West Rim Trail PA Grand Canyon Backpacking Guide: Hiking the Pine Creek Gorge in the Tioga State Forest

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Are you planning a backpacking adventure on the West Rim Trail of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon? You’re in for a treat! On one of the best backpacking adventures in Pennsylvania, you’ll enjoy 2-3 days (or longer, if you’d like!) of stunning vistas, beautiful greenery, and trickling mountain streams. 

The trail winds through the Tioga State Forest, providing plenty of views of this remote area of northern Pennsylvania. Skirting Colton Point State Park for a short stretch on the West Rim on the way to Barbour Rock, the views are some of the best in the state.

We’ve done (and thoroughly enjoyed!) this hike ourselves, and we’re ready to share all of our insights! The campsites are plentiful, the scenery is gorgeous, and you’re sure to have an unforgettable experience.

West Rim Trail Specs:

  • Length: 30 miles
  • Recommended Duration: 2-3 days
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Route: Point to Point
  • Best Time to Go: Spring to Fall
  • Total Elevation Gain: 5,421 feet
  • Permits?: Not Required
  • Bear Canisters or Hanging Food: Hanging
  • Dogs: Permitted

How to Get to the Trailhead

Getting to the West Rim Trail (WRT) in the PA Grand Canyon is fairly simple for those planning this backpacking adventure.

The trail can be accessed from the north on Colton Road less than 1 mile from US Route 6, or from the south on PA Route 414 at the Rattlesnake Rock Access Area 2 miles outside of Blackwell.

Both the northern and the southern trailheads offer plenty of parking and restrooms for hikers.

You can certainly hike the trail in either direction, starting from either trailhead. However, the more popular direction is starting at the southern terminus and heading north, which saves many of the most spectacular overlooks and views of the Pine Creek Gorge for the last handful of miles.

The West Rim Trail in the PA Grand Canyon is a bucket list Pennsylvania backpacking trip that is sure to provide memorable experiences in the beautiful north-central region of Pennsylvania.

A large paved parking lot along Route 414 provides plenty of access to the southern terminus of the West Rim Trail PA Grand Canyon.
The parking area at the southern terminus is large, with room for plenty of cars.

Hiking Shuttle & Vehicle Transportation

Are you hoping to hike this trail, but you only have one vehicle? Pine Creek Outfitters offers both a hiker shuttle option and valet service, where they will move your vehicle from one trailhead to the other while you hike. They’ll have your vehicle waiting for you at the end of your trek.

We took advantage of the “Canyon Valet” vehicle shuttle service, beginning our hike at the southern terminus. Sure enough, it was waiting for us right at the northern trailhead when we arrived two days later!

Plan to arrange either option ahead of time with Pine Creek Outfitters. If you plan to do the valet vehicle shuttle service, there is a form you will fill out ahead of time with all of your hike, vehicle, and key storage details.

A wooden trail sign reads West Rim Trail Southern Terminus, ending on US Route 6 Ansonia, 30 miles north.
We began our hike at the southern terminus fairly early on a Saturday morning.

West Rim Trail (PA Grand Canyon) Description

The West Rim Trail (WRT) is a spectacular backpacking trail that runs along the western side of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. The trail is well-renowned in national outdoor recreation publications and offers hikers stunning views of the gorge, waterfalls, and overlooks.

The WRT features plenty of primitive campsites and seasonal water sources, making it a popular destination for backpackers. 

The trail is well-marked with orange blazes. We found it extremely easy to follow, but we were prepared with our Garmin inReach2 and two paper maps; the Pine Creek Purple Lizard and the free one from the trailhead.

If you’re starting at the southern terminus, which we’d recommend, you’re in for a fairly difficult first 2 miles. You’ll head straight up the hill, climbing nearly 1,000 feet, heading to the rim of the canyon. A few parts feel like you’re walking through a dried-up stream bed, with loose rock. 

Don’t forget to look below, where a stream trickles forming some beautiful small cascades. 

You won’t have quite the spectacular views at the beginning, and you won’t stay on the rim for the entire hike. You’ve been warned. 

Of note on the southern half of the trail, you’ll pass by an old dynamite shed just a few miles into the hike. You’ll also hike through dense mountain laurels, which can be breathtakingly beautiful when fully blooming. Hike this trail in late June for the best chance to see the mountain laurel displays.

Mountain laurel blooms along the West Rim Trail of the PA Grand Canyon.

Just into mile 14, you’ll come to the Bradley Wales Picnic Area. This small clearing with a couple of picnic tables and a grill also has a pit toilet restroom right next to the trail and an old-fashioned manual water well pump. 

After passing the picnic area, this is where the vistas begin. After walking a short stretch on a dirt road, you’ll turn left back into a hemlock forest, and be treated to the first fantastic vista. There are great campsites here. They’re dry, though, so come with plenty of water as there isn’t another stream crossing until Ice Brake Run.

Later on, there are campsites near water sources like Little Slate Run, Burdic Run, and Bear Run. While the Right and Left Branches of Four Mile Run are great streams to refill with water and stop for a break, the campsites are quite close to forest roads.

A primitive campsite along the West Rim Trail with a tent off to the left in thicker tree cover and a smoky fire on the right.
Spend the night at a primitive campsite, like this one along Bear Run.

We stopped at the campsite on the Right Branch for lunch on day 2, and quite a few cars drove by in the short time we were there, many of them slowing down to look up the stream with the campsite visible from the road. 

The stretch around these two streams certainly has some elevation change, too. Trekking poles were a huge help in staying balanced while coming down the steep inclines.

We continued on to spend night 2 next to Bear Run, where there are two campsites. The second one just on the other side of Bear Run is the larger of the two, perfect for groups with multiple tents. 

There are a couple more campsites before the end of the trail and before you get to Barbour Rock.

Overall, the West Rim Trail offers an unforgettable backpacking experience in the heart of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, attracting hikers from all over the country with its stunning scenery and beautiful vistas.

We found this trail to be a workout but easier than other trails we’ve done in Pennsylvania. While it is a little more used than some others (we saw about 15 people over 2.5 days in June), it certainly has fewer rocks to navigate than stretches of the Appalachian Trail or the Allegheny Front Trail!

Map of the West Rim Trail in the Tioga State Forest

For those looking to experience the best of the trail, we recommend a 3-day, 2-night trip starting at the southern terminus near Blackwell and ending at the northern terminus in Ansonia. This will allow you plenty of time to take in the vistas and relax next to beautiful streams.

You can break it up however you like, hiking about 10 miles each day, or putting in a few extra miles the first 2 days to have an easy day 3. 

The only negative we found having just over 4 miles to hike on day 3, and being early risers, the Pine Creek Gorge was filled with dense fog when we arrived at the first overlooks. The fog cleared a few hours later, but it may not be worth getting up to be at the overlooks very early in the morning if you want clear views of Pine Creek below. 

Water Sources Along the Trail

When preparing for a backpacking trip on the West Rim Trail in the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, it’s important to know where to find water sources along the trail. This information can help you plan your route and pack accordingly.

There are plenty of water sources along the trail, but not all of them are reliable during periods of dry weather. As you hike, you’ll come across several streams and creeks, but these water sources may dry up during the summer months. 

We’d recommend filling if you come to a good source and haven’t filled up in a while. We hiked after a significant period of no rain, so much so that there was a state-wide fire ban because things were so dry. The most reliable water sources that we came across were at mile 4 on Bohen Run, mile 14 at Bradley Wales, mile 16 at Ice Break Run, and miles 22 and 24 in the Left and Right Branches of Four Mile Run.

Bear Run also had water to refill for the last 4-mile stretch, but the levels were much lower than the others we’ve mentioned. 

Water filtration is necessary. For those using water bladders, the Katadyn pump filter is a great option. We can attach our hoses right to the filter, pumping water directly back into the water bladder. The Sawyer Squeeze is a great lightweight option for refilling a water bottle.

Mountain laurel blooms line the West Rim Trail of the PA Grand Canyon.

Campsites Along the West Rim Trail (PA Grand Canyon)

One of the most important aspects of planning a backpacking trip along the West Rim Trail in the PA Grand Canyon is determining where you’ll set up camp each night. Luckily, there are plenty of campsites along the trail that offer a place to pitch your tent.

Near the southern terminus, within the first 4 or so miles, you will come across a few smaller campsites. These are perfect if you begin your hike later in the day, looking to accomplish a few miles before a couple of big days. A small site found along Bohen Run, and then another just past, are great places to set up for the first night.

Mile 14 has some spectacular campsites, some of the best along the trail. There is a small campsite just prior to Bradley Wales, and then a few just past the picnic area. The ones past the picnic area have breathtaking overlooking views of the Pine Creek Gorge. 

Many of the campsites on the northern half of the trail are very near water sources. The last campsite you will come across is about a mile before Barbour Rock. From there, you’ll have just over 3 miles to hike to the northern terminus.

No matter which campsites you choose to stay at, make sure to follow Leave No Trace principles and pack out all of your trash. And of course, take the time to enjoy the breathtaking views of the PA Grand Canyon.

Hazards and Dangers Along the West Rim Trail of the PA Grand Canyon

It’s important to be aware of the hazards and dangers that may be present when hiking the West Rim Trail of the PA Grand Canyon. Coming prepared will allow you to have the best experience possible!

Ticks are prevalent in the area, so it’s recommended to wear pants and use permethrin to pre-treat your clothing and picaridin repellent on your skin. The ticks we saw, especially on our dog, were extremely small and difficult to see.

We also found bugs like mosquitos and flies more noticeable in the northern half, especially around streams and other water sources during the spring and summer months. Those insect repellents work for these pesky mosquitos, too.

While black bears do live in the state forest, bear canisters are not necessary. Know how to hang your food, keep your campsites clean, and don’t leave your food unattended on the ground. There are plenty of squirrels and chipmunks along the trail looking for a delicious snack, too.

Timber rattlesnakes can also be found along the trail. The southern terminus at Rattlesnake Rock didn’t get it’s name for nothing! Just watch your step along the trail and listen for the rattles. They’ll usually let you know they are present with their rattles before you can see them. 

As for plants, there are stinging nettle plants along the trail. This plant can cause significant skin irritation if you brush up against it. Just wear pants, or take care to avoid the plants if you see them.

The last thing to be aware of is the trail, itself. Along the overlooks in the northern section, the trail follows dangerously close to the edge of the gorge. It’s important to be cautious of steep drop-offs and to watch your footing, especially with exposed roots and rocks. The gorge is over 800 feet deep in spots along this stretch.

A narrow trail travels along the edge of a foggy canyon. The West Rim Trail is lined with blooming mountain laurel on the left.
Look how close the trail comes to the edge of the rim, with plenty of tree roots to trip you up!

What Do I Need to Pack?

When embarking on a backpacking trip on the West Rim Trail, it is important to have the essential gear and equipment. While our sleeping system includes a Naturehike tent, hammock campers will likely find plenty of spots at the campsites, too. Most of them are nestled among fairly dense forest.

For meals, we love our PocketRocket Stove Kit. It’s fairly lightweight and the pot cools down so quickly after cooking. You won’t have to wait for hours if you want to enjoy a hot breakfast or lunch on the trail.

We did replace the sporks in the kit, though, with ones that have the spoon on one end and the fork on the other. These ones don’t fold, so they’re easier to clean, easier to eat meals with a little more liquid with just the spoon end, and sturdier for stirring when cooking.

Another important item is permethrin-treated clothing, which can protect you from mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects on the trail.

A bear bag is also necessary to store food overnight, ensuring that you and your fellow hikers are safe from unwanted bears and other wildlife. Our Sea to Summit dry bag has held up well for this purpose. We also use Opsak bags inside to cut down on scents for critters.

Trekking poles are helpful to save your knees on the descents and distribute your weight. 

You don’t need a lot of gear to have an enjoyable adventure on this trail. However, the gear you bring will also certainly depend on the season you plan to hike.

Do You Need a Permit to Hike the West Rim Trail?

Backpackers planning to explore the West Rim Trail are not required to obtain a camping permit beforehand, as long as you only plan to stay one night at each campsite. 

Permits are required, however, if you plan to stay more than one night at designated campsites. 

Be sure to practice Leave No Trace principles, and leave the campsites better than you found them.

A wooden sign reads West Rim Trail Northern Terminus, reaching Route 414 in 30 miles.
Grab a walking stick if you didn’t bring any poles before you head out!

The West Rim Trail in Pennsylvania’s Grand Canyon is a backpacking adventure that should be on every hiker’s bucket list. With stunning views, moderately challenging terrain, and a sense of remoteness that’s hard to find, this trail is a true gem of the Keystone State.

It would be a great adventure for those newer to backpacking with it’s shorter distance and easy access. Whether your a new adventurer or seasoned in the backcountry, the West Rim Trail PA Grand Canyon views will not disappoint.