The Ironstone Loop

including the Indian Steps

Distance: About 13 miles
Time: 10 hours
Vertical Rise: 800 ft
Highlights: Views, old stone steps
Maps: USGS 7.5' Pine Grove Mills; MSTA Map 202

Click for full image

This trail, as described by Tom Thwaites of MST fame, is "an all-day boot-buster". I agree with his assertion, but it's a great hike with a lot of different things to offer. I'm going to assume for this trail description, that you're an experience hiker, as I do not recommend this one for beginners. If you are new to hiking, try the Jackson Trail, also accessible from the Jo Hays Vista parking lot.

There are several ways to hike this area, and the full loop is just one option. One might just as easily take two cars and make a very good hike out of it. Use the map above for reference points, and feel free to explore if you know the area. If you are new to hiking, or you're unfamiliar with the area, pick up an MST trail guide before you take any of these hikes. It's not too hard to get turned around or lost on some of these trails, as they are not as well signed as some trails are. Taking a shortcut or double-gussing yourself can get you into trouble.

With the disclaimer out of the way, here's the trail in a nutshell...

I like to start and end at the Jo Hays Vista atop Tussey Ridge on PA26. From there, head west from the parking lot, away from the Jackson Trail on the other side of the road.

Follow the Mid State trail through an old road, past some microwave towers and antennas, under some power lines (lots of blueberries there in season!) and eventually, to a signpost for the Indian Steps at 4.7km from where you started, according to the MST guide. To me, this section seems longer than that. There are many nice views along this section, some north to the Allegheny Front, and some south, to Stone Mountain and Stone Valley. Be prepared for lots of rocks. Sturdy boots are a good idea, and this is not a hike to take if you're just breaking in a new pair of shoes.

Here's some lore according to Tom Thwaites about the trail: "The Indian Steps seem to he another mystery of Penn's Woods. Nobody today can explain their location (up a mountainside) or say with certainty who built them. According to one legend the steps were built by the Kishacoquillas tribe over 300 years ago, but Paul Wallace, in his book Indian Paths of Pennsylvania, does not even mention them. However, their existence prior to 1911 is documented."

"The location is unusual because Native American paths usually took easier routes and an easy route ran across Tussey Mountain less than 5 km away. Called the St standing Stone Path (now called PA 26) and listed by Wallace it passed through the gap between Leading and Rudy Ridges just above Monroe Furnace. A Native American on the Standing Stone Path who wanted to use the steps would have had to detour either through Harry's Valley or cross over Leading Ridge near its highest part. Indeed, the best preserved steps of all continue up the northwest flank of Leading Ridge and stop, suspiciously, at the boundary of state forest land on the ridgetop. On Leading Ridge their route parallels a number of old boundary lines, and it seems likely that the Indian Steps were a white man's boundary line in the 19th century."

At the signpost on the MST, head south, down the "indian steps". This area is very steep, and footing is terrible in some parts. I recommend trekking poles. If you are adventurous enough to do this is winter, be sure that you have instep crampons. You are now on a blue blazed trail that will lead across Harry's Valley Road and to the Crownover Trail. The Crownover crosses a small stream and then up Leading Ridge somewhat steeply. At the top of Leading Ridge, head West (right) and try to follow the trail as best you can. The last time I hiked it, this area was not well maintained, with a lot of brush and blowdown impeding my progress.

Once you start heading down Leading Ridge, things get a bit messy, in terms of following the trail. There is a good deal of road walking involved, and it would help to have a detailed topo map or GPS to guide you past an area that is being logged (almost clearcut) and across what seems to be private property in some spots, including a meadow crossing that has no blazes for quite a way. The trail blazes are there eventually, but sometimes it's hard to spot them. Continue on the trail across Charter Oak Road and onto Stone Valley property where you meetup with the Stone Valley area trails, including the Woodcock Nature Trail, among them. The trail then follows along some very swampy, wet areas through to a trail that runs parallel to the road and the nearby stream. This area is particularly scenic, as the stream has carved a miniature canyon along its path. You will follow the stream all the way to and across PA 26.

Eventually, after what seems like an eternity, you will reach a meadow that takes you to PA 26, several miles downhill from where you started. Cross the highway carefully, past the remains of Monroe Furnace, and eventually to the Mid State Trail. Follow the MST north (left) and you'll climb Tussey Ridge back to your car. Take your time on this section, and try to ignore the "false hope" of repeated power line crossings and ridgetops. If you've ever climbed up to what you thought was the top of a hill, only to learn that it was just a bench, and that the real top of the hill was another 600 feet, you'll know what I mean.

All in all, this really isn't a trail as much as it is a connection of trails, roads and old pathways, but the area has a little bit of everything. There are stunning vistas, quiet meadows, running water, a lake, a marsh and classic Central Pennsylvania ridge hiking. If you have any questions, feel free to write, or like I said, grab an MST guide and explore the area—it's worth it.

PS: If you prefer not to get your feet wet, you can shortcut back to the MST via Harry's Valley Road. Head west along it to Pennsylvania Furnace Road and then make a right when you hit the MST atop the ridge, then retracing your steps, you'll find your car where you left it. See the maps for details.

Parts excerpted from:

50 hikes in Central Pennsylvania  3rd Edition, Tom Thwaites  Back Country Publications Woodstock, Vermont