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about 3 years ago
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Onward & Outward: Little Flat Fire Tower

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This post is part of a series highlighting a number of local day-trip destinations in and around the State College area, focusing on places off the beaten path.

Last week we explored Penn’s Cave, one of the more commercialized outdoor day-trip spots in Centre County. This week, we make a 180° and look at a much more hidden hangout, only a half hour drive from State College.

Little Flat Fire Tower is a very little known day-trip destination among Penn State students but is popular with many locals. Located on Greenlee Mountain, adjacent to Mt. Nittany and Tussey Mountain, Little Flat Fire Tower area serves as a convergence point for a number of local trails, most notably, the Mid-State Trail. The area is located in Rothrock State Forest, a large natural area spreading through Centre, Huntington, and Mifflin Counties.

The tower is accessed by following Bear Meadows Rd from 322 E past Tussey Mountain Resort into Rothrock State Forest. From there you will bear right across a wooden bridge onto Laurel Run Rd and up Greenlee Mountain, directly to the fire tower. The road is gravel, and is very narrow at points, so be sure to exercise caution making your way up/down the mountain as it is a two-way road.

At the top of the mountain you will find a generous parking area surrounded by wooded trails leading in a number of different directions, all centered around the fire tower. Don’t be surprised if there area a number of cars in the lot, even if there is no one around, as it is a popular place for hikers to leave their vehicles while on the trail.

From here there are two different things you can do: either hit the trails and explore Rothrock, or stay close and explore the fire tower and the surrounding area. Let’s start with the trails.

The route we took was a trail I had hiked before during my time with the ORION program the summer before my freshman year. The Mid-State trail is one of the longest and most impressive hiking trails in Central PA, and this section of the trail is especially spectacular. Leading out from the parking area, you are first met with a memorial to Tom Thwaites, the creator and one of the original blazers of the Mid-State trail.

Continuing along the trail, you will run into a number of non-descript signs telling that there is a “view” at the end of a short spur of the trail.

As any curious explorer would, we decided to follow one of these spurs. At the end of the path, there is a large rock outcropping with a magnificent view of Penn’s Valley and the mountains beyond. While this was quite an impressive sight at mid-afternoon, I imagine the sunrise over the ridge in the morning is spectacular.

There are a number of these outcroppings along the ridge, all providing outstanding views of the valley. The closest one is only about a 10 minute walk from the parking area, but you can walk along the top of the ridge for over an hour before descending back into the valley.

Returning to the tower area, we decided to explore before eating lunch. Immediately visible are the fire tower and a small wooden cabin. The fire tower was formerly used by park officials watching for brushfires in Rothrock State Forest, and while I couldn’t find any accurate historic information, I would guess that it was built sometime in the 1940s. The nearby cabin served as the residence for park officials as they took seasonal shifts in the fire tower. It is now completely closed after being heavily vandalized.

Behind the cabin is one of Rothrock’s helicopter landing pads, placed there for use in the case of a backcountry accident, as well as a number of extremely tall communications towers. These dwarf the once dominant fire tower. These towers are easily visible at night from State College and are a quite unfortunate placement of technology in an otherwise beautiful area.

Returning to the fire tower, we began debating whether we should climb it. The tower has been “closed due to vandalism” and about 2/3 of the first narrow set of stairs has been removed to “prevent” visitors from climbing it. I could tell just by looking at it that the frame was easily traversable, but it was not the difficulty that made me hesitant. It was more the thought of “breaking the rules”.

As we stood in indecision, a young couple approached the tower and climbed past the sign and up the stairs without pausing. We marveled at their bravery, and when they returned, we asked if it was “safe” (read: “Will we get in trouble?’). They explained that they came there quite often and never had any problems, almost laughing at the thought that a park ranger would come bust them.

I decided to take the climb. After fairly easily walking up the side rails of the first set of stairs, I made my way up the narrow, but sturdy, wooden stairs. The structure is definitely showing its age, as the paint peels from the steel frame and the once grey stairs are now just exposed wood, but it feels surprisingly safe.

At the top of the tower is a small, shed-like structure. It looks as if it was once enclosed by windows, but is now completely open and provides a 360° panorama of the surrounding landscape.

The trees have grown a bit past the top of the tower, encroaching on the line of sight a bit, but there are still spectacular views of Penn’s Valley, Boalsburg, and a distant State College. The fire tower is at about the same elevation as Mt. Nittany. In the photo below, you can see the BJC and Beaver Stadium just over the edge of Mt. Nittany in the left side of the picture.

Making my way back down the tower was a bit more difficult than the trip up as the steep narrow stairs necessitated a ladder-like approach in descent, but I made it down safely.

Back on the ground, we found some logs and enjoyed a picnic lunch before retreating back down the mountain. Little Flat is definitely one of the coolest places I have been during my time in State College and is worth the trip out there. I’ll leave you with a brief list of some items you will need on your trip:

  • Food (pack a cooler and leave it in your car while you explore)
  • Water (there is no water source at the site)
  • Map (it is easy to get lost on the back roads in Rothrock)
  • Camera
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Sunglasses
  • Bug spray (especially if visiting in the spring)
  • Friends

Enjoy your trip, and stay tuned to find out where we’ll visit next week!

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