Trip Report: Exploring Tuscarora State Forest

Early last week I got an event invite from one of my local overland friends Jonathan (aka @smithcreate on IG).  He wanted to put together a little day-trip around one of the local state forests, show off some cool things he had found over the years, and then go camping on some family land he had in the area.  Needless to say, I got super excited.

Built to explore.

The plan was to rendezvous at the Sheetz (a gas station for those not from central PA) and roll out to the mountains and “get lost” for a while.  This was an odd sensation for me since I was the one usually playing guide.  This time around I didn’t have any pressure other than playing “follow the leader” and snapping some photos.  Read on for more about the trip…

Trip Prep

After all the issues with the Wrangler the past few weeks (<cough> months) I was stoked to actually get out and do some exploring again.  The preliminary route that Jonathan sent me overlapped with portions of the Trans-PA Trail which I’ve been itching to run.  It also gave me an idea, but you’ll have to wait till the end for that.

Since we were going to be camping out it was a perfect chance for me to blow the dusty off the Poor-Man’s-Teardrop trailer.  It hadn’t moved much since being parked after the Disconnected Offroad event last fall.  The only time it moved this year was up to my buddy’s garage to get the axle flipped.  Sadly after that someone (<cough> me) didn’t set the one wheel bearing right.  On the way home it got a little toasty.  So, first things first, I decided to check the bearing and see if I could loosen it up a little.  I did but sadly the bearing grease looked like purple glitter.  Not a good sign.  I hoped with some fresh grease I could at least limp it on a short local trip and replace the bearings on Monday before leaving for VA Wednesday.  No such luck.  Even with fresh grease the bearing was too hot to touch after a short 5 mile trip around town.  Not wanting to risk damaging the spindle I opted to park the trailer for the weekend and skip out on the overnight part of the trip.  I’d only be an hour from home anyway and my queen sized mattress is a little more inviting than the twin in the trailer (I know, I know, I know).

Giving the trailer a once over.
Turns out the passenger side bearing is toast.
Going to get replaced soon.

I did a quick once-over on the Jeep making sure things are still good and once Saturday morning rolled around I was ready for adventure!

Tuscarora State Forest

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of central PA, Tuscarora State Forest covers an astonishing 96,000+ acres. For a little reference, it straddles the mountains opposite the Cumberland Valley from Michaux State Forest (Michaux to the south, Tuscarora to the north).  Tuscarora is home to groves of Hemlock, American Chestnut, and oak.  It’s also home to a spiderweb of unpaved service roads and more than a few “hidden treasures.”

Rendezvous and drivers’ meeting before we roll out.

Jonathan. Our fearless leader for the day.
Been a long time since I’ve had to follow someone.

After rolling out of the local gas station which served as our morning rendezvous, we snaked our way through the some fun Cumberland Vally backroads to our point of entry into the forest.  Once we hit gravel, at my request, we stopped to air down.  While airing down for fire roads isn’t “needed” I’ve learned from past experience the washboards and rougher sections of the roads can do a number on you after a while (maying I’m just getting old).  Plus, with my J.T. Brooks deflators and my ViAir Onboard Air, making sure I’m managing my air pressure appropriately isn’t a big deal.  The right equipment and the right habits make for good times.

Rocking the J.T. Brooks Pro-series Automatic Tire Deflators.
They got some use on a few different rigs.

On my tail for the day, a 2016 Cherokee Trailhawk with less than 6,000 miles.

Also had a Toyota FJ along for the ride.

And a Nissan Xterra.  Good mix of vehicles.

Bringing up the tail was Phoenix in the Token Tacoma

The word of the day was dust.  Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots, or dust.  I had forgotten what it was like to not be the lead Jeep. Luckily the wind would shift every now and then and give a brief respite from the ceaseless cloud of dust.  Sadly the breezes were short lived and often blocked by either the mountain’s ridge or the trees and it was back to the grey abyss.

We weren’t the only ones enjoying the nice weather.
Always remember to slow down and give the bikes a wide berth and remember to yield to them when necessary.
Share the trail; Share the road.

The first stop on our itinerary was a scenic overlook that faced south over the Cumberland Valley toward Michaux.  On previous trips in Michaux we had looked north at Tuscarora.  With the One Lap of Michaux all but finished it was nice to be exploring a new area.

Looking south from Tuscarora SF across the hazy Cumberland Valley toward Michaux State Forest.

Our second stop was the C-119G crash site on the backside of the Blue Mountain.  The plane had crashed while in route to what is now the Harrisburg Airport.  It was transporting medical supplies when a storm caused it to crash into the mountain side.   There isn’t much wreckage left, but with a keen eye and a little digging through the leaves you can still find bits of aluminum, glass, and wire. The bulk of the fuselage was removed many years ago.

Historic marker and memorial for those who perished in the crash.

The trail is flat for the first ¾ or so and well marked with red blazes.
The last part drops down the far face.  Not too bad.
Quick easy hike.

Impact site.

Not much left, but if you look close you can find bits of wreckage and melted aluminum.

Back on the road.

Our guide for the day Jonathan had wanted to check out a few roads he had never been on.  On a few previous occasions he and I had done some digital pre-running with our GPS apps over wings and drinks seeing what roads would be worth checking out and which ones might connect to other fun roads.  The other plan was to find and mark some of the primitive campsites in the forest.

Lunch while exploring one of the spur roads

We weren’t the only ones taking in the sun or tracking down some lunch.

Lots of cool old cabins along the roads.

All in a row.

When traveling in PA gates are inevitable.
This was was closed but not locked.  Nor was it marked.
Tempting… but we’ll check with the Forest Service before we check it out.

Hello beautiful.

One of the primitive campsites in the state forest.

Cool old foundation.  No idea what it was for.

What about the Jeep?

The last major stop of the day was probably my favorite.  If you’ve been following ECOA and the No Highways Tour for a while you know I love transportation history and infrastructure.  Jonathan had mentioned an old abandoned railroad tunnel.  The story goes they had started at both ends but only made it 100 or so feet into the mountain before giving up.  I’m honestly not 100% sure the reasoning, but I’m sure soon I’ll be doing a little Googling to see what I can find out.

Built by Youth Conservation Corps.

Someone didn’t do the math.

Hiking up to the roadbed which leads to the tunnel entrance.

The portal peeking out from the mountain.

Doesn’t go in far, but the rush of moist cold air was noticeable compared to the warm dry air outside.

Another random foundation left over from the rail and logging industries.

With our second hike of the day complete. We aired up our tires in anticipation of a long stretch of pavement before one final section of service road known to have a number of campsites along it.  My only regret was not airing back down… and not having a snorkel to mitigate the dust intake into the Jeep (<adds new air filter to shopping list>).

Airing back up.
Five vehicles, 20 tires, two ViAir Onboard Air systems, and one ViAir bag compressor.
Something cool along the way.  Worth checking out.

Lots of mountain streams and springs along way.

Kickin’ up dust… again.

The hour was late and the sun was flirting with the horizon line.  We hit pavement one last time and made our way to some top secret private land that belonged to Jonathan’s family.  The plan was to make camp for the night, hang out around the camp fire, and relax after a long day behind the wheel.  All in all a fitting end to an adventure filled day.

End of the day lineup at an undisclosed private location.

Conclusion: The bigger picture

The route that Jonathan put together for us was a pretty solid start to what will hopefully become a “One Lap of Tuscarora” route.  My goal has always been to put together a number of such routes that would be fun weekend long overland adventures.  They could then be linked together to form longer week-long adventures for those with a little more time on their hands.  Phoenix, (aka @tokentacoma on IG) had shown me a route through Bald Eagle when we were at the Mid-Atlantic Overland Fest last year.   Combined with my One Lap of Michaux route and the still-in-process One Lap of Buchanan you could put together one fun adventure through central PA.  The nice part is the previously mentioned Trans-PA Trail actually goes through Michaux, Tuscarora, and Bald Eagle State Forests.  So if someone plans on doing the TPAT they can easily fluff the trip with the additional one-lap routes.  So, as time goes on, and with enough support and interest, expect to see more developments from ECOA.

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