Looking to learn more about the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail? Read on for more information and how to plan a thru or section hike!
As always, follow the principles of leave no trace when you're exploring the wonderful trails of Pennsylvania!
When I was planning my first trip on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail (LHHT), I had a really hard time finding one resource that had all of the information I needed for a successful trip. I ended up piecing together advice from people who had hiked the trail before, recommendations from my local gear shop (thanks 3 Rivers Outdoor Co!) and counting miles on the DCNR map on my fingers. The goal of this post is to drop all of the information I’ve learned about hiking the trail in one place. If you have any other questions about the LHHT, feel free to comment below or send me a DM on Instagram @torytalkstrails!
What is the 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. The trail’s 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 and it stretches from Ohiopyle to Johnstown.
The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is extremely well marked by yellow blazes, with a mile marker every mile. It is hard to get lost or take a different trail if you are paying attention! Each shelter and parking area is located off trail. All are marked by large wooden signs. Paths to the shelter and parking areas are marked with blue blazes.
For a map of the trail, visit this link to the PA DCNR site. This map is the best, as it has the elevation gain/loss, water sources listed, and a map of the trail. I highly recommend printing out this map for your trip. Additionally, Purple Lizard has a map available but it only includes the first 46 miles of trail so would be more helpful for a section hike than a thru hike.
Planning Your LHHT Trip
Hiking the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail requires advanced planning and research! This section includes information about shelters, how to reserve a permit, and how to get to trailheads. Read on to learn more about planing the perfect trip!
Spending the Night on Trail
The best part of backpacking is spending the night outside with the forest noises lulling you to sleep. Read on to learn about where to stay and how to get a permit to stay overnight on the Laurel Highlands trail.
Overnight Shelter Areas
The trail has ten shelter areas located about 6-12 miles apart along the trail. The shelter areas have pit toilets, trash cans, a water pump, and both lean-to and tent areas.
Each shelter area has five, open-face, lean-to structures with chimneys and a fire area. While permits for shelters list max occupancy at 5, I recommend no more than four people to a shelter. We had three on our trip and it was perfect. If you have a larger group, I recommend reserving shelters in close proximity to each other so that you can still hang out together but not be cramped.
Tent sites are also able to be reserved. Some of the shelter areas have specific tent areas marked out with wooden beams and gravel (Grindle Ridge) but most of them are just grassy areas.
When staying at shelters, please be mindful of noise after dark! Your neighbors will thank you.
How to Reserve a Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail Permit
Permits are required to hike this trail and can be reserved at PA Reserve America by searching for Laurel Ridge backpacking permits. This process is a bit tricky and took me some time and research.
PA residents pay an overnight fee of $4/person per night for a shelter or a tent site. Non-PA residents pay $5/person per night for a shelter or $5 per night for a tent site. Park Rangers will occasionally visit the shelters to check permits. I’ve had my permits checked about half of the time I’ve been on trail so make sure you reserve a site!
Steps for Reserving a Permit
- Have your itinerary planned out with a list of the shelters you want to stay at written down (for help on itineraries, skip down to the Itinerary section of this blog post!)
- Go to PA Reserve America reservation site
- Sign in if you already have an account or create one if you do not. If you skip this step, you will need to sign in later or you won’t be able to reserve a permit.
- Enter “Laurel Ridge State Park” under “Where” and click “Backpacking and River Camping” under the “Interested In” drop down box
- Laurel Ridge State Park should come up first in the search results. Click “Check Availability”
- Under “Find Permits” on the left, click the dropdown that says “Backpacking Permits”
- Further dropdown menus will appear on the left. Enter your trip information in the dropdown.
- The site will pop up an alert with important information about backpacking and river camping safety. Read through and click “I am an experienced backpacker or river camper!”
- The site will then take you to the reservation calendar. Any site that is available is marked with a blue “A”. Click on that site to reserve for the date.
- Once you click the site you want, the A will turn yellow. Click “Add to Itinerary” above the calendar grid.
- A pop up will show up in a left hand inset window showing your itinerary, with the site you selected, dates, and number in your group.
- Then go back to your search in the left hand window and put in your next shelter.
- Follow steps 9-12 again until all of your dates are added to the itinerary inset window. Then click “Book Now”.
- Enter your information, including vehicle information, direction of travel, emergency contacts, and alternate leader information in the requested fields. Read through the information at the bottom of the page about the trail, firewood rules, shelters, etc. Click the check box and continue to shopping cart.
- Pay for your permits and your trip is reserved!
You’ll receive an email with your reservations. I recommend taking a screenshot and saving to an “Important Documents” folder on your phone. That way it will be easy to reference which shelter you reserved when you’re staggering into camp at the end of a long day!
Traveling to Trailheads
If you’re doing a point to point hike, you’ll need to determine how you’re getting home at the end of the hike! There are two main methods of getting from point to point – hiring a shuttle or doing a two car drop. Either way, you’ll need to leave a car parked overnight at a trailhead. Remember that all car information for overnight parking needs to be listed on your permits or, if car info has changed since reservation, called in to the Laurel Ridge Park Office.
For our thru-hike, we decided it was worth it to pay for the shuttle from Wilderness Voyagers. At the time of my hike, the shuttle cost was $170. Our driver was super helpful and offered to let us drop supplies at trailheads if we needed (we didn’t) and also offered to let us stop at Sheetz to pick up any last minute items. We took the shuttle from the Wilderness Voyagers headquarters in Ohiopyle where we parked to the Steward trailhead.
I HIGHLY recommend this service for a full hike. It was so nice to not have to drive back to Johnstown to pick up a car the day we got off trail and just head straight home. Note that the shuttle will only drop you in a direction where you are hiking to your car. To book, call Wilderness Voyagers. I recommend booking earlier as they can book up quickly. Arrive 15 minutes before your designated shuttle time to sign waivers and get situated.
Two Car Drop
This is the method I’ve used for shorter section hikes that works really well. Two drivers head to the end point on the trail. Both drivers get in the “start point” car and eave the “end point” car at the end point trail head. Drive the “start point” car to the starting point of your hike and hike towards the “end point” car.
Make sure that both drivers download Google Maps for the area and have exact coordinates to the trailhead. Service can be very spotty in the Laurel Highlands. I also recommend leaving a change of clothes and snacks in the “end point” car!
Looking for other backpacking trails in Pennsylvania? Check out my list of best backpacking trails in Western PA!
Hiking the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
I’ve hiked multiple sections of the Laurel Highlands Trail. Below are my recommended itineraries based on my trail experience. Please assess your abilities and make sure to do your own research to determine what the best
Note that mileage is approximate and could change due to reroutes. This also only includes trail miles and does not include miles to and from the shelter areas (which can really add up!)
One Night Trip Itineraries
Testing the Waters – 653 Parking to 653 Shelter Area (1 mile total)
If you have never slept outside before and want to try it, this is the itinerary for you! The 653 parking area is less than half a mile from the 653 shelters. You don’t have to be as mindful about pack weight, as it’s a very short walk from the parking lot to the shelter (however, there are some steep downhills on this bit). This is an awesome shelter area as it has some very cool rock formations.
Beginner Backpacking Section – Grindle Ridge Out and Back (12 miles total)
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. One thing that is nice about the Grindle Ridge Shelter is that you can’t park close so that limits people who may come to party for the weekend.
Hard Section – Ohiopyle Out and Back (13 miles total)
If you’re looking for a challenge and elevation changes don’t scare you, hike from Ohiopyle up to the Bidwell shelters and back. This is 6.5 miles each way but this is the hardest section of the trail and the elevation changes are no joke with a full pack. However, this is one of the most beautiful sections of trail and it is totally worth the journey!
Two Night Trip Itineraries
653 to Route 30
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)
On this trip, you hit some of the trail highlights, including the bridge over the turnpike, some awesome rock formations and the amazing overlook between mile markers 21 and 22.
Thru Hiking Itineraries
Below I’ve compiled a handful of itineraries for a full hike of the LHHT. When picking the right itinerary for you, take into account your backpacking experience, the time of year you’re hiking, where support could meet you (if you have support), and how much elevation/mileage you can handle in one day. Everyone is different and what worked best for me might not be your ideal itinerary!
I personally recommend starting north and heading south (Seward to Ohiopyle). There’s a couple of reasons for this:
- Miles 50-70 are the driest miles of the trail during certain times of year. We started in Seward fully loaded with water for 1.5 days. The creek at 271 was running (and there is a pump) so we were ok, but we were also prepared to carry the water we needed for twenty miles.
- The Ohiopyle section of the trail is (in my opinion) the most interesting. Save the best for last!
- There is food right off trail in Ohiopyle at either Falls Tavern or Falls Market. We ended our hike at around 6pm on our last day and absolutely crushed burgers at Falls Market. The best way to end a hike!
However, you need to pick the itinerary and hike that is best for you and your hike! Read on to see my recommendations for Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail itineraries!
Four Day Itinerary
Steward to Ohiopyle
This is the direction and itinerary that I used on my thru hike of the LHHT. I will caution that it is not for the faint of heart and was a challenging route for three pretty fit people. But if you like a challenge and can handle back to back twenty mile days – this route is for you!
- Day 1: Steward Trail Terminus to Route 271 Shelter (~14 miles)
- Day 2: Route 271 Shelter to Turnpike Shelter (~20 miles)
- Day 3: Turnpike Shelter to 653 Shelter (~20 miles)
- Day 4: 653 Shelter to Ohiopyle Trail Terminus (~18 miles)
The pros of this itinerary are that you save the best for last! The main con is obviously that it is a pretty grueling itinerary and you really need to be in good mental and physical shape to handle it. I thought this was a great way to break up the route for the group that I was with. The long days were super challenging but very rewarding.
This route could be reversed, but I don’t recommend it. Doing eighteen miles on the first day with a fully loaded pack with the elevation gain/loss of the first eight miles would be TOUGH.
Five Day Itineraries
Seward to Ohiopyle
This is a great itinerary to balance the larger mile days with smaller mileage days. It’s very similar to the four day itinerary I have in this direction, but helps balance out the terrible climb into Seven Springs with less mileage as well as splits up some of the rough downhill into Ohiopyle. (This itinerary was recommended by Jen, who used it for her 2022 thru hike – check out her Instagram at @JenuinelyWild)
- Day 1: Seward Trail Terminus to Route 271 Shelter (~14 miles)
- Day 2: Route 271 Shelter to Turnpike Shelter (~20 miles)
- Day 3: Turnpike Shelter to Grindle Ridge Shelter (~14 miles)
- Day 4: Grindle Ridge Shelter to Bidwell Shelter (~18 miles)
- Day 5: Bidwell Shelter to Ohiopyle Trail Terminus (~6.5 miles)
Ohiopyle to Seward
This itinerary is the same as the one above, in reverse. Since the first day is the shortest, this might be a good option for those who can’t start until the afternoon of the first day. However, those 6.5 miles are rough because of the elevation gain and loss so leave more time than you normally would for a six mile hike.
- Day 1: Ohiopyle Trail Terminus to Bidwell Shelter (~6.5 miles)
- Day 2: Bidwell Shelter to Grindle Ridge Shelter (~18 miles)
- Day 3: Grindle Ridge Shelter to Turnpike Shelter (~14 miles)
- Day 4: Turnpike Shelter to Route 271 Shelter (~20 miles)
- Day 5: Route 271 Shelter to Seward Trail Terminus (~14 miles)
FAQs about the LHHT
How long does it take to hike the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail?
Thru-hiking the trail can take anywhere from three to six days, depending on the number of miles per day. I completed the trail in a four day, three night trip. There is actually an ultra marathon on the trail where people finish in under 24 hours! However, for backpacking, I recommend looking at my itineraries to plan a trip that works best for you.
Should I stay in a tent or a shelter on the LHHT?
I have done both tent and shelter options and both have their positives and negatives. The shelters are great if weather is bad as you are more protected from the elements. They can also stay warmer if you use the chimney to light a fire, which is great for cold nights. You can also skip carrying a tent on your hike, which could save anywhere from 2-8 lbs in your pack (the REAL upside). The main downside of the shelters is that they have mice. We did not have problems with mice during our late summer hike. We did not store food in the shelter and they were not trying to stay warm in the shelter because it was hot out.
Are dogs allowed on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail?
Yes! Dogs are allowed on the trail, but must be on leash and controlled. Rangers can reserve the right to kick you out of the shelter areas if your dog is not under control.
Where do you park for the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail?
There are multiple trailheads for the LHHT so there’s lots of options for parking. Below is a list of the parking locations from Wilderness Voyagers website with exact coordinates on Google Maps and mile marker locations. Please do your own research when planning your hike.
- Ohiopyle Trailhead 0 mi.
- Maple Summit Road Parking 11.2 mi.
- PA 653 Trailhead 18.8 mi.
- PA 31 Trailhead 30.6 mi.
- US 30 Trailhead 45.8 mi.
- PA 271 Trailhead 56.9 mi.
- PA 56 Trailhead 70 mi.
What shelter should I reserve?
Think about what you want – do you want to be close to the restrooms? The water source? The trail? A fire pit? Another shelter? I prioritize not being the shelter that everyone walks by to get to all the other shelters as sometimes people roll in late at night.
Below are links to all of the park maps for each shelter, for planning purposes.
- Decker Ave Shelter (RT 56)
- RT 271 Shelter
- RT 30 Shelter
- Turnpike Shelter
- RT 31 Shelter
- Grindle Ridge Shelter
- RT 653 Shelter
- Bidwell Shelter
Other Resources for the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail
Keystone Trails Association – has a nice overview of the trail
Dane’s Place – Even though this is just some guy’s blog and not run by a trail organization, it is the most comprehensive resource on the trail I’ve been able to find. It hasn’t been updated for a while but is a good starting point when planning a hike.
Sierra Club Trail Guide to the Laurel Highlands Trail – I will be honest, I purchased this and did not find it very useful. It pales in comparison to how helpful the Rachel Carson Conservancy Guides are and I did not bring it on trail.
National Park Service LHHT page – This page has nice list of highlights on each section of the trail, but does not divide the trail by mile markers so you will need to do some math to figure out where these highlights will show up on your hike.
Have any questions about the trail or how to plan a trip on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail? Leave me a comment below!