The Chuck Keiper Trail (CKT) is a 49.3 mile backpacking loop located in Pennsylvania's Sproul State Forest. It can be broken into 2 loops, East and West, by using the Cross-Connector Trail. This trail runs from the main parking lot on PA Route 144 southeast past the Little Beaver Swamp until it connects with the CKT at the southern edge of the State Forest. This makes the East Loop 22.4 miles long and the West Loop 32.9 miles.
Notes: Mostly well blazed with some swampy spots along the Cross-Connector Trail. Ample opportunities for water unless the weather has been particularly dry. When I was here in July 2020 the Four Ridges Section along Boggs Run, the northeast segment of trail, had considerable storm damage causing slow progress on the trail and potentially dangerous conditions. Suggest rerouting along Pete's Run & Mill Run Roads to bypass.
It had been 7 months since my last solo backpacking trip. That's not to say I haven't been out, just not solo. For me at least, solo trips are a way to reset, forget about the craziness in the world for a couple days and just focus on my immediate surroundings. I chose the CKT East Loop for a couple reasons. First, I had never hiked even an inch of this trail, I had driven through the neighboring areas before and new it was beautiful country. Second, I really wanted the possibility of being truly solo... not just without a group, but alone on the trail.
The CKT is in what is known as the PA Wilds. An area that covers 25% of the state's landmass, but is home to just 4% of the state's population. That's roughly 512,000 people for 2.1million acres of public land! So I thought I had a pretty good chance of having the trail to myself considering I was going on a Wednesday and Thursday.
I planned on doing 11-15 miles on day 1 and doing the trail counter-clockwise. So I started with the connector trail first. This part of the hike was about 3.5 miles and took me through gorgeous conifer stands, groves of hardwoods and even the north edge of Little Beaver Swamp (prepare for wet shoes). When I reached the end of the connector trail I headed east, left, on the CKT. The junction is well marked, although not the "T" junction it appears to be on the map.
Once on the CKT proper, I hiked another 3 or so miles until I reached Clendennin Branch Run where I stopped for lunch. The descent to Clendinnin is pretty steep, and really sets you up for what you'll encounter for the next 6 or so miles. You will travel from ravine to ravine to ravine, up and over sharp ridges with very narrow peaks. There's not much flat ground here to be sure. They weren't the worst climbs I've ever done, but the heat and humidity made them feel much worse.
As I hit my 11 mile mark I was cresting my final ridge for the day and heading into the Four Ridges Trail section. I would find out on day 2 that this was a mistake. Descending into the ravine was rough, the trail was steep and over grown with some kind of stinging nettle. I made it to 12.2 miles before I found barely usable water... this side of the ridge is extremely dry. I set up camp and called it a day.
Day 2 was like I was on a completely different trail. From the time I left camp until I left the Four Ridges section it was a battle, there was extensive storm damage, and not recent either, along the Boggs Run portion. It took me nearly 5 hours to make it 3.8 miles! There were so many downed trees I could barely follow the trail. I tried following the creek, blocked with downed trees... I'd go around the trees... more downed trees or washed out creek banks. It was by far the toughest 3.8 miles I've ever done and in hindsight I probably should have turned back and taken the road around this section. Even the climb back up to the ridge was blocked with trees.
From there I headed to the Diamond Rock Hollow section, which at first follows a forest road.... No downed trees!!! Yay! Then it turns right into the South Renovo Watershed Area and you begin another descent into a ravine before crossing PA Route 144 and the final segment of the hike. The Drake Hollow section is relatively flat, aside from a few short climbs/descents until you get to the creek crossing and turn away from 144. From there it's a constant climb, approximately 1,200 feet of elevation gain in just under 2 miles. Again, not a horrible climb until you factor in the heat and humidity.
From the beginning of Diamond Hollow all the way through Drake Hollow along the short road hike and most of the way along the final 3/4 mile Barney's Ridge section, the trail is well maintained, well marked and easy to follow. Until you get about 500 or so feet from the parking lot. In what may be the most baffling bit of trail maintenance I have ever seen. The CKT all but vanishes from existence in this final 500 feet. Of course if you were to do the loop clockwise... your first impression of the CKT would be horrible. There is no blaze, there is zero... seriously, zero path cut through a 500 foot section of mountain laurel, blueberry bushes and some kind of thorn covered creeper that is intertwined through the rest of the vegetation.
I get that the storm damage in the Four Ridges section is remote-ish and would require a lot of planning and labour to clear, a sign or two would be nice even at the trailhead to warn hikers of potential danger (There's no signs... I checked). But... 500 feet of trail... at the trailhead? In my book there's no excuse for that. If I was doing the trail clockwise and that was the first thing I was greeted with... I probably would have gotten back in my Jeep and headed to a different trail in the area.
Overall the CKT East Loop was an awesome trip. Beautiful forests and ecosystems, challenging terrain and the all the solitude I was looking for... I didn't see a single other hiker the entire time I was there. Aside from the storm damaged northeast section of the trail and some overgrown blueberry patches along the way the only real disappointment was the lack of maintenance in the 500 feet or so north of the parking lot. None of the negatives outweigh the sheer beauty of the area... I can't wait to do the West Loop.