Hiking the Flat Rock Trail at Colonel Denning State Park

A Strenuous Hike to an Amazing Vista

The author at Flat Rock Vista.
The author at Flat Rock Vista.

Flat Rock Trail – don’t let the name fool you!

I recently had a chance to hike this roughly 2.5 mile (one way) trail to the top of Blue Mountain in Cumberland County, and I can probably count on one hand the number of flat spots along the trail!

But the payoff for this 1100 foot ascent is an incredible panoramic view of the Tuscarora State Forest and Cumberland Valley below.

A hazy spring day at Flat Rock Vista.
A hazy spring day at Flat Rock Vista.

So if you’re looking for a challenging hike on a well-maintained trail to a fabulous south-central PA vista, read on!

How to Find the Flat Rock Trail

The trail head (or heads) for this hike are located in Colonel Denning State Park (Cumberland County), a 273 acre gem surrounded entirely by the 96,000 acre Tuscarora State Forest.

Satellite image of the parking areas for the Flat Rock Trail.
Satellite image of the parking areas for the Flat Rock Trail.

I’d recommend stopping at the park office located just off Doubling Gap Road to pick up a map and learn of any relevant trail information prior to starting your hike.

On the day I stopped, the park ranger informed me that the main parking lot for the Flat Rock Trail (located just behind the park office) was being repaved, but another lot referred to on the map as the “Equestrian Trailhead” was open and only added a few 10ths of a mile to my hike.

So that’s where this write-up will start.

But when you visit, it may be simpler to just park at the main lot for the Flat Rock Trail, behind the park office (see map below).

Where to Park for the Flat Rock Trail

You can see on the map below (indicated with white arrows) the two main access points for the Flat Rock Trail.

A map of Colonel Denning State Park, showing parking options for the Flat Rock Trail.
A map of Colonel Denning State Park, showing parking options for the Flat Rock Trail.

My hike started at the Equestrian Trailhead lot.

GPS coordinates for that lot: 40.282738, -77.412007

The "Equestrian Trail Head" parking lot where my hike to Flat Rock Vista started.
The “Equestrian Trail Head” parking lot where my hike to Flat Rock Vista started.

Parking is available on either side of the road.

The trail head is on the near right corner as you pull into the lot, coming from the park office.

Sign marking the access to the Flat Rock Trail from the "Equestrian Trailhead" parking lot.
Sign marking the access to the Flat Rock Trail from the “Equestrian Trailhead” parking lot.

Hiking to Flat Rock Vista

My hike began at the lot I described above, and quickly I picked up the Rattlesnake Loop Trail, the short connector the park ranger had told me would lead me to the Flat Rock Trail.

A sign along the Rattlesnake Trail indicating the way to the Flat Rock Trail.
A sign along the Rattlesnake Trail indicating the way to the Flat Rock Trail.

And sure enough, about 1/10th of a mile into my hike I encountered this sign.

So far, so good.

Intersection of the Flat Rock Trail and Rattlesnake Trail Loop.
Intersection of the Flat Rock Trail and Rattlesnake Trail Loop.

Pressing on, I soon came to the trail junction I was looking for, and began my ascent of the Flat Rock Trail.

Stone steps along the Flat Rock Trail.
Stone steps along the Flat Rock Trail.

This is an extremely well-blazed (yellow), well-maintained trail.

I saw very little litter along the way, probably a testament to the ruggedness of the trail weeding out the Bud Light Pounder crowd.

Sign along the Flat Rock Trail indicating 1.5 miles to the vista.
Sign along the Flat Rock Trail indicating 1.5 miles to the vista.

Every half mile another sign lets you know you’re on the right track.

Another example of the rugged, rocky nature of the Flat Rock Trail.
Another example of the rugged, rocky nature of the Flat Rock Trail.

This is definitely a hike where I’d recommend a good hiking stick (or 2) to maintain your balance.

Rugged stones show what much of the Flat Rock Trail looks like.
Rugged stones show what much of the Flat Rock Trail looks like.

Like I mentioned earlier, most of the trail is uneven and rocky.

Sign indicating 1 mile to the Flat Rock Vista.
Sign indicating 1 mile to the Flat Rock Vista.

Approximately 1.5 miles into the hike, the Flat Rock Trail finally levels off for a bit as you cross over the Tuscarora Trail.

As the sign at this juncture indicates, the Flat Rock Vista is 1 mile ahead.

Trail shelter near the top of Blue Mountain, along the Flat Rock Trail.
Trail shelter near the top of Blue Mountain, along the Flat Rock Trail.

You’ll pass this trail shelter 1/10th of a mile AFTER crossing over the Tuscarora Trail.

Arranged stones along one of the flatter portions of the Flat Rock Trail.
Arranged stones along one of the flatter portions of the Flat Rock Trail.

Remaining on this semi-flat portion of the mountain for another few 10ths of a mile, you’ll encounter this stone portion of the trail above, followed by a windy boardwalk though a swampy area.

A boardwalk through a swampy area near the top of Blue Mountain.
A boardwalk through a swampy area near the top of Blue Mountain.

Emerging from the swampy area and following another ascent, you’ll arrive at the end of the trail and be standing at the incredible Flat Rock Vista.

Taking in the Vista

Looking out over the Cumberland Valley from Flat Rock Vista.
Looking out over the Cumberland Valley from Flat Rock Vista.

On this particular day a Mennonite family was just finishing up a picnic lunch as I arrived on the scene.

A Mennonite family enjoying the view from Flat Rock Vista.
A Mennonite family enjoying the view from Flat Rock Vista.

We exchanged pleasantries as they were packing up, and then I had the vista to myself.

A buzzard flying high over the Cumberland Valley, with a farm in the distance.
A buzzard flying high over the Cumberland Valley, with a farm in the distance.

The panoramic view was outstanding, but what really added to the excitement was a large flock of buzzards swooping up and down the valley, right past and over the vista.

A buzzard swooping down the Cumberland Valley, viewed from Flat Rock Vista.
A buzzard swooping down the Cumberland Valley, viewed from Flat Rock Vista.

I hadn’t anticipated any bird photography on this hike, so wasn’t really prepared with my best possible lens for that.

But I still got some shots I was happy with.

Watching buzzards from the Flat Rock Vista.
Watching buzzards from the Flat Rock Vista.

Hiking Stats

If you’re into hiking statistics, here is some of the data I collected on this hike.

My hiking data from the Flat Rock Trail.
My hiking data from the Flat Rock Trail.

The route I took covered 2.76 miles (slightly longer than the “regular” trail because of the alternate parking lot).

There was roughly 1100 feet of elevation gain from the parking lot to the summit of Blue Mountain.

And hiking at a leisurely pace, stopping to take photos on the way up, I covered the distance in 1 hour, 23 minutes.

Still not convinced you need to see Flat Rock Vista?

Check out this panoramic video I shot, including buzzards zipping past!

Final Thoughts on Flat Rock Trail and Vista

This was a outstanding hike.

Strenuous, but not too technical, as long as you take your time and watch your step.

The trail is easy to follow, well-blazed, and worth every step to get to Flat Rock Vista.

I have no reservations whatsoever about encouraging you to add the Flat Rock Trail and Vista to your PA Bucket List!

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