Best Backpacking in Western Pennsylvania

Looking to get outdoors and do some backpacking in Pennsylvania? Check out my list of best places to backpack in western Pennsylvania!

View of the Youghiogheny River from an overlook in Ohiopyle after 67 miles of backpacking
Table of Contents
Why Backpack in Western Pennsylvania?
Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
Moraine State Park
Oil Creek
Quebec Run Wild Area
Raccoon Creek State Park
Cook Forest

Why Backpack in Western Pennsylvania?

I am relatively new to the world of backpacking. My first trip was on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in September 2022. While it was’t a perfect trip (we had some snafus for sure), but I came home and couldn’t stop thinking about how much I loved it.

The simplicity of carrying everything you need for days on your back.

The noises of the forest lulling me to sleep.

The grit it took to put one foot in front of the other, even when I was really, really tired of carrying my pack.

I didn’t know it when I got back from the trip until later, but I was hooked on backpacking.

Since that first trip, I’ve planned a number of backpacking trips in Pennsylvania (and further afield!). Many times, planning a backpacking trip involves researching multiple destinations only to narrow it down to one. While I haven’t backpacked all of these areas below (yet!), I’ve done extensive research on all of the below destinations and have been to every single one.

One of the things that’s tough about backpacking is having enough time to go! This is why I have mostly backpacked in local places so that I can spend more time hiking than traveling to the backpacking trip. All of the places I’ve listed below are within two hours of Pittsburgh, which means they’re great to maximize your time outside. I linked each of the headers to a more detailed post about the backpacking area, for your trip planning purposes.

Keep reading for the best places to backpack near Pittsburgh!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're out exploring! Pack out all trash, leave wildlife alone, and generally leave it better than you found it - for more information visit the Leave No Trace Center.

Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail

The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is a 70.3 mile long hiking trail located in the Laurel Highlands region of Western Pennsylvania. Its length and proximity to Pittsburgh makes it great for both a thru-hike and section hiking. The trail is located in Laurel Ridge State Park.

I’ve hiked multiple sections of the Laurel Highlands Trail. Below are my recommendations depending on your experience:

Beginner Section – If you’re looking for a great intro to backpacking, hike from the Laurel Ridge Cross Country ski center (653 parking lot) to Grindle Ridge shelter area (~6 miles one way). This was my first backpacking trip and it was a GREAT way to try backpacking without too much mileage or elevation change.

Intermediate Section – Take three days and two nights to hike from the Laurel Ridge Cross Country ski center (653 parking lot) to the Route 30 parking lot. This is about 29 miles total and is perfect for a Friday to Sunday trip as long as you have two cars. We broke the trip by splitting it up into the following sections:

  • Friday Afternoon – 653 to Grindle Ridge (~6 miles)
  • Saturday – Grindle Ridge to Turnpike Shelter (~15.5 miles)
  • Sunday -Turnpike Shelter to Route 30 parking lot (~8.2 miles)
Scenic overlook between 653 parking lot and Grindle Ridge shelter area

Advanced Section – Hike the entire trail! There are a lot of options for breaking up the thru hike of this trail so check out my LHHT blog post for multiple itineraries!

Permits are required to hike this trail and can be reserved at PA Reserve America by searching for Laurel Ridge backpacking permits.

Looking for gear recommendations? Check out my post on Must Have Backpacking Gear with links to ALL my gear. 

Moraine State Park

Moraine is only an hour away from Pittsburgh, which makes it perfect for a one night backpacking trip. The North Country Trail, a 3,800 mile trail that runs from North Dakota to Vermont, overlaps with the Glacier Ridge Trail for most of Moraine. Link Shelters on the NCT are reservable via the PA DCNR reservation system.

We parked at the 528 parking lot and did a 12-ish mile out and back to the Link Shelters. I liked that the shelters were separate from each other enough to give privacy. We knew we had neighbors in our shelter but we didn’t feel like we were on top of them.

I highly recommend visiting this park in the fall, when the foliage is at peak!
Trying to figure out what clothing to wear while backpacking? Check out my guide to backpacking clothing!

Oil Creek State Park

Located in between Pittsburgh and Erie, Oil Creek State Park is a great place for escaping into nature! The park is home to the Gerard Hiking trail, a 36 mile loop around the park that is named after the state park volunteer who developed most of the trail. This trail is marked by yellow blazes.

There are two shelter areas with six shelters each at Oil Creek. To reserve a shelter, call Oil Creek State Park Office at (814) 676-5915. You will need to provide your name, address, telephone number, description of vehicles, license numbers, number in party, parking area, and direction of travel and date requested.

Oil Creek has a ton of waterfalls, but they’re relatively seasonal. If you’re chasing waterfalls on your trip, make sure to time with a recent rainfall.

Pioneer Falls in Oil Creek State Park
Love the idea of a long hike, but not sure you want to sleep outside? Check out the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, a 37 or 17 mile challenge designed to be completed all in one day!

Quebec Run Wild Area

Quebec Run Wild Area is an amazing area to backpack and probably my favorite place to backpack in Pennsylvania. Located in Forbes State Forest in the Laurel Highlands, it’s hard to believe that you’re less than 90 minutes from Pittsburgh!

Permits are not required unless you’re staying at a campsite for more than one night. There are no shelters or facilities, so be prepared for a primitive camping experience. Most of the campsites have fire rings already built and it’s pretty easy to spot where others have camped before.

Our lovely campsite in Quebec Run Wild Area
Looking to plan a backpacking trip but not sure how to get started? Check out my guide to planning your best backpacking trip ever!

Raccoon Creek State Park

If you’re looking for a one or two day trip, Raccoon Creek is a great spot for backpacking. This state park is only thirty minutes away from downtown Pittsburgh so is great if you’re short on time but looking to get away.

There are two shelter areas in the park, Sioux and Pioneer, which have both tenting areas and Adirondack shelters. The full park loop is around 21 miles long and has three overnight parking lots for starting the loop. If 21 miles is too much, hikers can shorten the loop to just do the western side of the park, which is around 12-13 miles. This loop goes by the Frankfort Mineral Springs, one of the main park highlights, but does not go by the lake. As with all state park stays, reservations and permits reserved through PA Reserve America are required for overnight stay.

If you want to check out Raccoon Creek but aren’t interested in backpacking, check out either the Wildflower Reserve or my guide to day hikes in Raccoon Creek!

*Honorable Mention* Cook Forest State Park

Cook Forest is home to some of the most beautiful nature in Western Pennsylvania. The park offers a range of trails, including a section of the North Country Trail (NCT) a 3,800 mile National Scenic trail that runs from North Dakota to Vermont. The Baker Trail and the North Country Trail run together in Cook Forest State Park for one of my favorite trails. On one three mile section of trail, you can see a scenic overlook, a fire tower, and this amazing waterfall!

Note: backpacking in Cook Forest requires staying in the designated campground, which is also available to motorized camping. So this is more of an “honorable mention” backpacking area to me, since I prefer to be away from motorized camping.

Cook forest Henry run falls
Trying to figure out what the rules are for backpacking in Pennsylvania State Parks and Forests? Check out my post about the difference between backpacking in a PA state park vs a state forest!

Got any more recommendations for backpacking in Western PA? Let me know in the comments below!

Updated March 30, 2024

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