Here is a Google Map, if you are so inclined...
View Larger Map
About the trail
For a longer hike that includes the Jackson Trail as well as views of Mount Nittany, consider the Jackson and Skyline Trail hike.
According to 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, by Tom Thwaites, "The Jackson Trail is named for Evelyn Jackson, a former president of the Hiking Division of the Penn State Outing Club, under whose leadership many records of participation in PSOC activities were set-records that stand to this day." Mr Thwaites should know, since he is the man most responsible for creating, clearing and linking many of the trails in the area.
The Jackson Trail is fun. Although it's got to be one of the rockiest trails in Pennsylvania, there are some wonderful views, and you stand a reasonable chance of hiking it without sharing the trail with a few dozen others. Large rocks are fun to scramble over, so the rockiest sections are not the problem. You will have to walk nearly the entire length of this trail picking your footing, though, over the infinite number of smaller rocks that are not so fun. Bring sturdy boots with some ankle support and some cushioning. Trekking poles are also helpful in preventing a twisted ankle.
The Jackson Trail is best taken slowly, and it's a great place to take a date for a backpacker's lunch. A cheese sandwich with a side of gorp on the Jackson Trail tastes as good as prime rib in any local restaurant. I'm not sure which end of the comparison gets the short end of the stick, there, though :-)
Read a little about the Jackson Trail in "Creating the Mid State Trail"
To begin the hike, take PA Route 26 (West College Ave. in State College) about 5 miles to the village of Pine Grove Mills. 26 makes a left turn at the blinking light in town, and climbs Tussey Ridge. The locals call this Pine Grove Mountain, but it is really just Tussey Ridge.
At the peak of the hill, you'll find a parking lot. This is Jo Hays Vista, named for a former State Senator, whose efforts led, amongst other things, to the creation of the site that bears his name.
This is a relatively safe place to park, but be sure to lock things up. Whenever there are fireworks in State College, you'll find a few dozen cars jamming up the parking lot and roadside.
The view from Jo Hays vista is nice, so take it in before crossing the road to start your hike. This stretch of highway is traveled by a lot of commuters, and they like to go 60 miles an hour or more over the top of this hill, so be very careful crossing the road.
There are actually two ways to hike this ridge, since the Mid State Trail meets at the same trailheads. The Jackson stays onlong the ridgetop, while the MST heads down the valley for water. You can make a loop with the Mid State Trail, which descends the mountain and re-climbs to meet the Jackson Trail, but it's a long hike with a 700 foot climb.The best way to hike this trail, in my opinion, is just out and back. This way, there's no arduous climb, and it's a much quicker hike—about 2 hours or so, compared to 3-4 if you make the loop.
For the trailhead, look for the gated jeep trail and a sign for the Jackson Trail directly across from Jo Hays Vista. If you want to take the Mid State Trail, go a little to the south (your right) to pick up the MST. The Jackson trail starts right here at the gate and follows a Jeep trail for a hundred yards or so, passing by some antenna towers placed there for cell phones, amateur radio and emergency use.
After the Jeep trail ends, get used to the rocks, and don't get angry at them. They're what give this trail its character. Take your time, and just bear in mind that a twisted ankle could ruin an otherwise perfect day. If you're inclined, you can camp at one of the few flat spots, just before David's Vista. You'll find some level ground under pine trees and an ever-present fire ring.
The Mid State Trail guide offers a detailed guide for this trail, but some of the highlights are the USGS marker after about a half-mile, David's Vista and the Happy Valley Vista a bit further, Lone Pine at 1 mile. If you want to take a really short hike, just go to David's Vista and go back…it's one of the best views in the area, and it's really easy to get there. If you like what you've seen so far, keep going and finish the trail.
If you're here for the whole trail, keep going for the scree slopes (big, loose rocks all over the place) with views north and south, that I like to call the King of the World Vista, then turn around when you meet with the MST. There's a big sign where the two meet, so it's hard to miss. The KOW Vista is one of the best views in Central Pennsylvania, not just because you can see for about 30 miles, but because of its sheer size. The scree slopes run for hundreds of feet at the very knife-edge of Tussey Ridge, offering something you just don't see much in Pennsylvania. It's far better than the knife-edge of the Appalachian Trail near PA309 north of Allentown.
If you're hiking the Mid State Trail loop, go down the MST at the end of the Jackson Trail, but I caution, this is only for the seasoned hiker, since it is far too steep to be taken lightly. If you fall here, you're going to get hurt, and it's a long way back to your car! If you are crazy enough to try it when there is snow on the ground, you had better bring some instep crampons.
50 hikes in Central Pennsylvania 3rd Edition, Tom Thwaites Back Country Publications Woodstock, Vermont