Lehigh Gap-Appalachian Trail

Open ridge top along the proposed Appalachian Trail re-route.

Open ridge top along the proposed Appalachian Trail re-route.

The Lehigh Gap is the perfect example of the power of recovery.  Decades of zinc smelting killed the forests on the mountainside, resulting in a depressing and desolate moonscape devoid of vegetation, inhabited by bare, sunbaked tree trunks.  After years of rehabilitation efforts, the Lehigh Gap has found new life.  Meadows and fields with grasses and wildflowers cover the mountainside as trees are sprouting on the ridge.  Green now covers a land that was once a lifeless, rocky brown.

The venerable Appalachian Trail traverses this ridge and a plan is in place to re-route the trail to take advantage of the gap’s scenic beauty.  In places, the trail had been moved away from its original route to make space for the rehabilitation efforts.   The proposed route will offer non-stop views from ridge top meadows and outcrops; some areas even resemble an alpine environment.  New switchbacks and rock steps will be built in the gap itself.  This re-route will take several years to build, but it will be the scenic highlight of the AT in Pennsylvania.

I accompanied others to view some sections of this new route, and it was impressive.  Views spread out in all directions from rock outcrops, boulder fields, and meadows. I could see the Pocono Plateau, all the way to the farmlands of the Lehigh Valley region.  The views looked over the forested spine of Blue Mountain.  Wildflowers dotted the ridges as pine saplings grew between the rocks.  We had driven up to the ridge to see the new route, but I decided to return by hiking back down to my car in the gap.  Ed joined me.  The trail parsed a stunted forest, passing rocks and many views of the gap.  I was surprised to see several old, gnarled  healthy hemlocks growing in such dry, difficult conditions.  The terrain became steeper and rockier as the gap opened before us with the Lehigh River flowing below.  Much of the gap was cloaked in green.  We reached a rock outcrop with an American flag painted in a permanent wave.  A scramble followed, made more difficult since we were descending. A great view of a bridge crossing the Lehigh River was far below; it almost appeared as if it were directly beneath us.  It felt as if we could tumble right onto it.  Another scramble followed as we inched down the warm, exposed rock baking in the sun.  The terrain eased as the trail returned to the forest.  We passed someone who appeared to be a thru-hiker.  He greeted us with a southern accent and said there was some trail magic below. Ed and I reached our cars.  Despite the descent, I was tired from the heat.

The rock scramble in the Lehigh Gap along the Appalachian Trail

The rock scramble in the Lehigh Gap along the Appalachian Trail

Afterwards I stopped by the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.  The center was closed, but I walked around to see all the wildflowers and a shed with a growing roof.  It was a great place.  The center maintains miles of trails that explore the diverse habitats of the gap, from ponds and the river, to meadows and savannas on the ridge with prairie grasses.  Be sure to hike the North Trail with its meadows and non-stop views.

I last hiked here several years ago.  I walked along the North and South Trails and was impressed by the incredible views from the meadows and glades and the rocky spine that resembled alpine.  I thought to myself, why doesn’t the Appalachian Trail follow this?  Now it looks that will be the case.

More photos.

Information on the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Lincoln and Teaberry Trails – Quehanna Wild Area

View from the Teaberry Trail

View from the Teaberry Trail

My final hike after Prowl the Sproul was a visit to the Quehanna Wild Area.  I initially hoped to do a longer loop that included the meadows along the Bridge Trail, but I changed plans due to the heat and hot sun.  I decided to do a loop along the Teaberry and Lincoln Trails instead.  Gnats greeted me at the parking area, but when I hiked the Teaberry Trail they soon disappeared.  The Lincoln Trail features a beautiful, aromatic forest of pine with moss, ferns, and ground pine.

I crossed the lonely Quehanna Highway and followed the yellow East Cross Connector Trail through meadows and over small streams.  I turned right onto the Teaberry Trail, which was brushy, but the path was still discernible.  Giant ferns bordered the trail.  I hiked to the edge of the plateau with large moss covered rocks and rhododendron tunnels.  A nice view looked down a forested valley.  The trail continued to follow the rim of the plateau, passing a large rock outcrop with a small view.  I then descended to Paige Run, the best part of the hike.  The trail followed the run longer than I expected.  The glen was beautiful with cascades, pools, some old growth hemlocks, rhododendron and massive boulders.  I wish I could have spent more time along this gorgeous creek.

I climbed away from the creek at a massive house sized boulder.  The trail was a little hard to follow in one spot.  I climbed to a cliff with red colors.  There was another nice view from the top.  More fern meadows followed until I crossed the Quehanna Highway.  The trail then followed an old grade with grass.  Blazes were few, but the trail simply followed the grade through a meadow.  The grade re-entered a scenic forest and soon returned to the parking area.  I decided to hike down to the Beaver Run Pond for some views across the water, which reflected the growing cumulus grows.  I returned to my car, bringing an end to my journey through this beautiful area of Pennsylvania.

More photos and videos.

Map of the Quehanna Wild Area.

Hyner View State Park

View at daybreak, above the clouds

View at daybreak, above the clouds

After hiking Clendenin Branch and Lower Jerry Run Natural Area the day before, I slept well in my tent as owls hooted in the night.  I had a plan for the following morning- to get up early and drive to Hyner View to check out the views.  My hope was that there would be fog in the valleys, offering views above the clouds.

My plan worked.  I awoke and was in my car before 6 a.m.  The air was chilly.  The valleys were concealed in fog and a heavy dew covered the grass and my tent.  I drove to Hyner View on a winding road.  I reached the top and was treated to an amazing view above the clouds as the plateaus rose into the distance.  I also noticed the temperature was noticeably warmer than down in the valley.  As the sun rose, color spread from the sky with pink, orange, and yellow.  The clouds illuminated and slowly rolled, concealing lower ridges, and then revealing them with wisps of mist.  A window in the clouds would form, offering a view of the mountains and hills.

The sun cast the tops of the mountains in a golden glow and soon electrified the clouds.  Streams of fog and mist flowed from the valleys and glens, swirling into the clouds above the river.  It was phenomenal.

I eventually returned to my car.  I had this spectacle all to myself, and some goldfinches.  I drove down the mountain and re-entered the clouds.  I stopped to look at them.  They were moving like waves in slow motion, as light, feathery mist would rise from the top of the cloud layer and dissipate into the air.  Pure magic.  I continued my descent into the foggy, milky underworld as my next hike in the Quehanna Wild Area awaited.

More photos.

More information about the park.

Lower Jerry Run Natural Area

Sometimes a place defies your expectations and enriches you with the experience of seeing it.

After hiking Clendenin Branch, we set off across the Sproul State Forest along scenic PA 120.  We traveled the bottom of canyons as forested plateaus rose steeply in the summer heat.  Our first destination were the views off of Jerry Ridge Road.  We took in the impressive scenery.  Deep, endless green clothed the mountains with its tiers of ridges the defined glens, canyons, and gorges.

County Line Vista

County Line Vista

Two in our group headed back to their campsite at Hyner Run State Park.  We, however, had another destination in mind- the old growth forest of Lower Jerry Run Natural Area.  This natural area covers 892 acres and is very isolated.  It protects several old growth forests (Google Earth appears to show four or five old growth forests) with hemlocks that are almost 120 feet tall.

We didn’t know what to expect, and my expectations were fairly low.  We found the small trailhead and followed the yellow blazed trail along a forest road with open hardwoods and ferns.  The trail turned right and followed a powerline swath; this caused some confusion.  The trail followed the swath itself until the second tower, where it returned to the woods, turning left.  The trail followed an old grade under more hardwoods and ferns.  I began to think this was going to be a dull hike.

The grade began to descend along the slope of a gorge and became covered with ferns, a faint pathway and yellow blazes were our only guide.  We passed some large hemlocks, including one with a crack down the middle.  My spirits lifted since I could see some large trees further down into the gorge.

We waded through the thick ferns as the sun began to set.  The forest became more beautiful with towering hemlock, pine, maple, and oak.  The hemlocks were battling the adelgid, but the giant trees were still alive.  The grade turned left and entered the heart of the old growth.  We were surrounded by giant, towering trees as shafts of sunlight angled to the forest floor.  We were all impressed.  What made this place so special was how isolated it was- it felt wild and untamed.  There were no noises or sounds.  It was as if we were transported back in time when forests such as these covered the state, and were just as silent.  We were seeing a place as it has always been.  That is so rare.

Entering the old growth forest

Entering the old growth forest

The trail ended in the old growth forest and I knew Lower Jerry Run had more secrets, however, our time was in short supply.  We retraced our steps, leaving this hidden realm and returned to a world of roads, cars, and noises.  This is a place I will not soon forget.

Among the ancient hemlocks

Among the ancient hemlocks

More photos.

Brochure and map of the natural area.

Hiking Clendenin Branch, Sproul State Forest

Hiking Clendenin Branch

Hiking Clendenin Branch

I returned to the Sproul State Forest for the Keystone Trail Association’s Prowl the Sproul hiking event.  I was going to lead a hike to Round Island Falls, however, my group preferred a hike along Clendenin Branch, which they had not done before.  We were soon in our cars, driving deep into the state forest.  Our hike began at the end of Shoemaker Ridge Road.  The first half of the hike follows the top of the plateau along an old forest road.  As we hiked the scenery steadily improved as we followed the crest of a narrow, forested ridge.  At the end of the ridge was a view at a powerline swath; not the best view, but it offered a panorama of the surrounding terrain.  Shoemaker Branch flowed below, hidden in its canyon.  That is one stream I’ve wanted to explore and hope to do so in the future.  We backtracked a little bit and descended along an old grade to Clendenin Branch.  This creek is what makes the hike worthwhile, it is absolutely beautiful, and the scenery only improved as we hiked up the creek.   The creek was flowing well, so we all got wet feet from the numerous stream crossings.  The unmarked trail was fairly easy to follow as it traversed an old grade or forest road.  We passed huge white pine trees and some large hemlocks.  Rhododendron crowded the creek as bright red bee balm caught the sun.

At the juncture with Benjamin Run is a rhododendron jungle and a nice campsite.  We continued upstream, as the trail became more narrow and the creek tumbled over moss covered boulders into deep pools.  We took a break at a gorgeous spot where the creek cascaded over large boulders with ferns and moss.  The forest had a deep, primeval feel to it.  We sat on the large rocks and just took in the scenery, taking pictures and videos.  Our trek continued as the trail threaded around more huge boulders, hemlocks, and carpets of moss.  The creek featured more hidden pools and rapids, the sound of the water echoed off of the large boulders concealed by the forest.

Lots of bee balm along the trail

Lots of bee balm along the trail

After a final stream crossing, we left Clendenin Branch and hiked past more bee balm.  We reached the top of the plateau and returned to the cars.  Everyone enjoyed the hike as we sat in the sun, talking.  This is a truly beautiful gem in the Sproul State Forest.

I mentioned to the group I planned to explore the old growth forest at Lower Jerry Run Natural Area, although it would be a long drive since it is at the other end of the vast state forest.  Two hikers decided to join me, and the other two followed us to see the views off of Jerry Ridge Road.  We were soon in our cars to continue our journey…

More photos.

Old Growth Hemlocks of Salt Springs State Park

Old growth hemlocks

Old growth hemlocks

There is something beautiful, if not magical, about an old growth hemlock forest.  The dark, furrowed trunks rise over 100 feet, holding a galaxy of mosses and lichens.  The massive trunks stand guard, living for over 300 years, but so susceptible to the saw or the tiniest insect.  The needles of these massive trees are so green, light, if not feathery, as they dance in the breeze.  Their size comes with the price of time- hemlocks grow very slowly.  And forests like these are rare, few remain, having fallen to man, or now being killed by the wooly adelgid.

After visiting Endless Brewing, we naturally had to visit nearby Salt Springs State Park.  This park is one of the gems of Northeast PA and has evolved into an outdoor recreation destination, attracting people from all over.  The parking lot revealed a car from Massachusetts.

Boardwalk above the gorge

Boardwalk above the gorge

We didn’t have much time, so we decided to walk up the waterfalls and return via the boardwalk above the gorge through the old growth forest.  People were relaxing in the cold water, trying to find relief from the heat.  We climbed alongside the falls, catching their spray.  The trail climbed from the creek and entered the forest.

Falls at Salt Springs

Falls at Salt Springs

This is truly one of the finest old growth hemlock forests in Northeast PA.  Some trees have been documented to be over 500 years old, and over 130 feet tall.  Large fallen trees cris-crossed the forest floor, harboring ferns and saplings.  Thanks to the frigid winters, the hemlocks at Salt Springs have been given a new lease on life since the wooly adelgid cannot survive very cold temperatures.

Temple of trees

Temple of trees

A distant thunderstorm grumbled with thunder as clouds spread from the horizon.  We hurried down the trail and returned to the car.  Salt Springs never grows old, even if its trees do.

More photos.

More info about the park.

Millersburg Ferry and Shikellamy State Park

Crossing the river.

Crossing the river.

The Susquehanna River between Sunbury and Duncannon is one of the most beautiful large rivers in the country.  In places, the river is over a mile wide and has hundreds of islands and islets.  It is a world onto itself.  The river is surprisingly undeveloped as it cuts through rolling green ridges and slanted cliffs.

The Millersburg Ferry is the last on the Susquehanna River and the only rear wooden paddlewheel ferry in the country.  It began in 1825 when boats were poled across the river.  I had to get across the river to visit a friend, and I wanted to try something other crossing the bridge at Duncannon.  I drove through the scenic town of Millersburg and soon found the ferry.  The ferry was pulling out just as I got there and waited for its return.  The ferry returned and I pulled onto it with two other cars and some motorcycles.   The fare was $8.

We slowly made our way across the river, which we were told was about six feet deep.  The river was beautiful with its islands.  Ducks and ducklings swam in a line as herons flew overhead.  Kayakers dotted the surface.

Islands of the Susquehanna

Islands of the Susquehanna

We reached the other side of the river.  On the way home, I drove along the river to see dozens of resplendent white egrets sitting in the trees and coves of the islands, looking for their next meal.  The rapids of McKee’s Half Falls soon came into view; the whitewater stretched like a line across the river.

I stopped by Shikellamy State Park and drove up to the lookout to see the two branches of the Susquehanna meet.

View from Shikellamy State Park

View from Shikellamy State Park

More photos and videos.