I’ve hiked many trails in Pennsylvania, but none have had as ominous a name as the Shades of Death Trail in Hickory Run State Park. However, while it might sound scary, this trail is actually among the most fun trails to hike in PA.
The Shades of Death Trail is located in Hickory Run State Park in the southwestern corner of the Poconos. This trail is quite popular, and, along with Hickory Run’s Boulder Field and Hawk Falls, makes this a great park to visit if you love the outdoors.
This trail is a mile long and, for most of its length, runs in close proximity to Sand Spring Run. Along the trail, Sand Spring Run cascades over two beautiful man-made dam waterfalls and through a series of small riffles and waterfalls as it drops 300 feet on its way down the hillside towards Hickory Run.
Interestingly, the Shades of Death Trail is listed by the park as “most difficult hiking”. When I see this listing at other Pennsylvania State Parks, I typically find difficult and steep climbs up hillsides. Here, however, the rating more has to do with tricky footing and a few technical spots.
Unlike other similarly-rated trails, there are no major uphill sections here and even the technical areas should present little issue for most hikers (if you wear proper footwear for the slippery rocks and roots). So, while I wouldn’t describe the trail as easy, it’s not overly dangerous or difficult (My six-year-old completed it with zero issues), so don’t let the trail’s difficulty rating scare you away.
Hiking the Shades of Death Trail
The Shades of Death Trail runs from Route 534 near the historic Hickory Run Chapel and to the new park office further east along Route 534.
While you can hike the trail the entire distance, the upper third or so of the trail isn’t nearly as scenic as the first part of the trail, so you can make this out-and-back trail a bit shorter if you don’t hike the entire length.
For this guide, we’ll start the hike at the main parking area near the chapel. If this lot is full, you can also hike the trail just as easily from the park office.
The main parking area can be found at the following coordinates: 41.024623, -75.709768.
The parking area at the park’s office can be found here: 41.024165, -75.688874.
From the main parking area, cross a small wooden bridge and follow the trail towards Sand Spring Run. Shortly after starting the hike, you’ll come to one of the highlights of this trail, Stametz Dam.
Stametz Dam is man-made but is still quite picturesque. It is approximately 15 feet in height and, when it’s flowing well, is among the most beautiful man-made waterfalls in Pennsylvania (Other contenders for this title include Henry Run Sawmill Dam in Cook Forest State Park and Aquetong Creek Dam in Bucks County.)
Above Stametz Dam is the first of two small ponds along the Shades of Death Trail. This pond, along with the one further upstream, is popular with fishermen during trout season. It’s also quite beautiful, so take a few minutes to enjoy this great spot.
After passing this first pond, the trail enters a beautiful woodland alongside the picturesque Sand Spring Run. In spots, the trail passes through rocky outcroppings and through narrow openings in the forest.
There are a few spots where small waterfalls cascade down the hillside adjacent to the trail. These are especially nice spots to stop and enjoy the scenery for a bit.
Because of these small waterfalls, this is a trail best visited during times of high water. Unfortunately, when I visited, water levels were fairly low. Nevertheless, it was still beautiful and there was obviously enough water flowing to make it quite scenic.
Shortly before reaching the second dam, known as the CCC Dam, the trail passes over a staircase seemingly cut directly into the rock and between two large boulders. Without a doubt, this is another of the highlights along the trail.
The second dam’s waterfall can only be easily seen from above. However, it’s also a scenic spot from which to enjoy the beauty of Hickory Run State Park. Just be careful if you opt to peer over the edge for a good view of the waterfall.
Just above this spot, another lake offers opportunities for fishing.
Across the bridge over this second pond, there is an open field and small playground that are both near one of the park’s campgrounds. This area can be a nice rest spot for people hiking with younger children.
The Shades of Death Trail continues above this second pond towards the park office (The trail stays on the same side of the creek, so don’t cross the bridge to continue hiking). While there is some beauty on this upper section of the trail, it’s more open in this part and often is located away from Sand Spring Run.
Because of that, I would personally turn around at the second pond and head back towards the parking area for a total hike of around 1.5 miles. Having done this upper part, there are more scenic areas in the park that you can use your extra time to explore.
Unfortunately, this is also a trail that is a very poorly kept secret, so don’t expect to have it all to yourself. In fact, if you are visiting on a popular weekend, I’d definitely get to the trailhead as early in the day as possible, both so that you can find parking and to help ensure you have a bit more serenity while hiking.
However, even if you have to hike this trail with crowds, it’s one that I’d definitely recommend exploring when visiting Hickory Run State Park.
Looking for more places to visit nearby? Check out Luke Falls and Buttermilk Falls in Lehigh Gorge State Park, Tobyhanna Falls, and the best waterfalls in the Poconos.
[Click here for information on how to use the coordinates in this article to find your destination.]