Camp Guyasuta’s Haunted Trail thrives in pandemic world

Camp is also planning its annual Christmas event this month


Outdoor haunted houses aren’t unheard of. There are ‘fright nights’ at many large theme parks, like Kennywood and Universal Studios, but most fright night events are less ‘outdoor haunted houses’ and more ‘themed paths between haunted houses with actors in scary costumes to keep the experience going’. In addition, almost none have a zip line. Haunted Guyasuta, an event held last month at Camp Guyasuta, has two.

In a time where true haunted house experiences are becoming rarer and less popular due to COVID-related restrictions, Haunted Guyasuta has flourished, reporting upwards of 1,500 guests during its one-night event in 2020, the year hardest-hit by the pandemic. That same year, multiple staple haunted houses in the Pittsburgh area, such as Hundred Acres Manor and the ScareHouse, had to close up shop due to complications related to the pandemic.

This year’s turnout was even better. In just one evening, roughly 1,600 attendees passed through the front gates of the camp, collectively forking over just about $20,000 in ticket sales and concessions.

So what, exactly, has allowed Camp Guyasuta’s outdoors haunted house experience, known as the Haunted Trail, to flourish where others had to bow out of the competition entirely? Disregarding those zip lines I mentioned earlier for the moment, the Haunted Trail has been running for 10 years and has followed almost the exact same plan and setup every year.

“The first year we had 500 people, which was a lot, and we didn’t do an online registration so people just kinda came out,” said ranger Mike Daniher.

After that first year, Daniher and the other organizers set up the system they now have in place, where tickets can be bought before the event, as well as at the front gate.

“Trying to scale the activities, scale the registration, scale everything was very difficult. We blundered through it,” he said.

The event has also been plagued with the infamous Pittsburgh seasonal weather.

“Half the years, it’s rained, but we still had pretty good turnout… One year it rained monsoon rain the whole time, and we still had people come out,” Daniher said.

The most recent difficulties came last year, as confusing and occasionally contradictory COVID restrictions were put into place.

“About two weeks before our event the county started limiting gatherings… but the way they released the guidance, it wasn’t real clear,” Daniher said. “So we weren’t sure whether it affected outside gatherings, whether ‘gatherings’ meant if you’re all in one place at one time, or whether it was over a large property. Trying to figure out the proper rules, and not getting real clear guidance, was definitely by far the biggest challenge last year.”

The Trail operates with the help of local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. In most cases, each troop is given a stretch of trail, and is tasked with decorating their territory and scaring the guests during the trail’s designated scare time, 6-9 p.m..

“We have twelve different troops here, there’s 225 kids that are helping out on the trail… We’ve got food, and volunteers on various stations, at the ropes course, zip lines, so all told we’ll probably have close to 300 volunteers here,” Daniher explained.

At least one troop is placed on the safety team, which does precisely what you’d expect. This year, the task was given to Troop 173 and Pack 381. According to one parent leader with Troop 173, “we’ve got trail guides, we’ve got slip hazards… [we’ve got] lighting.”

And of course, the scout-led safety team isn’t the only one working to keep guests safe.

“We’ll have the fire department here… helping with parking, we’ll have medics here for first aid,” Daniher said.

In return for their help, the scouts get to spend the night camping on Guyasuta property, free of charge.

“We get to camp here without fees for the weekend. In exchange, we set up a scare site, and man the scare site.” Jim Driver, one of the parents with Troop 380, said.

Though not all troops take the offer, most do, leaving their trail section to be disassembled the next morning and spending the evening beneath the trees.

As for pre- and post-trail activities, the adults handle concessions, check-in, pretty much anything that involves money changing hands. Other activities included choosing a pumpkin from a miniature pumpkin patch, hanging around a bonfire after braving the trail, and taking a picture with a thirteen-hundred-pound pumpkin, with the proceeds from said photos going to Project Bundle-Up.

And don’t forget the camp’s two zip lines. The first and largest is known simply as the ‘big’ zip line.

“It criss-crosses the valley. It’s a hundred and fifty-four feet in the air and it’s a thousand feet across the valley. You hit speeds of about forty-five miles an hour going across,” Daniher said.

The other, smaller zip line is still nearly eight hundred feet in length and about sixty-five feet in the air. It crosses over one of the camp’s outbuildings and the basketball court, and passes by the ropes course and rock-climbing wall, which are also open to the public in safe conditions.

“It’s super inclusive,” said Sarah Faour, one of the Girl Scouts involved with the event. “There’s stuff for kids, and then later at night older teenagers can come and check it out.”

The Haunted Trail experience itself begins when guests are given a brief hayride from the front entrance of the camp to the plaza where most of the things to do for the evening were located. After taking part in the earlier-mentioned activities, the event goers can take a short walk to the beginning of the trail itself.

Because so many different scout troops are involved, there are a wide variety of scares and spooks ready to give guests goosebumps. Those brave enough to enter the trail begin by passing through the front door of the Guyasuta Insane Asylum. They continue forward passing bodies and blood-splattered tents and walls, before passing through a slightly ‘humerus’ graveyard, filled with names like ‘Chris P. Bacon’, ‘Ben Better’, and ‘Pluto (never forget)’.

The next scene is slightly incongruous with the rest nearby at first, with the trail beyond being lined with tinsel and red-and-white ornaments. The ‘Krampus Night’ sign just before the first tent does slightly give away the game, however. Trail-goers pass by ever-so-slightly off Christmas tableaus, before reaching an industrial log splitter lined with more tinsel and blocked off by a bloody sheet.

From there, the scenery and set dressing continues to shift, going from a display straight out of Davy Jones’s Locker to Leatherface’s workshop. One part of the path goes over a bouncy rope bridge covered with streamers, while another sends guests through a miniature corn maze and yet another graveyard. All the while, fog from various machines covers the ground while hidden lights give the space an eerie glow.

And of course, the actors can’t be left out. While less active during the scare-free time block, scouts got to dress up to frighten passers-by during the later hours of the night. And that’s not to mention the various skeleton-based decorations that are prevalent throughout the second half of the trail.

After ten to fifteen minutes of scares galore, guests eventually arrive at their final destination: a campfire amphitheater, where event staff host various activities throughout the night. At the bonfire, you can sit, relax, eat, and spend the rest of the night in the great outdoors before heading home, all while still within earshot of both the trail and the zip lines.

Haunted Guyasuta had a little bit of something for everyone. A pumpkin patch for the tykes, rock climbing and zip-lining for the thrill seekers, and more. And this diversity, coupled with the outdoors venue, have kept the event alive and growing for the past ten years.

Mike Daniher has been part of organizing the event from the very start, but his favorite part of Haunted Guyasuta isn’t any single attraction.

“My favorite part is seeing all the people come through the gate and have a really good time. We really look forward to that, and that’s very, very rewarding,” he said.

And that fun extends beyond just the Haunted Guyasuta event. This month, the camp will host one of its other annual events, Christmas at Guyasuta. Various structures at the camp are already lined with lights that can be seen from Route 28, and rumor has it that the big man, initials SC, himself will be in attendance.