Loyalhanna Conservation Corps expands Laurel Ridge trail for hikers, rescue crews
Ligonier Township native Josh Fitz has spent many summers camping with his family in nearby Forbes State Forest.
The 20-year-old West Virginia University student, who is focusing his studies on global environmental change, returned to the forest this summer for work instead of leisure — helping to improve hiking trails with five fellow members of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association’s Youth Conservation Corps.
“I really like having the opportunity where you can do a project and you can actually see the results immediately,” Fitz said last week as the corps completed work on Beam Rocks Trail, just over the border in Lincoln Township, Somerset County. “It’s a good feeling when you can make the forest more accessible for all the people.”
The college-age corps members spent a little more than two weeks out of their eight-week summer internship resurfacing and widening a half-mile section of the popular hiking trail on Laurel Ridge.
The trail leads from Laurel Summit Road down a wooded slope to Beam Rocks, a sandstone outcropping up to 90 feet tall that serves as a scenic overlook and attracts people for rappelling or climbing. The conservation crew improved a trail branch that heads to the base of the rocks, via a connection with the Laurel Highlands Trail.
The crew built up the trail surface with crushed stone while cutting small water-diversion channels across it — to help prevent the path from being washed out by stormwater runoff.
“This trail gets used so much, it just got packed down,” said Bill Repko of Unity, a retired teacher at Greater Latrobe Senior High who has led the Loyalhanna Watershed conservation crews for nearly four decades.
An important part of the Beam Rocks work was shifting sections of the trail to avoid areas covered with large boulders while extending the edges of the path and cutting down a maple tree to increase the passable width to 5 feet — which is wide enough to accommodate a side-by-side all-terrain vehicle. That would allow responding emergency crews to drive close to the scene if someone is injured in a fall from the rocks, Repko explained.
“We’ve been up there several times for people falling off the rocks,” Sipesville fire Chief Scott Kovach said. “It’s usually of a serious nature, if not a fatality.”
In such rescues, Kovach said, “we would only be able to haul our equipment on an ATV or (utility task vehicle) part way, and then have to walk the rest of the way down.”
On March 29, 2008, Christopher Cardy, 25, of Ligonier and Sara Baum, 24, of Greensburg were killed when they fell from the rocks. State police said Baum fell nearly 17 feet, fracturing her skull, and Cardy fell 39 feet, breaking his neck, when he attempted to climb down a narrow path to assist Baum.
Michael Vomish, 19, of Mt. Pleasant was climbing the rocks with friends July 30, 2007, when he slipped and fell 75 feet to his death. More recently, on Sept. 20, 2015, Dakotah Rhodes, 25, of Derry died after falling from a ledge on the Beam Rocks Trail.
Because of such incidents, the state Bureau of Forestry has placed warning signs at the trail head and limits use of the trail to daylight hours and prohibits alcoholic beverages there.
With this summer’s trail improvements, district forester Ed Callahan said, “We will be able to get people who may have fallen off the rocks out faster and possibly save lives.”
Callahan said the Loyalhanna Watershed’s summer interns, along with other volunteers, play a vital role in keeping Forbes State Forest an inviting area for outdoor recreation.
According to Callahan, Pennsylvania has managed the area, which spans sections of Westmoreland, Somerset and Fayette counties, for 110 years. But, he said, “With 60,000 acres of state forest, our maintenance crew is not large enough to handle it, especially all the trails.”
Each intern receives a $2,500 stipend toward educational expenses as part of the program, which gets funding support from the Katherine Mabis McKenna Foundation.
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .