The Thousand Steps
How Pittsburgh Steel, the Johnstown Flood and Some Fortuitous Geology Created One of Pennsylvania’s Premier Day Hikes.
Trough Creek State Park photo by Ed Stoddard
From the sky, the mountains of central Pennsylvania look as if their layout was scribbled by an exuberant child. The long expanses of trees on
The most prominent feature of the hike is the eponymous sandstone steps, which are nestled so naturally in the fall line that it’s tempting to imagine they grew right out of the mountain that way. The steps ascend from the gravel culvert on Route 22 to just below the top of the mountain. They wind through fragrant stands of jack pine, a vestige of an industrial past, and provide order in chaotic talus piles as they snake through the pastel-hued rocks. There are actually 1,043 steps in all, and as you huff and puff your way up, you can’t help but wonder: Why are they here?
Quarry workers on the Harbison Walker Incline photo by the Mount Union Area Historical Society
In the early 20
The steep steps gain 800 feet of elevation in just 0.4 miles of trail. They change direction several times where they intersect with overgrown rail inclines, and these landings
For the first 20 years the Harbison-Walker Refractories Company quarried Jack’s Mountain, workers trudged up the
The silica companies were reported to be less predatory than other notorious industries of the time. Workers were paid in cash, not credit, and could live in company homes during their tenure
And so the decades passed. A Sisyphean trail of human ants crept into the hills of Jack’s Narrows on rough-hewn sandstone steps to peel away a layer of
Hiking The Thousand Steps photo by Michael Reed, michaelreedphoto.com
Today, in the downtowns of Mount Union and Huntingdon, you’ll find the industrial chapter of the area’s history visible in the architectural flourishes of an optimistic era. The golden tower of the Russian Orthodox church gleams in the Flats of Mount Union, built by immigrants in the neighborhood that mostly consisted of shanties and company homes in its most populous days. Historically black churches can be found around the corner, still standing amidst so many vacant lots. The nearby village of Kistler was designed specifically to encourage community engagement with the cultural assimilation of foreign workers in mind. A cruise through Kistler today evokes the inviting and walking-scale feel the designer intended, although homeowners have since differentiated their once-uniform homes with bright colors and additions.
The views from the summit of the Thousand Steps are greener than they were during the peak of quarrying. Trees have filled in old clear cuts and obscure the thin scars of defunct rail lines. At the top of the steps, you can take the trail to the right just 0.3 miles to see Mount Union, smaller and less smoky than it was in its heyday. The half-mile spur to the Ledge Quarry features views of the borough of Mapleton. The Mill Creek Quarry delivers a fantastic view of Huntingdon from 2.7 miles north. The Thousand Steps and these overlooks are part of the 84-mile Standing Stone Trail, which connects the Mid-State Trail in the north to the Tuscarora Trail in the south and was once the candidate for an Appalachian Trail reroute. The truly ambitious can hike for days from the Steps!
It’s easy to contemplate the passage of time from atop the shell of the dinky house. The displaced ganister sandstone is now found worldwide and in space: The high-quality silica from Jack’s Narrows was used to create the Palo Alto telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Imagine a quarryman’s reaction if he were to see Jack’s Narrows today. When the steps were built in 1936, it would still be decades before the automobile replaced the train in the Juniata River Valley. And the throngs of families, walking the quarry steps - for fun? Visitors to the area today enjoy a level of recreation and leisure unfathomable to a Harbison-Walker quarryman, but the spring at the top of the mountain still provides water for visitors as it did the workers so many years ago.
In Pennsylvania, we play on the industrial skeleton of our region’s past. A walk on the Thousand Steps evokes a meditation on the past and future of this uniquely beautiful region.
Playground for Outdoor Enthusiasts
Below: Juniata College students photo by Michael Reed, michaelreedphoto.com
Today, hiking trails lace the ridgetops of Jack's Narrows and the surrounding ridges. Many of the ridgetops are state-owned game lands and forest and host a variety of hunting, hiking, biking, climbing and skiing visitors year-round.
World-class mountain biking is nearby on the Allegrippis trail network alongside Raystown Lake.
The ever-popular Lower Trail, a gravel rail trail, leads cyclists along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata along the route of the historic Mainline Canal towpath. In the future, the Mainline Canal Greenway and 9/11 Memorial trail bike path will connect the Lower Trail in the north to Jacks Narrows, and down along the Juniata to Lewistown and beyond.
The tributaries and main trunk of the Juniata River are excellent for flatwater paddling. Float Jack's Narrows itself while making use of the new boat launches in Mapleton and Mount Union. Other water adventures await on nearby Raystown Lake.Click here for more information on the Raystown Lake area.
Left: Cyclists take advantage of Allegrippis Trails world-class mountain biking. Right: Kayaking on Jack's Narrows. Photos by Ed Stoddard