Lisa and I had planned to lead a group hike up Old Rag Mountain in Shenandoah National Park. When, at the last minute, participants cancelled, we found ourselves with a beautiful day and no hike to fill it. Looking for something a little closer to home than the Shenandoah Valley, we found Sunset Rocks.
Sunset Rocks Trail is located in the Micheaux State Forest about 35 miles southeast of Harrisburg, PA. Our chosen route departed from a general store parking area just off the Appalachian Trail in Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The AT cuts right through this state park; a hotel, a trail museum and a few other structures are all within a few paces of the store. Following the AT south from the parking area means road hiking on Bendersville Lane and on Pinegrove Road for about three-tenths of a mile until the AT veers off into the woods. There is a wooden sign marking the turnoff.
Turning into the woods, we passed by some private driveways to rustic looking homes, but it didn’t take long to feel as if we had left civilization behind. We had roughly four miles to go to the Tom’s Run Shelter and the eastern junction with the Sunset Rocks Trail. The Sunset Rocks Trail intersects the AT twice along Tom’s Run. Just over a mile and a half along the AT, we reached the junction with the east end of Sunset Rocks Trail and the first crossing of Tom’s Run. There is a small parking area a few yards to the north of the trail here. This lot is accessible from Bunker Hill Road and allows hikers quick
and easy access to Sunset Rocks. We could have turned south on the Sunset Rocks Trail and been at the overlook in less than a half a mile but we were looking for a longer hike and wanted to save the payoff for closer to the end. Also, this route treats you to over 450 feet of elevation gain, half of that in the last few hundred yards. It’s a steep hill. Trust me on this one. We missed the spur to the overlook (from the other direction) and went halfway down this hill before having to turn around.
The small footbridge that crosses Tom’s Run here is in an idyllic spot. The small creek dances over stones and a tiny tributary joins the main run right at the bridge. In early April not much was green yet, but we could picture how pastoral it would be in a few weeks. We stopped, took some pictures, and sat on the bridge in the sun for a few minutes before continuing.
As we climbed up and out of the Tom’s Run valley, the trail became less charming. The path was, for a time, flanked by thick weeds, downed trees, and grass, although there was a view to the south of Rocky Ridge. I feel sure that that view disappears with the summer foliage. After a while, we crossed Micheaux Road and the trail began to re-acquire its appeal. At around three and a half miles, we came upon a marker we hadn’t been expecting, not having done much research for this last-minute-substitute hike. We were at the mid-point of the Appalachian Trail! A tall sign proclaimed that Springer Mountain, Georgia was 1,090.5 miles ahead and Mount Katahdin, Maine an equal distance behind us. In addition to the sign there was mailbox containing a trail log. We used it to wish thru-hikers luck and strength on their journey.
A few hundred yards after the AT mid-point was Tom’s Run Shelter. There were at least five or six camping pads and a small picnic pavilion in addition to the shelter which could probably sleep eight or ten comfortably, though due to the pandemic, the shelter and picnic areas are currently closed. When we arrived there was another hiker there, a man, mid forties with a black lab who greeted us with a lot of barking. We didn’t stop to talk, but waved as we passed.
Another hundred yards or so brought us to the west end of The Sunset Rocks Trail. Turning east, we hiked a little over a mile until we again came to Micheaux Road. Here, the trail followed the road south for two-tenths of a mile before returning to the woods. Not too long after that, we were headed up to Rocky Ridge to do some scrambling. We were first presented with a 40 or 50 foot climb up a rocky crag. After that initial ascent, the scrambling was light in most places; a hand down here, a knee up there. A bit of hopping over crevices. Once on the ridge, views began to open up to the south. We clambered over and around large boulders for almost three-quarters of a mile, enjoying the excitement and physicality of the area as well as the occasional views. Then the trail leveled out. That’s when we got complacent and made a mistake.
We were aware that the spur to Sunset Rocks was going to be elusive, but we missed it anyway. UPDATE: Lisa did this trail several days ago (the date of this original hike was 2015), and the spur is now well-signposted. A fat lot of good this did us then. Our error had a cost – in terms of effort. In missing the spur, we started a steep descent off the ridge. We had lost a good hundred feet of elevation when a light went on. Dammit. We retraced our steps up onto the ridge and located the spur. The blue-blazed Sunset Rocks trail takes a hard left, turning almost due north to rejoin the AT. There is a very insistent double blaze here that includes an arrow pointing down the hill. Our instinct was to follow it. I wish the new, blue “SPUR ↑” sign had been there at that time. It would have saved us an unnecessary climb.
Pro tip: Sign or no sign, if, in the middle of a climb UP to a viewpoint, the trail turns sharply DOWN, take a moment to think about whether or not that makes sense … and maybe consult your map.
Emerging onto the precipice is impressive. This is the first truly unbroken view of the valley, and it is a commanding one. The sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds, and Mountain Creek and Pine Grove Road lie somewhere on the valley floor below. Two rocky crags jut out into space among the deep crevices and scrubby pines that flank the knob. The southerly view overlooks the western end of Pine Grove Furnace State Park, and in the distance (but not visible) is the historic town of Gettysburg. A number of large birds swooped and dived over the valley but at too great a distance to determine if they were exciting predators or just (as a friend’s father used to say) shit-eatin’ buzzards. We enjoyed the birds and the splendid vista for five or ten minutes before a group of college students arrived
and ruined everything to appreciate the view. We left them to it.
Returning to the helpful/not helpful double blaze, and this time purposefully moving away from the Sunset Rocks, we headed down the hill. Again. All the way down the hill this time. When the trail leveled out, it was only a quarter mile back to the Appalachian Trail. We re-connected with the AT having hiked just over seven total miles and with about 1.7 left to get back to the parking area. Soon, we were back at the car and off to a roadhouse we had noticed on the way there. The sign at the Smokehouse Tavern advertised “BB Q BRISKIT [sic] and PORK RIBS.
The scramble over Little Rocky Ridge and the view from Sunset Rocks was worth the effort of an otherwise average hike. Part of it may have been the season; it was early April and spring had not really sprung, so the trail was wet and muddy in places and the trees were still bare. Hopefully we’ll make it back at a more verdant time of the year and enjoy the views (and the AT midpoint) without the missteps! ♦
Date: April 4, 2015
Location: Pine Grove Furnace, PA
Trailhead: 40.032178, -77.306996
Distance: 8.86 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,172 feet