I found myself at Otter Creek Campground in York County on the afternoon of Sept. 10, sweaty enough for an uninformed observer to assume that I’d just taken a fully-clothed swim. My legs were caked with dirt, I was wolfing down a freshly grilled cheeseburger without regard for table manners and gripping a wooden finisher’s medal. I’d just finished the 25K course of the Keystone Trails Association’s Trail Challenge, and while I was not the fastest or heartiest hiker on the course, I was happy to have seen some of the most gorgeous natural landscapes this area has to offer, and proud to have made it the whole way through.
Starting in 2009 as a 25-mile hike, the Keystone Trails Association (KTA) Trail Challenge traces the Susquehanna River Gorge via the Conestoga and Mason-Dixon trails through Lancaster and York counties. Participants can
choose to run or hike the Trail Challenge;there is a 25K course and, for the truly brave of heart, a 50K course.
Currently, the 50K course starts at Pequea Creek Campground, following the Susquehanna River south. The 25K begins at Susquehannock State Park, and the trails merge soon after along Route 372. This year, over 400 people registered for the event, according to Sara Haxby, KTA’s Program Administrator.
Haxby says that while most participants are from Pennsylvania, the event sees registrants from all over the country (this year from as far afield as Texas and South Dakota), within a wide range of ages (the oldest and youngest finishers of this year’s 50K were 75 and 15, respectively). Participants from all levels of experience and confidence approach Haxby, now in her second year as Program Administrator.
“I get emails from people summoning their courage to do this hard thing, asking about the terrain and the services we offer along the way,” she says. “Then I hear from enthusiastic veterans who recruit their friends to try it with them the next year.”
Formed in 1956, the Keystone Trails Association works to maintain and protect Pennsylvania’s hiking trails, both through political advocacy and by organizing physical maintenance of hiking trails. The association consists of individuals as well as hiking and conservation-oriented groups and clubs from across the state. Haxby describes the Trail Challenge as “a hectic distillation of what the Keystone Trails Association is all about,” promoting appreciation of the area’s wealth of hiking trails and creating and strengthening partnerships with smaller trail groups.
Though I grew up with regular family hiking and camping trips, it has only been in the past few years that I have found a desire to hit the trail of my own accord. These days, I take short hikes several times a month, and find myself daydreaming of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail. When I stumbled upon the KTA’s website this past summer, the Trail Challenge sounded like a fun way to up the stakes. Because of the short time before the race to train, I chose the 25K option.
Following the registration email’s guidelines, I loaded my backpack with snacks and several water bottles, in addition to the recommended basic first aid supplies; for good measure, I threw in a towel, two extra pairs of socks, and a wildflower identification guide. Halfway through the hike, aching under the weight of my ambitious pack, I wondered when exactly I thought I’d have energy or patience to stop and use a dichotomous key.
Before the heat took hold, the morning was glorious, clear and 70 degrees. At the starting line, hikers were given a pep talk and some firm warnings to stay hydrated, follow the orange bands tied along the path, and to check in at every checkpoint and the finish line, lest we be counted as lost at the end of the day. Then, we were off.
I would describe the whole trek step-by-step, but I’m not sure how many synonyms I can find for “beautiful” and “hot,” the primary words I’ve used to describe it afterward. The volunteers at each checkpoint were kind and enthusiastic, making us feel like we’d really earned our Gatorade and bananas. The course passed some truly beautiful sights (the Susquehanna, full of rocky islands and framed by steep cliffs as we crossed the Norman Wood Bridge, was my personal favorite), and through some punishing climbs. Near the end, my sore feet and horrifying sweatiness started to catch up with me, and I considered giving up. Realizing, however, I was probably just as close to the finish as the last aid station, there was no option but to push forward; it helped that
during this epiphany, a couple of 50K runners rushed past me. Emerging from the woods into the campground after almost exactly five hours of strenuous hiking was exhilarating.
Now that it’s finished, I can’t stop talking about the hike, and am hoping I will convince a few friends to suffer joyfully with me next year. Maybe even for the 50K.
More hikes and trail runs
Think you might be up for 2017’s Trail Challenge? Mark your calendar for Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, and check kta-hike.org for registration details and event updates.
In the meantime, there are plenty of trail runs and organized hikes in, or just a relatively short drive from Lancaster County. Here is a small assortment:
The Lancaster Hiking
Club, which maintains the Conestoga Trail System, hosts regular group adventures on area trails, with options for all levels of difficulty. Visit lancasterhikingclub.angelfire.com for a list of planned hikes for the remainder of 2016.
Though it is a road race, the Stoudts Brewing Distance Classic 12K offers a chance to get outdoors and enjoy quaint Adamstown. Hosted by the brewery and directed by the Lancaster Road Runners Club, the race will take place on Oct. 22. Visit the lrrclub.org for registration details; registration includes a free beer at Stoudt’s beer garden, should you need more incentive.
Venturing east, the ChesLen Chase for Open Space, benefiting the Natural Lands Trust’s ChesLen Preserve in Coatesville, will take place on Oct. 22. The event offers 5K and 10K trail run options, as well as a 2-mile fun run. Victory Brewing Company will provide food and beer. Check out the events page at natlands.org for registration details.
Ghouls & Fools
For a unique twist on the trail run, check out the Ghouls & Fools 10K race. Organized by Pretzel City Sports, this glowstick-lit nighttime run along the trails at Reading’s Mt. Penn encourages participants to dress in their Halloween best. This year’s race will take place on Oct. 22; visit pretzelcitysports.com for more information.
A bit farther afield, the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club host the Ironmaster’s Challenge each spring (2017’s event will take place on Sunday, Apr. 30). Offering a 50K trail run and a 15K walk/hike course, the event ventures into Pine Grove Furnace State Park and Michaux State Forest. Visit the race’s Facebook page for updates.