one genuinely bad trail that we rode all day. Fortunately it was just a few miles back to the clubhouse, which wrapped up another excellent day on the trails.
Saturday’s main event was an outdoor hot dog roast at Ole Bull State Park. Named for a Norwegian musician who lived in the area for a while. This modern, well-equipped park serves as both trail head and a destination for snowmobilers. We carried everything required, including the firewood, on our sleds. The warm day made for an easy and enjoyable cookout.
After lunch, Bob led us farther west before looping back into Germania only to find a huge line at the gas pump. After checking everyone’s tank, we skipped the gas stop and hit the trail once again. The spring sun and heavy sled traffic transformed the unshaded trails to mud. So we headed straight for the clubhouse. There was still plenty of snow in the woods and we had no problems on the return ride, save some bare spots in the few open areas.
By the time we got back, many of us were running on fumes. The awe of the mountain scenery had given way to “Aw, I think we’re done for the season.”
In some ways this trip was a throw-back to the old days. Navigation in the Northcentral Mountains is done by road name instead of trail number, much like Tug Hill was 20 years ago. The infrastructure is pretty thin, too. Gas, food and lodging are there, but you have to know where and, more importantly, when they are open.
Therefore, the Northcentral Mountains aren’t the easiest place to ride. But it is one of the most rewarding, with good trails and awesome scenery that are in a class by themselves in the eastern states.
We were definitely captivated by our Keystone snowmobiling experience. It was easily our best ride of the winter. We’ll be back again, and soon.
So if you’re looking for some new territory to explore and don’t mind roughing it some, the Union’s second state should be first on your list.
The Allegheny Plateau At A Glance
Mean annual snowfall: 54 inches
Winter temperature range: Slightly sub-zero to above freezing
Riding season: Late December to March 31st
Trail pass: None, but snowmobiles must be registered in Pennsylvania or a reciprocating state. Note that New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine do not reciprocate. Pennsylvania registration is $20 for two years and must be obtained in advance from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).
Trails: 2,000 miles of trails and roads across the five-county Northcentral Mountains Region
Primary grooming agency: DCNR
Trail conditions hotline: Toll free 877/ 766-6253, selection No. 2
Tioga County Visitors Bureau
114 Main Street
Wellsboro, PA 16901
Toll free 888/846-4228
Potter County Visitors Association
P. O. Box 245
Coudersport, PA 16915
Toll free 888/768-8372
Clinton County Economic Partnership
212 North Jay Street
Lock Haven, PA 17745
Toll free 888/388-6991
Pennsylvania Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources
Snowmobile / ATV Registration Section
P. O. Box 8553
Harrisburg, PA 17105-8553
Toll free 866/545-2476