Cumberland Valley is a beautiful natural location with abundant and easily accessible outdoor recreation opportunities. Outdoorsy travelers enjoy the wide-open spaces away from the crowds. With that in mind, here are some suggestions to help you plan a backpacking and camping adventure in Cumberland Valley. But remember, you are never too far away from a post-camping visit to experience the amenities of our charming downtowns.

Backpacking and Primitive Camping

For most people, day hiking or motorized camping offers the opportunity to connect with nature. But for those who want to get farther out into the woods and who are up for a bigger challenge, backpacking is an enjoyable way to do so while building additional outdoor skills, confidence, and endurance. If slinging all your overnight gear on your back and heading into the woods sounds like fun to you, here are a few thoughts on getting started.

  • Backpacking has a reputation as a challenging way to enjoy nature. It is good to have a fair amount of regular hiking and camping experience first. Thankfully, there are many state parks and forests, hiking trails, and private campgrounds in Cumberland Valley where you can build up your toolbox of outdoor skills. 
  • Do your research – read up on the subject, join some social media groups, and take a few day hikes in the area. Try on some gear, or borrow some and test it out under controlled conditions. If you don’t have a lot of hiking and camping experience, you might want to ask someone who has gone before to help you prepare and even join them for your first excursion. 
  • Make your first backpacking trip very modest. Fortunately, Cumberland Valley gives you several local, easily-accessible places where you can do exactly that.

When you think of backpacking in Cumberland Valley, you probably think of trekkers passing through on the Appalachian Trail. But there are more backpacking-friendly trails in the region that offer some moderate terrain, especially for those who want to venture out for only 2 or 3 days. Here are two notable suggestions:

  • Michaux State Forest: With almost 90,000 acres spread across three counties (Cumberland, Franklin, and Adams), Michaux is home to three state parks (Pine Grove, Caledonia, and Mount Alto) offering access to over 60 miles of hiking trails, including 36 miles of the Appalachian Trail. You can also reserve a number of primitive campsites among the wooded terrain enabling you to plan a route that is not too extreme. Camping permits are required unless you are backpacking for only one night per site. Due to the state parks, the A.T., and Long Pine Run Reservoir (a popular kayaking spot), this area is fairly well-traveled. This might be considered a plus if you are just starting out on your first backpacking adventure.
  • Sign for Tuscarora Trail at Waggoner's GapTuscarora State Forest: Wilder, more rugged, and rockier than Michaux, Tuscarora State Forest encompasses four state parks (Colonel Denning, Little Buffalo, Big Spring, and Fowlers Hollow) with nearly 180 miles of hiking trails. Its expansive trail system includes 23 miles of the Tuscarora Trail itself, which branches off from the Appalachian Trail. Backpack camping is permitted and a rustic, open-faced shelter is located along the trail in Fowlers Hollow. Given the more demanding terrain and the lower level of traffic, Tuscarora is best experienced after you already have a few trips under your belt. 

While state forests are very user-friendly for those who are hiking and camping along the trails, please keep in mind that camping facilities are primitive and lack modern conveniences making your backpacking adventure a true wilderness camping experience. Before setting out, please familiarize yourself with DCNR regulations including the following highlights:

  • All camping must be at least 200 feet from any stream or other open water source.
  • All campsites must be at least 25 feet from the nearest edge of a trail.
  • The camp should be out of sight of the trail where possible.
  • You must obtain a camping permit (no fee) if you plan to camp at a location for more than one night or if you desire a campfire during the spring fire season (March 1 through May 25).

Visit the official Pennsylvania Department of Conservation & Natural Resources (DCNR) for more information.

See DCNR’s Motorized and Primitive Camping Guidelines and Ethics for additional state forest camping requirements. 

Tent Camping

Tent camping at one of our state parks gives nature lovers a chance to spend some time in the great outdoors while providing a few more amenities than primitive camping including all the outdoor recreation opportunities provided by our parks such as swimming, hiking, and fishing. If you are new to camping, here are a few thoughts on getting started.

  • You don’t need a lot of specialized gear to take that first trip. A tent, sleeping bags, and a few other basic things are needed for sure. Find a good list that covers the basics, and if you need to buy anything, do a bit of research and read some reviews.  If you don’t want to go all-in just yet, arrange to borrow a tent for your first trip. Or, head to a local outdoor gear shop – such as TCO Outdoors or Earth Artisan and Outfitters – for expert guidance and friendly customer service. 
  • Start small. Plan for a one-night so if something goes wrong such as the onset of bad weather or the failure of your gear, you can easily bailout.
  • Read up! There are many social media groups and websites that will give you plenty of ideas for enjoying tent camping to its fullest.

In addition to Michaux and Tuscarora State Forests, two of Cumberland Valley's state parks are ideal locations to plan a tent camping getaway. Driving from Carlisle, you can be pulling up to a site and breathing in the fresh air in less than half an hour.

  • Pine Grove Furnace State Park: Surrounded by Michaux State Forest, this park offers 70 tent and trailer sites in a beautiful mountain setting. The sites are available from late March through mid-December. (Visit the official DCNR site for Pine Grove Furnace State Park campsite reservations.) A seasonal store is located ¼-mile from the campground. Guests can enjoy several trails for hiking, biking, and bird watching; two lakes for swimming, boating, and fishing; and the Appalachian Trail Museum, the only museum in the country dedicated to hiking. The park is a popular attraction, and a mid-week visit can help avoid crowds, especially at the beaches. Pole Steeple is probably the most-hiked rock formation in the area thanks to the view at the top, but the nearby Sunset Rocks Trail is a great hike as well. (HINT: If you are not ready for camping but want to stay the night at the park, you can reserve the Paymaster's Cabin or stay at the Ironmaster's Mansion, a hostel for A.T. hikers and others.)
  • Colonel Denning State Park: This park is on the eastern edge of Tuscarora State Forest, and while smaller than Pine Grove Furnace, it also has some nice hiking and a lake for swimming and fishing. The park has a 49-site tent and trailer campground. (Visit the official DCNR site for Colonel Denning State Park campsite reservations.) A bit more off the beaten path, Colonel Denning is generally less crowded. The popular Flat Rock hike can be accessed from the park for a panoramic view of Cumberland Valley. 

Before you go, make sure you understand the regulations. Visit the official DCNR website for additional information.

About the Author

Scott Gehman is a local camping and backpacking enthusiast. Having done some camping as a kid and a teenager, he really got into it when his son Tom joined the Cub Scouts back in 2012. Scott and Tom have since gone on to enjoy a wide variety of tent camping and backpacking experiences right here in south-central PA, both with and without Tom’s Boy Scout troop. Scott is a Retirement Plan Consultant for Conrad Siegel in Harrisburg and lives in Carlisle with his wife and two kids. Not wanting to live out of sync with Carlisle’s car culture, Scott’s main form of transportation is his Mustang GT, which makes for some quizzical looks from fellow campers when pulling up to a site, and he always calls the forest ranger before he leaves it at a trailhead in the middle of the woods for a backpacking trip!