Riding on Strawband Beaver Road at Black Moshannon State Park. Photo by Helena Kotala.

By Helena Kotala

When the nights are long and the temperatures plummet, many state parks shut down for the season — but not Black Moshannon

Located on the Allegheny Front at around 2,000 feet, the 4,000-acre park and surrounding Moshannon State Forest turn into a winter wonderland and paradise for ice fishermen, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and bikers. 

The higher elevation and weather patterns on the Front often end up dumping snow on Black Moshannon when other places not far away are getting rain or no precipitation at all. I lived in nearby Philipsburg for a few years and was always amazed at the difference between the weather and snowpack in town, just 10 miles away, and at the park. 

Whatever your flavor of winter adventure, Black Moshannon (locally known as “Black Mo”) has it. The lake often stays frozen for much of the winter and is regularly dotted with ice fishing tents. One section gets cleared off and dedicated to ice hockey and skating. Cross-country skiers often use the snow-covered sections to traverse from trails on one side of the lake to the other. There are dozens of miles of trails that are great for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. 

Hitting the trails in Black Mo

The Mosse-Hanne (“moose stream,” in Susquehannock) Trail is a favorite, featuring little to no elevation changes but a varied landscape from pine forests to bog edges and even bridges over sections of the lake. The Rock Run Trails, which are at the peak of the Allegheny Front and at an even higher elevation than the park itself, offer a bit more elevation gain, challenging yet approachable terrain, and a remote feel. These trails form a lollipop totaling a little over 12 miles, but there are options to do a shorter loop. 

Cross-country skiing along Cold Stream Creek on the Philipsburg town trails. Photo by Helena Kotala.

If you have more of a downhill inclination, check out the old ski hill that operated from the 1960s until 1982. There are no operational lifts anymore, but if you’re fine with earning your turns, the slope is a fun little area to play. There are two runs — one heads straight down and is wider, while the other is narrower and winds through the woods (this is a good trail to ski uphill as well).

There is a lodge at the top that was just remodeled and is rentable (look for Cabin 20 on the reservation website) and makes a great home base for a weekend of enjoying the snow. The park also has a selection of modern and rustic cabins that are rentable year-round.

If you want to try some winter activities but don’t have your own gear, the park office lends skis, snowshoes and ice skates for free during the hours it is open, with just an ID required as a deposit. 

The park also hosts a Fun in the Snow at Black Mo event every January that features games such as curling, ice mini golf, ice bowling, snow sculpture building, and educational programs. This year, the event will be on Jan. 28, and is a good reason to make the trip out!  

Riding fat bikes on the frozen lake in Black Moshannon State Park. Photo by Helena Kotala.

Snowmobilers flock to Black Moshannon for easy access to hundreds of miles of gravel roads and double-track trails that turn into highways of snow in the winter. From Moshannon State Forest, these arteries branch north and south into other public lands. 

These “groomed” trails are also popular with fat bikers — cyclists who ride the ribbons of white on bikes with 4-to-5-inch-wide tires. Black Moshannon is one of my favorite places to enjoy winter riding due to the colder temperatures and more snow than surrounding regions, consistent snowmobile traffic to pack in the trails and a variety of options for loops of various lengths. 

A park for all seasons

While Black Moshannon really shines in the winter, there are plenty of opportunities to play in every season. The lake is great for paddling, and canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboards are available to rent during the milder months. The trails that cater to cross-country skiers in the winter are also great for hiking and mountain biking in the summer. The 42-mile Allegheny Front Trail makes a big loop around the park, from the top of the Allegheny Front to Moshannon Creek. Sections of it make terrific day hikes or you can do the entire trail in a long weekend. 

Gravel riders have been flocking to the Black Moshannon area in recent years as the popularity of the sport grows and more cyclists discover the beautiful, rolling roads. There are two different gravel riding events that take place at the park — the Mid-State Gravel Grinder race in early August and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Public Lands Ride in late September. Check out this collection of rides of varying distances for some route ideas. 

Riding from Philipsburg on gravel roads toward Black Moshannon State Park. Photo by Helena Kotala.

When you’re done hiking, biking and skiing, head down the road to Philipsburg, the “Wilderness City.” The small town has adopted this slogan to capitalize on its proximity to open spaces to turn itself from a former coal-era town into a destination recognized for its outdoor recreation opportunities without losing its rural charm. 

“We’re trying to transform Philipsburg into something between State College and the boonies,” says Elliott Lauder, member of the Philipsburg Revitalization Corporation

Lauder is spearheading an effort to improve trails in town, create more events such as trail runs and dirt triathlons and establish an in-town campground on borough-owned property. 

The in-town trails offer several miles of hiking, trail running and mountain biking, and also connect into State Game Lands and eventually, all the way to Moshannon State Forest. The forest can also be accessed via gravel and low-volume back roads from town, and a skate park and pump track are also great ways to kill some time and feel like a kid again. 

If you visit Philipsburg

While in the area, check out the newly-opened Dead Canary Brewing Company, located in the historic Hoffer Building. The building was renovated by one of the owners of the brewery, who also owns a construction company focused on renovating historic buildings in town. It is worth a stop just to check out the interior decor, but the beer is good too. The Dead Canary doesn’t serve food, but it does host food trucks and allows customers to bring their own food to the brewery.

The 200 block of Presqueisle Street in Philipsburg. Photo by Doug Kerr via Creative Commons.

Speaking of food, Joey’s To Go is always a solid choice for pizza and other comfort eats. The unassuming Main Won serves up some surprisingly fantastic Chinese food. Brown Dog offers up gourmet dishes and great coffee and breakfast options. 

Walk around town and check out the historic “Old Mud Church” and Simler House (the oldest remaining structure in town, built in 1807), catch a show at the Rowland Theatre or browse vintage shops such as Shindig Alley. For in-town lodging options, check out the We Are Inn.

Don’t let winter get you down — instead, embrace it and enjoy the snowy playground.

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

NEXT guest writer

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