Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, PA

Ryan Miller and I hiked the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge together on June 21, 2008. This is a 34-mile annual hike to be completed between sunrise and sunset on the Saturday nearest the summer solstice. There are four well-stocked, cheerfully staffed checkpoints that each hiker must pass through along the way, and a fantastic barbecue at the end (which, this year, featured actors dressed in pioneer-style period costume and a talented young bagpipe player). This event would not be possible without the dedication of its dozens of volunteers--and it would not be as enjoyable either without the scores of spectators who show up along the way to cheer us on and offer refreshments to the hikers.

The trail itself is extremely varied. Aside from covering several miles of conventional woodland hiking stretches, the trail occasionally follows paved roads, gravel drives, ATV paths, and clear-cuts swathed through woods for high-tension power lines and gas pipelines. Parts of the trail require intense, fairly brutal ascents and descents, while others offer relaxing gentle-terrain strolls through woods, meadows, horse pastures, and even backyards. The trail stretches from Harrison Hills County Park (near Natrona Heights) to North Park, just south of Wexford. Each year, the direction of the challenge is reversed.

It was my third year doing the challenge and Ryan's first. We began at the official start, right around 5:20am, with several hundred other hikers. The purpose of this event is not to race, exactly, but Ryan and I (and many other hikers) set out to achieve the best time possible. As the day went on, the crowd of hikers spread out more and more. We tried not to spend more than five or six minutes at each checkpoint. Thankfully, the weather was perfect: neither too hot nor too humid, with just enough of a breeze throughout the day to offer sweet relief at just the right moments.

One could feel the excitement growing as the trail neared North Park. We both finished in about 9 hours and 8 minutes, putting us in the top 12% for finishing times among the 457 who finished before sunset. If I'm around Pittsburgh in June of 2009, I can't wait to do it again!

I encourage anyone who loves hiking to try the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, or even the 18-mile Homestead Challenge. Read more about it


-M. Jehn