Tough Trekking, Rugged Camping
A Three-Day Challenge
The Bullis Hollow Backpack Loop connects three existing Tuna Valley Trail Association (TVTA) trails with sections of established trails in the Allegheny National Forest and Allegany State Park. The Loop had been planned for a long time.
Before recommending the Loop to others, we wanted to test campsites, water availability, and general trail conditions. All sections of the circuit had been previously scouted and mapped, but the complete hike had never been attempted in one trip.
A group of us — Rick, George, Gene and John, hiking enthusiasts and members of the TVTA — expected a four day walk, but completed the Loop in three days: Sunday, May 5 to Tuesday, May 7. The Bullis Hollow Backpack Loop is a scenic, challenging, accessible 40 mile circuit.
In the late 1880’s, Spencer S. Bullis organized logging companies that transported logs and bark out of the hills of north-central Pennsylvania & upstate New York. He and his business partners built railroads accessing remote virgin forests. When the hemlocks, white pines, and hardwoods were exhausted, trestles were dismantled and iron rails moved elsewhere. The railroad grades remain, and over 100 years later are still in remarkable condition. The old grades make for great hiking. The Bullis Hollow Trail, North Country Trail west of Coon Run, Blacksnake Mountain Trail and Hidden Valley Passage all follow lengthy portions of abandoned railroad grades. S. S. Bullis was the money man behind these grades.
Marilla Reservoir > Marilla Bridges > Marilla Springs > Bullis Hollow >
Tracy Ridge > North Country > Camped near Tracy Bay
Five of us left Marilla Reservoir a little before 10 on Sunday morning. To save some sweating, we started out “slack packing”, carrying only daypacks. Our backpacks waited for us at the end of the Bullis Trail at the parking area on Rt. 321. After walking around the reservoir to the gazebo, we started up The Marilla Springs Trail. The Springs Tr is a gradual uphill that follows Marilla Brook, the main feeder stream to the reservoir. Just before the trail reaches the top, water bottles can be refilled at a reliable spring on the right. Follow the blue diamond trail markers to the Bullis Hollow Trail (BHT) near the boundary between the Bradford Area Watershed and the Allegheny National Forest. On the BHT look for white diamond trail markers along a flat railroad grade. Large hemlocks dominate the rr grade here.
Around 11:30 we crossed Stickney Road (FR 173). The BHT continues on the railroad grade and gradually descends along Railroad Run to the North Branch of Sugar Run. Long rotted railroad ties create a washboard effect on the path. This is a remote portion of the Loop. We encountered grouse, garter snakes, woodpeckers, hawks, and watched native brook trout darting around in a few pools of Railroad Run.
Just below the confluence of Railroad Run and Bullis Run, the BHT leaves the railroad grade and crosses the North Branch of Sugar Run. The water was low and no problem. The trail makes a short climb to an old roadbed that leads to the Fire Road (FR 137) and recrosses the N Br of Sugar Run over the road bridge.
The second half of the BHT begins on an old jeep road on the north side of the N Br of Sugar Run. Shortly after leaving the Fire Road, the trail crosses Whitney Run. Again, the water was easy to cross. Eventually, the trail leaves the jeep road, weaves through the trees, and connects to an old roadbed along Indian Run. Here begins a long, gradual climb up Indian Run valley. Again, this is a beautifully remote section of the Loop. At the top of the ridge, the trail connects to the old Johnson Farm road, west to Rt. 321. The BHT ends at Rt 321. One of our supportive wives was waiting for us, and we traded our daypacks for backpacks at 3:30.
After a little break, we took the connector trail (Johnny Cake Tr) to the Tracy Ridge Tr which begins at the parking area on Rt 321. The trail swings around behind Tracy Ridge Campground and joins the Tracy Ridge Tr, a well worn path with obvious trail markers, and even a few “you-are-here” maps. As the name implies, the trail stays on Tracy Ridge until it meets the North Country Trail (NCT) along the Allegheny Reservoir. Most of it is an easy walk, but the path drops into steep downhill switchbacks just before connecting with NCT. Once on the NCT, it is a short jaunt to Tracy Bay, a pleasant little cove off the main reservoir. The trail follows the perimeter of the bay and passes many tempting campsites near the water – all unusable. No camping is permitted within 1,500 ft of the water, but we found a good campsite nearby. It was a long, rewarding day.
North Country / Finger Lakes > Camped at Willis Creek Shelter
Entirely on the North Country Trail (http://northcountrytrail.org), our second day included two long climbs and ended in a comfortable camp. We left the Tracy Bay area around 8:15. The NCT is clearly marked with blue blazes as it begins north. This is another especially scenic section of the Loop. At 11:00 we crossed Rt. 346 near Willow Bay and took a long break at the parking area before the climb to the PA/NY border where the trail enters Allegany State Park (ASP). Though only a little over a mile, we took an hour to reach the top. Beginning at the border, the NCT doubles as the Finger Lakes Trail. (http://enchantedmountains.com/files/downloads/map/img/map-allegany-state-park-20091203.jpg)
Our goal for the day was the Willis Creek Lean-to, about 6 miles from the state line. By 2:30 we passed through Wolf Run, a popular area of ASP backcountry. The second major climb of the day leaves Wolf Run and heads up Tuscarora Mountain. After reaching the top, the trail stays on a ridge until Willis Creek. We made it to the lean-to around 4:30. A cozy shelter, reliable spring, fire ring, picnic table, and privy make it a great place to spend the night. Whoever selected the site chose wisely. Our only concern was the large piles of fresh bear sign – but no problem. We slept well.
North Country / Finger Lakes > Snowmobile Tr along ASP 3 > Blacksnake >
ASP Connector > Indian Pipe > Hidden Valley > Marilla Reservoir
Our last day began leisurely. At 10:00 another cooperative wife was meeting us on Coon Run Rd. (less than 1½ m from Willis Creek Lean-to) to exchange backpacks for daypacks. Actually, we arrived at Coon Run long before 10. With less weight, our final stretch on the NCT went quickly. This portion of the NCT is one of Mr. Bullis’ rr grades. There is a relic from the past here – a long, bent rail lays along the trail.
Around 11:00 we left the NCT before it crosses ASP 3 and followed a wide, grassy designated snowmobile / equestrian trail that parallels ASP 3. At 11:30 we turned off the grassy trail and connected with the Black Snake Mountain Trail (BST). After a short, steep climb, the section of the BST we walked is another pleasant rr grade. The BST leaves the rr grade to loop back to ASP 3. Remain on the rr grade. This is the only section of the Bullis Backpack Loop not on a previously designated trail. The old grade is where the Loop returns to Pennsylvania. Look for blue diamond trail markers. The BST loops back to ASP 3.
We recrossed the NY / PA border around noon. Shortly after returning to PA, the grade is now an oil/gas access road. Walk the road until it “Y’s”, then return to the rr grade. Look for blue diamond trail markers. The grade crosses another oil/gas road. Again, look for blue trail markers to remain on the grade. When the grade connects with the Indian Pipe Tr (red trail markers), go right. We were there by 12:45. After a mile on Indian Pipe, the road widens for the work being done on Gilbert Reservoir. Remain on Indian Pipe for another ½ mile then take a less used, access road on the right. Follow blue trail markers that lead to the Hidden Valley Passage, another railroad grade. Hidden Valley returns to Marilla Reservoir, completing the 40 mile Bullis Backpack Loop. We finished around 2:30.
A convenient aspect of the Bullis Hollow Backpack Loop is accessibility. Besides beginning at Marilla Reservoir, hikers can start near Tracy Ridge Campground on Rt. 321, Willow Bay on Rt. 346, Allegany State Park on the Black Snake Trail, FS 173 (Stickney Rd.), FS 137 (Fire Rd.), or Coon Run Rd. in ASP. These access points, also, give day hike or bail-out options, if needed. (Note: Cell phone access was spotty, but available on some ridges.)
For those who prefer less rugged camping, Tracy Ridge and Willow Bay campgrounds are available. Besides the Tracy Bay area and the Willis Creek Lean-to, other primitive camping options we suggest are the head of N Br of Sugar Run (confluence of Bullis and Railroad Runs), the bottom of Indian Run, and the head of Wolf Run in ASP – all beautiful spots with available water (be sure to filter).