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!

Table of Contents
Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
Moraine State Park
Oil Creek
Quebec Run Wild Area
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 have a couple more destinations further afield in mind!). 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.

I linked each of the headers to a more detailed post about the backpacking area, for your trip planning purposes!

As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're exploring the wonderful trails of Pennsylvania! Pack out all trash, stay on trail, and leave it better than you found it. For more information, check out the seven principles of Leave No Trace.

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

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 reserveable 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 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 stating 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.

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 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

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 November 26, 2023

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