Woodland Wanderings 'Premiere hiking trail': DCNR officials talk value of Laurel Highlands path, outdoor recreation

Sep. 2—OHIOPYLE, Pa. — Hikers are exposed to beautiful scenery, challenging treks and pristine wild areas on the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, but state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources officials view it as more than a recreational path.

"It's kind of a premiere hiking trail," DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said about the pathway that stretches 70 miles from Ohiopyle in Fayette County to Seward, Westmoreland County, just north of Johnstown.

She described Laurel Ridge as one of the most prominent in the commonwealth, having a peak elevation of more than 2,900 feet above sea level, and said that it serves as a point of pride for the communities it passes through.

Walking the trail — during a day trip, a thru-hike along its entire length or a weekend camping excursion — provides trekkers with scenic views, encounters with local wildlife and abundant exercise.

"You just feel like you're in another world," said Dunn, who has hiked on the LHHT in the Johnstown area and other sections.

It's an amenity with "a lot of social value that's hard to quantify," she said, noting that the unified Laurel Hill, Laurel Ridge and Ohiopyle state parks create "a destination."

"But it's more than that," Dunn said. "It makes it a very special place."

Nathan Reigner, the state director of outdoor recreation, has also hiked parts of the LHHT and has a similar assessment. Reigner, who has extensive experience in planning, building and managing outdoor recreation at every level, enjoys the path because the views make hikers feel like they're in "high country" and because there are "opportunities for deeply wild experiences."

"That Laurel Ridge is such a phenomenal geographic feature," he said.

However, attractions such as the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail offer more than just outdoor opportunities, the DCNR officials pointed out. They also boost the local economy and can serve as a foundation to build upon.

Pennsylvania's new Office of Outdoor Recreation, which was created with a multi-million-dollar investment in the 2023 state budget for state parks and forest lands, is designed to help support businesses and services with promotion and adoption of outdoor amenities.

Reigner said that Pennsylvania has done a good job for a long time recognizing outdoor recreation as a nice weekend attraction and to some extent as part of the health care system, highlighting the physical and mental benefits of getting outside.

"It's just recently we've started recognizing outdoor recreation as industry and a sector of our economy," he said.

That includes hospitality, recreational outfitting, restaurants, breweries, specialty stores and more.

"For me, a trip on the trail like the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail is incomplete if we don't stop for breakfast and coffee, or cheeseburgers and beer on the way home and relive our memories ... and plan our next trip," Reigner said.

Dunn noted that Pennsylvania has large forested areas and "some of the nicest long trails," including the LHHT, the Black Forest Trail and the Mid State Trail, that give the areas they pass through "a real boost."

She spent her life outdoors, having learned from her father, a Johnstown native who grew up in Coopersdale, the importance of clean air, unpolluted streams and numerous opportunities to enjoy Pennsylvania's wilds all around.

Dunn pursued a degree in biology and got a job after graduate school as an environmental educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation before working her way up through the DCNR ranks to the position of secretary.

"If there's a theme in my life, it's making nature, outdoors and recreation available for all people," she said.

Now, she said, it's up to Reigner and the new office to "unite, grow and strengthen the outdoor economy."

Reigner said that areas across the country that lean into their outdoor offerings are socioeconomically successful. Reigner provided the example of Colorado's Front Range or the Eastern Cascade Slopes in the Pacific Northwest; he said those places tie together economic health, population growth and an emphasis on publicly accessible outdoor recreation.

The Johnstown area is in the early stages of doing the same with promotion of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail; continued growth of the Ghost Town Trail, which soon will have the first continuous rail-trail loop on this side of the country; stewardship by organizations, including the Benscreek Canoe Club and its Stonycreek Rendezvous; creation of the Inclined Plane hillside mountain biking trails; and much more.

"I'm really thrilled to see the Johnstown area really embracing the natural assets," Dunn said.