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!