Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hiking French Creek State Park: Chestnut Hill-Mill Creek Loop

French Creek State Park, which is located in the ecologically fragile Pennsylvania Highlands region, has a lot to offer folks seeking day hikes near the Philadelphia metro area. The Chestnut Hill-Mill Creek Loop hike will take you from the Shed Road trailhead to Mill Creek along a lollipop loop that includes the Lenape and Raccoon Trails. It cuts through the hilly, backwoods eastern section of the park - as well as part of the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site - and is particularly attractive to those seeking out conditioning hikes to prepare for bigger, more strenuous hikes in the nearby Appalachian Mountains.

French Creek State Park's old growth is largest stretch from D.C. to NYC
Find directions to the Shed Road parking area below. Once there, cross Shed Road and go through a gate to find the main trail, a gravel path which crosses from east to west. If you were to go right here, you would cross State Route 345 and head west toward the park's campground. Instead, go left and follow this gravel path east until you see signage for the green-blazed Lenape Trail turn-off into Hopewell Furnace.

Prepped for a hot summer day on the trail at French Creek State Park
Make a mental note of the red-and-white-blazed Mill Creek Trail, which continues straight at this junction - you will be returning from that direction. But you will turn right onto the Lenape Trail here to begin your descent through an old growth forest and make your way down a 1.3-mile stretch of trail to Baptism Creek.

Enjoy this gentle walk in the woods, as it is a nice way to begin your hike and it only gets more strenuous from here. As you reach a confluence of streams at the bottom of the hill, keep your eyes peeled for the red-blazed Raccoon Trail. Now, get ready for a bit of cardio.

At the Lenape - Racoon junction near Baptism Creek, Hopewell Furnace
TIP: If you turn right at the double green blazes where the Lenape Trail meets the Raccoon Trail you will reach a large covered picnic area at .2 miles. You won't need it at this point, but you may want to enjoy a rest here and mull over your trail maps a while, then backtrack to rejoin the Raccoon Trail. Alternatively, you could head uphill on a cart path from the shelter and rejoin the trail just past the ruins of an old house.

If you take the original turn off from the Lenape Trail, you will make your way up a sloping hill on the red-blazed Raccoon Trail past some ruins that are part of the Hopewell Furnace Historic Site. (These are the same ruins mentioned in the tip above.) Watch for trail signs and stick with the red blazes as you reach the northern border of the Hopewell Furnace site, where you will notice the Raccoon Trail turns left as the route you're on turns into the Buzzards Trail. You could take the Buzzards trail for a longer hike. Or continue making your way up hill on the Raccoon Trail to follow this recommended route.

Raccoon Trail cuts the powerline throughway, choked with greenbrier
At the top of the hill the Raccoon Trail intersects the Mill Creek Trail at a long saddle that separates the two highest points in this section of the park - Chestnut Hill is to the left and an un-named hill to the right. The Raccoon Trail actually joins the Mill Creek Trail briefly here as you follow the red blazes to the right. Notice that the Raccoon Trail will veer off the Mill Creek quickly and descends to the banks of Mill Creek. If you stay on the Mill Creek Trail you can loop back down to the creek, too, adding a mile or so to the route outlined here.

Raccoon's red and Mill Creek's red-and-white blazes join the trails briefly
NOTE: The section of the Raccoon Trail that leads from the saddle down to the creek can be choked with prickly greenbrier in hot, wet summer months, but with some gentle maneuvering it is easy enough to get through.

As the Raccoon Trail comes to an end you will have finally reached Mill Creek, a great place to sit on a big boulder and have lunch by the babbling brook. Rest a while and enjoy the scenery, for the next half of your hike is more strenuous than the first. 

The author - fit blogger Brian - at Mill Creek
From the banks of Mill Creek, turn left to go north to continue on the red-and-white blazed Mill Creek Trail. This section of trail traverses the lowlands for a bit, taking the hiker on several ups and downs of about 50-feet in elevation each. Then it turns sharply uphill to begin a steady and winding climb up to Millers Point - a big pile of boulders high above Mill Creek - and the summit of Chestnut Hill, which at about 950 feet is second highest point in French Creek State Park (the hightest being the site of Hopewell Fire Tower on the Ridge Trail in the west side of the park).

The final ascent of Chestnut Hill along the Mill Creek Trail
Don't expect a view here, though; In fact, the only elation you will feel here is that of accomplishment, knowing it's all downhill from here! At this high point, the Mill Creek Trail reconnects to itself. Turn right here and follow this wide gravel cart path back to your car.

Don't track seeds of invasives home with you - brush those boots!

Here are all the important stats you'll need to enjoy your day hiking the French Creek State Park, Chestnut Hill - Mill Creek Loop:

Trailhead: You can reach French Creek State Park from the south via Pennsylvania Turnpike Exit 298 (Morgantown) or from the north by taking turning south onto State Road 345 from Federal Highway 422. Find the trailhead on Shed Road near the intersection of Rt. 345 in French Creek State Park, just north of the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. 
Distance: Between 5 and 6 miles (This is an estimate based on the park maps and trail length information. I will update this with a more accurate measure soon.)
Elevation Gain/Loss: 900 feet
Map: Maps are available online from French Creek State Park and Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.
Hiking Time: 2.5 to 3 hours, depending on personal hiking speed and dawdling factor 
Best Times to Hike: This is a great year-round hike, but best times are most probably spring and fall, as with any hike in the Pennsylvania woods.
Difficulty: Moderate

For more information on this hike or other hikes discussed in the blog HikeyHikey, feel free to leave a comment below. Check out my other blogs Man of Merit and MyFitLife2Day. Or contact me via my splash page at