NCT PA Border & Ill Will Brewing

Columbiana, OH

Sometimes you’ve just gotta get out of town! I love some of the little towns just across the PA border in Ohio and this is the perfect Hike n Hop to do before a day of exploring. This hike starts at Mile 0 of the PA portion of the North Country Scenic Trail and meanders through woods and fields, making for a lovely spring hike. Afterward, you can head into Ohio towards Columbiana and grab a beer at the sprawling Ill Will Brewery. I highly recommend sitting outside. From there, have a lazy day exploring the shops and cafes of downtown Columbiana!

THE HIKE: North Country Trail – PA Border

Length: 5 miles
Elevation Gain: 545 ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 2 hours
Trail use: Hiking, backpacking, leashed pets
Parking: Small trailhead off PA 251. Blink and you’ll miss it!
H&H: 4/5

Somehow, I only learned about the North Country Trail this year! While not as well-known as some of the other multi-state trails, the North Country Trail has a lot to offer! It passes through 8 states, spanning from North Dakota to Vermont. If you’re thinking That’s a lot of miles, you’re right! Nearly 4,800 to be exact. Some fun facts about the trail from the NCT website include that it passes through:

  • 10 national forests
  • 4 NPS areas
  • Over 100 state game lands
  • Along 3 Great Lakes

We are lucky to have some incredible sections of this trail here in PA and I had hiked on them before without even realizing it! In PA, the NCT passes through McConnells Mill State, Cook Forest State Park, and Moraine State Park, as well as through a huge section of Allegheny National Forest. All in all, the trail winds along 265 miles of our great state of PA!

The NCT was established in 1980 by Congressional order as an amendment to the National Trails System Act. While it is administered by the National Park Service and managed by state and local agencies, the trail is primarily built and maintained by volunteers. The North Country Trail Association is a nonprofit with many affiliate chapters who care for individual sections of the massive trail system. When it was created, the NCT linked together several existing trails, so don’t be confused if you see it referred to as multiple names. For example near Cook Forest, the NCT links up to part of the 138-mile Baker trail. 

At mile 0 of the PA section!

This short out-and-back section of the NCT starts at the PA/OH border. There is no parking right at the border, although you may spot the sign along PA-251 (Blackhawk Rd). The parking lot is a small pull out a bit further down the road on the PA side. We definitely drove right past it and had to backtrack. The parking area is not on Google Maps but if you type in the coordinates: 40.773190, -80.513930, it should get you close enough! Coming from PA, the pull-off will be on your right and if you’ve passed into OH, you’ve gone too far! The parking area is about ¼ mile away from the start of the NCT but there is a nice little connector path from the parking lot. Be warned, there are no port-a-potties at the trailhead. Also this trail goes through State Gamelands, so be aware of hunting seasons and wear your orange! 

If you are doing this hike with a group or friend, a great idea would be to bring two cars so you can do a point-to-point hike, leaving your car at the Border parking and picking one of the other parking lots along the trail. This is a great way to see more of the trail and not have to double back! Plus you can decide how far you want to travel. Fun fact: It’s about 35.5 miles from the PA/OH border to Hell’s Hollow in McConnells Mill State Park! Maybe a bit much for a day hike though. 

Since we only had one car, we did a nice little out and back for a total of 5 miles. The turnaround spot is not well-marked nor distinctive, so just keep an eye on your mileage if you’re looking to total around 5 miles. We really enjoyed this hike because although it started on a roadside, you quickly feel lost in the woods. The path meaders up and down hillsides, keeping the elevation interesting. SInce we did this hike in spring, there were lots of delightful wildflowers poking through the underbrush. What a thrill to finally see some green on our hikes again! This trail also broke out onto grassy meadows for some stretches, which was beautiful but also be sure to check for ticks afterward and bring lots of water. Those sunny meadow stretches can get much warmer than the woods! 

One final thing, be very careful pulling back out onto the road after your hike. PA-251 is a fast road and it’s a bit difficult to see around you. 

If you’re making a day of it, after this hike head over to OH and explore Columbiana! 

For more info about the North Country Trail, check out the website here

THE BEER: Ill Will Brewery

Address: 45417 OH-14, Columbiana, OH 44408
Distance from Trail Head: 12.2 miles, 20 mins 
Food?: food trucks, BYOF
Details: Outdoor seating, dog friendly outside

If you live in Pittsburgh and you haven’t been to Columbiana, OH, you are missing out! J and I love finding new little towns to explore and Columbiana is one of our favorites. There really is something for everyone! Hiking (see above), breweries, antiquing, farm markets, plant nurseries, cafes, bakeries, and more! We love to grab a coffee from Generations, a sweet treat from Hogans, and then roam through the many shops and antique stores. You never know what you’ll find! 

Surprisingly for such a small area, they got not one but two awesome breweries! Either one would be a great choice for after your hike (or why not both?) but for this post, I’m going to focus on Ill Will Brewery. This is a fairly new addition to the area and they really live by the idea that bigger is better. Also the brewery has only been around since 2021, their space has grown to include a large taproom and a huge patio. Also onsite are two Airbnbs, an event space, and the future brick and mortar location for the Smokeworks food truck. Seriously this is not a place to miss! For me, the patio is really where this brewery shines. They’ve got firepits, giant lawn games, and honestly just a beautiful sunny view. It’s a great place to watch the sunset! 

Ill Will also makes some pretty interesting beer. Half their taplist is the more traditional, hop-forward brews one would expect. But the other half of the list is where things get fun. They experiment with different smoothie sours and seltzer flavors, some cool and refreshing, others tasting almost like a milkshake. They often have some of the more fruity beer available as a slushie! On a nice hot day, that would really hit the spot. 

Our Beer:

  • No Sleep Til Brooklyn – New Zealand IPA – 7%
  • Ether – NEIPA – 6.5%
  • Instigator – Doppelbock – 9.2%
  • Mean-Mugged – Hard Seltzer – 6.66%

RCT Training Hike #3 – Raccoon Creek State Park

Hookstown, PA

The training continues! This time, we ventured west of Pittsburgh to do a big loop in Raccoon Creek State Park. This is not only one of my favorite parks near home but honestly one of my favorites ever! It really has everything: waterfalls, a lake, wildflower preserve, backpacking shelters, campsite and more. If you haven’t been to Raccoon, you need to go ASAP. Especially since this is prime time for wildflowers!

THE HIKE: Raccoon Creek Loop – Heritage, Appaloosa, and Forest trails

Length: 12 miles
Elevation Gain: 1500 ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 5 hours
Trail use: Hiking, leashed pets,
Parking: Lot at Park Office
H&H: 5/5

For this hike, we did a 12 mile loop starting at the Park Office and traveling along the Heritage, Appaloosa, and Forest trails. Almost immediately, we were able to stop and see Frankfort Mineral Springs Falls, one of the highlights of the park. From the park office, head along the Mineral Springs trail and in just 0.5 miles, you’ll be able to take the mossy steps down to the waterfall. It was so beautiful at this time of year, flowing strongly with the recent rain and spring trilliums along the overlook. With such a view, you might be tempted to think that these are the mineral springs. But actually, the springs can be found on the rock wall, where just a small stream of water shoots out of the rock face, splashing onto a stone. The high iron content of the water stains the rock red and the continual dripping has carved out a natural basin in the stone. What an incredible way to start out the hike! 

From there, we traveled along the Heritage Trail, enjoying the emerging spring greenery. There’s just something so thrilling about seeing new growth after the long months of muted winter browns and grays. Well, it’s thrilling until my allergies kick in! Despite how popular this park is, we encountered very few people on the trail which made it feel like we had the woods to ourselves. Since the area around Raccoon is so rural,  you really feel far out in nature on this one! 

At this point, our hike was going fairly normal with some muddy spots, lots of chit chatting and some snackage by mile 5. But then the craziest thing happened to us: we heard meowing! Confused, we started looking around only to find a tiny cat about ten feet up on a tree branch! Almost immediately, he made his way down and started meowing at us. He bounded right over to us and was so friendly but didn’t have a collar. Having never encountered this before, we weren’t quite sure what to do! Being 5 miles into a long hike, we didn’t have cell service and weren’t sure we could carry him back to the office. Funny enough though, he seemed pretty content to hike with us for a while. At times I scooped him up when he started weaving dangerously through my legs. At that point, we knew he had to be a lost cat because he was so friendly and was happy to ride in my arms for a while. Finally we were able to get cell service and call the main office. Yes, someone had been calling about a lost cat! We met the ranger at the nearest access road and he was able to take the cat (now known as Major) back to his mom. Betcha didn’t expect a heartwarming reunion story on this hike!

Hearts full, but also missing Major, we got back to our hike. The rest of the trek was far less eventful although we definitely sludged through a fair amount of mud and the rain had swollen some of the creek which made for damper crossings than we expected. I was very glad to have my trusty raincoat for this outing. When you’re hiking at Raccoon, also keep in mind that the trails have different uses, with some being hiking only while others allow mountain biking and horses. Forest and Heritage trails (the majority of this loop) are hiking only but Appaloosa is an equestrian multi-use trail! 

After we finished our main hike, despite being tired and fairly damp from a persistent drizzle, we couldn’t leave without visiting the wildflower preserve. This is one of my favorite spring hikes and I try to visit every year! My suggested route is about 3 miles and starts out on the Jennings trail, passing the log cabin, stays on the Jennings trail until it hits Meadow Trail. From there follow Meadow trail to see the giant sycamores and the bluebells along the creek. Then, you’ll meet back up with the Jennings Trail and this is where you’ll start to see LOTS of wildflowers. There are also some flags and signs letting you know the names of specific varieties. On this trip we saw Virginia bluebells, white and red trilliums, swamp lilies, jack-in-the-pulpit, spring beauties, and so many more. I highly suggest using iNaturalist to track your finds and to learn more about the types of plants you’re seeing! 

We didn’t end up doing any “hops” this time around, but if you’d like to make this a true Hike & Hop, head over to Coal Tipple Brewery in Burgettstown. I also wrote a post about it here. They often have food trucks or you can BYOF. If a restaurant is more your speed, I’ve heard good things about the Bavington Roadhouse. 

Only a few more training hikes until the big day! 

Mingo Creek County Park & Mondays Brewing Co

Washington County, PA

If you’re ever craving some hiking in Washington County, look no further than Mingo Creek County Park. This huge park is perfect for all sorts of outdoor activities and is a popular place for gathering in the summer. Our early spring visit was full of wildflowers, families playing in the creek and tons of people using the paved trail. The natural trail can be a bit harder to find but if you check out the blog post, I’ll show you how to find the elusive Orange trail at Mingo!

THE HIKE: Mingo Creek – Orange Trail

Orange Blaze!

Length: 7.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 700 ft
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 2.5-3 hours
Trail use: Hiking, leashed pets, horses, bikers
Parking: Large lot throughout park
H&H: 5/5

Mingo Creek County Park is located in Washington County and is managed by the county’s Parks and Recreation division. The park is probably best known for its two red, covered bridges situated about 1.5 miles apart along the Mingo Creek. This park is the perfect oasis no matter what your outdoors activities may be! There’s plenty of creek for fishing and splashing around, lots of pavilions to rent and space to have a picnic. There’s a 3-mile paved walking trail, numerous playgrounds, and even an observatory! But for us, we were on the hunt for the hiking trails. Now I have read on a number of blogs and trail sites that this trail is difficult to find and completely overgrown. I’m here to say that you shouldn’t go by everything you read! 

Now, I will say, the signage for the trails is not great. It’s very clear where the paved trail is, but you have to keep your eyes peeled for the natural trail. There are no signs and the trail blazes are very small. We park at coordinates: 40.200415039419916, -80.02756796434414 because I caught a glimpse of a trail going off into the woods. This trail eventually met up with the orange trail and then we had a lovely hike. HOWEVER, if I were to go back, I would suggest parking at The West Entrance (40.1931395787859, -80.05565122282385). The orange trail goes into the woods before the parking area, by the trail sign posting! Now keep in mind that I did this hike in the early spring so it is very likely that others’ experiences of overgrown paths and difficult trail entrances can be the case as the summer wears on! Another potential deterrent for some hikers is the fact that it is a mixed use trail, one of the uses being equestrian. I’ve found some equestrian trails to really suffer from mud but thankfully this one wasn’t too. 

Okay now some really good things about this trail! SO many wildflowers! I was thrilled to find Dutchman’s Breeches, trillium, Virginia bluebells, and so many more. This trail was also very secluded and we only saw a few other hikers on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Finally, I liked that the trail offered some incline changes and was a great workout. Someday I’d like to come back and complete the whole 12-mile perimeter loop! And the absolute best part of this trail? Dipping your sore feet into the refreshing stream at the end. This is an ideal hike to pack a picnic to have beside the creek at the end! 

Overall, despite some of the negative reviews I had seen, I thought Mingo Creek County Park was absolutely delightful and one of my favorite hikes of the year so far. I know that we’ll be back!

THE BEER: Monday’s Brewing Co.

Address: 1055 Waterdam Plaza Dr, Peters Township, PA 15317
Distance from Trail Head: 8.3 miles, 15 mins 
Food?: Light snacks, BYOF
Details: small outdoor patio, dog friendly outside

So what makes this Peters township brewery unique? I think you can probably guess from the name! Monday’s Brewing is always open on Monday, a day that most breweries are closed. In fact, they offer special deals for service industry workers on Monday, since that is the day a lot of bars and restaurants are closed! 

Mondays Brewing Co. is located on Route 19 in Peters Township. They’re in a small storefront that has indoor and outdoor seating. Typically you can find 12 taps, sometimes featuring other local craft beers or beverages. When we visited, they had one guest tap, Arsenal cider, Apis mead and the rest all in house brews. They also have a small cocktail list for anyone that’s not a beer drinker! Mondays like to showcase a wide variety of brews so odds are you’ll find a new favorite on the list!

This one has been on my list for a while and I’m so glad we were finally able to squeeze in a visit! I’m always glad to have another place in the South Hills to find good beer.


Our Beer:

  • Pink Boots – NEIPA – 6.5%
  • Tangled Aggression – Red Ale – 6.8%
  • Haze Agitated – NEIPA – 6.8%
  • Plaza Beer – Mexican Lager – 5.3%

RCT Challenge Training Hike #2

Creighton, PA

Another training hike for the RCT challenge! Let me tell you, my legs were WRECKED after this one. This was officially the longest hike I’ve never done and by far the biggest elevation gain. And I’ve hiked National Parks people! Thank god I’ve had ToryTalksTrails keeping me on task for this training! We’re slowly building miles, gaining elevation, and snacking hard. Has anyone else started their training for the challenge??

THE HIKE: Rachel Carson Trail – Saxonburg Rd to Agan Park

Length: 11.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 2800 ft
Difficulty: Challenging
Time: 4.5 hours
Trail use: Hiking, leashed pets
Parking: Small pull off for 3-4 cars. No bathrooms
H&H: 4/5

Once again, Tory and I did a point to point trail, leaving one car at Agan Park and driving the other to our starting point at Saxonburg road. If you’re looking to do this section hike, here are the coordinates: 

Saxonburg Road: 40.65513180064524, -79.72686400487738
Agan Park: 40.56013506403363, -79.78197053025322

Having done about 9 miles on our last training hike, we decided to up it to around 11 this time! Now this section of the hike is actually part of the full RCT Challenge, so I won’t actually be hiking this section in June. BUT I still think it’s super helpful to hike as much of the trail as possible to get a good feel for the hills and how much stamina you have!

What this section lacked in stream crossing, it really made up for in elevation. Our feet stayed (mostly) dry but, man were my legs throbbing towards the end! I cannot believe how much hiking with a friend for these long training ones has helped me get through! If I was on my own, I don’t know that I would have kept with it. Like most of the RCT, this section of the trail varies a lot in landscape. There were road sections, wide open fields, heavily wooded areas and lots of steep inclines. I was very grateful not to have a heavy pack on and at times I would have liked a trekking pole to help with balance. Undignified butt scooting definitely was happening! Also plenty of snacks is an absolutely must for this trail! I’m still a newbie with planning hikes so I probably didn’t bring enough to fuel me. I stuck with an apple, peanut butter pretzels, and a granola bar. I will definitely need to add in some electrolytes, especially as it gets hotter! 

Have you ever trained for a long hike? What are your go-to trail snacks?

Thanks to my friend Tory for planning out these training hikes! Check out her awesome blog that is full of hiking resources: You can also follow her adventures on instagram: @torytalkstrails

RCT: Springdale to Emmerling Park & Leaning Cask Brewing

Springdale, PA

Big News and Big Hills! I’ll be tackling the Homestead Challenge aka the Half Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. That means in June, I’ll be hiking 19 miles in one day. Am I crazy? Maybe! Thankfully, the weather is getting nicer and I’m able to get out for some training hikes! The first section I tackled was the starting point of the half challenge at Springdale High School, close to the Rachel Carson Homestead. A big shout out to Tory from MyTrailsAreMany for getting me out on the trail to start training! This hike is a point to point (one way) hike which is best done with two cars. You’ll trek just under 9 miles and gain 1,365ft in elevation! This hike isn’t for the faint of heart but is a great way to get a taste of the RCT

THE HIKE: RCT – Springdale to Emmerling

Length: 8.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,365 ft
Difficulty: Challenging
Time: 3.5 hours
Trail use: Hiking, leashed pets
Parking: Large lots at either endpoint. Bring two cars to do Point-to-Point
H&H: 4/5

Training for the RCT Challenge is best done by tackling large sections of the trail. It’s best to do it with a partner or group so that you can carpool to the trailhead and leave another car at the endpoint. If going solo, just be aware that you’ll have to double back on yourself a lot! 

My friend Tory from MyTrailsAreMany, reached out about wanting to start training together. She did the Homestead Challenge last year and is going for the Full Challenge this year. Talk about hiking goals! Tory suggested this section of the RCT from Springdale to Emmerling Park because it had some big hills and was the first section of the Homestead Challenge. This was the perfect intro to the Challenge for me because it was the longest hike I’d done so far this year and the hills were NO JOKE. It definitely helped me set a baseline of where I need to improve! J and I were so grateful to have Tory as our guide and time keeper too. 

So, as I mentioned, this trail section starts at Springdale High School parking lot, right next to the baseball field. From there, head down Marion Ave where you’ll pass the original home of Rachel Carson. It’s undergoing some renovations right now, but hopefully will be back open soon. Continue to the end of Marion Ave where you’ll see a tree line and finally head into the woods. Always keep your eyes peeled for the yellow RCT blaze. You should almost always be able to see the next blaze from where you are. Be aware that at many spots along the trail there are intersecting paths and it can be easy to get off course. Let the yellow blazes guide you! 

This section will lead you through woods, along some streets, through a couple streams, and up and down several big hills. Expect to have some wet feet along the way and remember that undignified butt scooting is always an option on those hills! Lots of water and plenty of snacks are a must for these hikes. 

If you’re interested in doing the Homestead Challenge (19 miles) or the Full Challenge (36 miles), there’s still time to enter! You can find the registration page here. If you’re already signed up for the challenge and are looking to start training, the RCT Conservancy has a number of orientation hikes and training hikes coming up or find a friend (like me!) to hike with! 

How do you prepare for long hikes? Got any leg strengthening exercises to share with me?

THE BEER: The Leaning Cask Brewing Co.

Address: 850 Pittsburgh St, Springdale, PA 15144
Distance from Trail Head: 0.5 miles, 2 mins
Food?: BYOF, Food Trucks
Details: Outdoor seating, dog friendly

The best thing about leaving our car at Springdale for this hike? Leaning Cask Brewery is only 0.2 miles away! I’ve had my eye on Leaning Cask for ages but it always seemed so far out of the way. Thankfully this hike was the perfect reason to stop. Although I still feel bad for the amount of mud (and probable stank) that we left at the bar. Anyone else ever feel bad for going somewhere after a particularly muddy hike? I really need to start bringing a change of shoes! 

Anyway, Leaning Cask is a great post-hike spot because they’ve got a large outdoor seating area as well as frequent food trucks on the weekend. They’ve also got an awesome taplist with so many different beer types, as well as some local wine. Also, true to their name, they’ve got some beer on cask! 

Cask ale – Also known as Real Ale, Cask Beer goes through a final fermentation in a cask or barrel. It features a slight carbonation and is served unfiltered at “cask temperature” (around 55F).

The Leaning Cask has been bringing an English pub flair to Springdale since 2016. The owners found themselves heavily influenced by English pub culture and wanted to bring that warmth to their brewpub in PA. You’ll also notice that the two are big dog lovers, as evidenced by many of their beer names. Hence, the pub is friendly to well-behaved and leashed doggos. 

Our Beer:

  • Goldendoodle – Golden Ale – 4.2%
  • Um…That’s On Fire – American IPA – 5.6%
  • Celestial Canine – NEIPA – 6%
  • Pedigree: Blood Orange & Cranberry – Fruited Sour – 6.8%
Photo cred: MyTrailsAreMany
Photo cred: MyTrailsAreMany

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