Hiking The Thousand Steps

The Thousand Steps

In October 2010, I made my first ascent up the side of Jacks Mountain, following the man-made stone stairwell to the vistas high above Jacks Narrows. By the time I made it to the top, my legs were screaming in pain and my mind was shattered. I had been mentally and physically preparing myself for the trip for almost six months, but this was nothing like I had planned.

But I had made it. I had conquered the Thousand Steps.

Located in Jacks Narrows, on US 22 between Mapleton and Mount Union, the trail is popular with many adventurers. Jacks Narrows and Mountain are named after a controversial local figure, Jack Armstrong, an 18th century fur trader, who in 1744 was murdered by a Delaware named Mushemeeli and two of his companions. Armstrong’s body was hidden by his killers and his grave lost to history. Note: According to word of mouth in 1889 local residents discovered the grave of Jack Armstrong by following a mysterious “ghost light” that was in the area of the grave. At the place where the mysterious light vanished, the group discovered the grave of a man buried under a large white oak roughly four miles west of where Armstrong’s cabin once stood.

Between 1900 and 1952, the Harbison-Walker Corporation mined ganister, a type of sandstone which was used in the creation of bricks, on Jacks Mountain. At the time, it was common for workers to ride the dinky train to the quarries and ride it back down at the end of their shift. A flood in 1936 washed away the bridge used by the Harbison-Walker Corporation to transport ganister over the Juniata River and the company, afraid of losing their employees while the bridge was being rebuilt, had the workers build the steps as a means of climbing the mountainside to the quarries. It is stated the average worker could climb the steps in fifteen minutes.

Parking in the dirt lot in the middle of Jacks Narrows, I stepped out and studied my surroundings. I immediately knew it was going to take me more than fifteen minutes to climb the steps.

A small brown sign at the eastern edge of the lot pointed the way to the Thousand Steps Trail. The short hike leads upward to a landing and after thinking I had already put fifty steps behind me, I was shocked to discover that this was merely a trail that links the parking area to the Thousand Steps Trail. Note: While most are familiar with the Thousand Steps, this is just one section of the Standing Stone Trail, which travels more than eighty miles through south-central Pennsylvania. It links the Tuscarora Trail at Cowen’s Gap State Park to the Mid-State Trail north of the Alan Seeger Natural Area.

At this juncture, a sign stands to provide information about the trail. After reading the sign, I stared up the stone steps. A moment of doubt crossed my mind and I debating returning to the car and leaving. If I continued I knew it was going to be a long journey up the mountainside.

I pushed the doubts aside and took my first step up the trail. One step at a time, I slowly made my way up the mountainside. I quickly discovered two things that kept my spirits up. First, every one hundredth step is marked, so I was able to set mental goals of each set of one hundred steps. The second thing I soon discovered was that roughly every seventy to one hundred steps the trail arrived at one of the ledges that had been a part of the railroad line that had once zigzagged up the mountainside. Though the trail runs along the ledge for a couple yards at most, it was enough of a break to allow me to catch my breath before continuing upward.

Due to my slow, steady pace, I was able to explore my surroundings as I ascended the mountainside. I was surprised to discover a number of fossils on the limestone rocks that border the trail or make up the steps themselves. Along the trail, there are various overlooks that allow for looking back down the mountain side and to the mountain across the river. These overlooks teased the view from the top of the mountain and I was anxious to get to the top to enjoy them.

I made it about halfway up the mountainside before the trail came alive with people. An elderly gentleman accompanied by a black lab on their way back down the trail passed me by. A group of students on a field trip from a local Mennonite school were ascending the trail. They passed me and for a moment I was jealous of the speed they were able to travel up the trail. A group of college students from nearby Juniata College also passed and before I reached the top, they would pass me again – on their way down.

I almost jumped with joy when I saw the step marked with the number 1000. However, I still had roughly forty more steps to go until I reached the top of the trail.

After making it to the top, I followed the trail westward along the old railroad bed until I arrived at the old dinky house, which once held a small train engine owned by Harbison-Walker. I joined the hikers who lingered at the location, exploring the abandoned building.

I left the building and followed the trail to the next ledge. At the top, the trail turned westward again to an overlook. I paused here and stared across the valley. The view of Mapleton was rewarding. As I stood there, I could hear the Mennonite class somewhere nearby as the teacher explained rocks and rock formations to his class.

Before descending the Thousand Steps, I walked a short distance eastward to a view of Jacks Narrows. Leaving it, I returned to the top of the steps and began my descent. To me, the trip down was harder than the ascent. With no railings and the trail being steep, I relied on the hiking stick for support. While my muscles ached going up, it was my knees and hips that hurt as I made my way down the trail.

I finally made it to the start of the trail, happy that I survived the Thousand Steps. Despite the aches and pains, the first thought that came to mind was: “When can I do that again?” Since that first trip, I annually made the journey up the mountainside through the spring of 2019. Unfortunately, an injury prevents me from returning up the steps, leaving me with the memories of those journeys up the side of Jacks Mountain.

One of the things I miss the most of not doing the trail is talking with the others hiking it. Over the years, I have been amazed by the distance people have traveled to climb up the mountainside. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with visitors from North Carolina, Montana, Vermont, and Oregon.

The Thousand Steps is a strenuous hike and is not to be taken lightly. The trail to the top is a little over a half mile long with a very steep ascent. But for those who are able to make the trip to the top, the views are worth the ascent.

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