KTA and the AT: A Hike at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center

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Hiking on the North Trail, the future proposed route of the AT.

 

The Keystone Trails Association (KTA) recently led its second hike along the Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Lehigh Gap.  There are big plans for the AT in the Lehigh Gap.  Several miles of the trail are proposed to be re-routed to take advantage of the gap’s superb views, and its impressive rehabilitation from a polluted moonscape to a beautiful nature preserve.

The Lehigh Gap illustrates nature’s ability to heal, with some help from mankind.  What was once a desolate moonscape caused by pollution from zinc smelting is now becoming a diverse and scenic preserve with meadows of grasses and wildflowers.  There are thirteen miles of trails that explore forests, savannahs, ponds, river, cliffs, and meadows.

The gap not only is a showcase of healing, but also local pride.  What was once an eyesore is now an outdoor recreation destination where people hike, fish, kayak, and explore.  Not only has nature returned to the gap, but also people.

The KTA is considering assuming maintenance of the AT through the gap since the former maintaining club can no longer care for the trail.  It will take several years to complete the re-route, but it will be spectacular with non-stop views along mountaintop meadows and alpine-like ridgelines.  This new section of the AT may be the most scenic in PA, and may have the most continuous, open trail of any place from Mt. Rogers in Virginia to the White Mountains.  There’s no “green tunnel” here.

But you can hike there now, and you should.  We did a loop with the AT and the North Trail.  The North Trail is proposed to be the AT’s future route and it is spectacular with non-stop views from mountaintop meadows.  We saw several other hikers on the trail, enjoying the scenery.  The trail meandered under pine trees and across meadows as the Lehigh River flowed far below.  It is also proposed the AT will follow the more rugged, but equally beautiful, South Trail.

As we finished the trail, a bald eagle flew overhead.  Across the river on the other side of the gap, we saw hikers scrambling up the cliffs and ledges.  The parking lot was full.  Families were riding their bikes.  The place was alive with people enjoying the outdoors.

The Lehigh Gap is a special place that everyone should take the time to experience.  While we can always lament what has been lost to pollution, it is more productive to celebrate what can be created through hard work, patience, and imagination.  The Lehigh Gap has been forever transformed, and its new life is just beginning.

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More photos.

More information on the Lehigh Gap Nature Center

If you want to help with the AT re-route project, contact KTA.

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Hiking on the Coldest Day: Somer Brook Falls

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Somer Brook Falls in its frozen glory.

 

This day tried to deceive us.  The sunshine was brilliant in the deep blue skies.  Not a cloud to be seen.  But the cold was absolute and limitless.  I walked out to my car at 11 a.m.  It was 4 degrees.

I was prepared with layers of fleece and anything else I could fit over me.  To keep my feet warm and dry, I wrapped two Walmart bags over some dress socks, over which I wore my hiking socks.  Don’t laugh, it worked perfectly.

I met Ryan and we were soon hiking up Windy Valley/Dutch Mountain Road.  At the second parking area, which was on the left, we hiked down through a spruce plantation on the old Meat Trail.  The wide and ice-covered Mehoopany Creek soon greeted us.

The plan was to hike up to Somer Brook Falls to check out the ice flows.  It is far easier to see the falls by taking the game commission road up from Noxen.  However, we were on the wrong side of the mountain, and besides, that other way isn’t much of a hike.

We found a snow covered log across the frigid creek.  We scooted across on our butts; we could not take the chance of falling into the water on such an arctic day.  Safely across, we tip toed on exposed rocks protruding above the ice.  We soon found the old Meat Trail, still with some yellow blazes, as it climbed steeply.  The sunlight was sharp and brilliant as it pierced the bare forest.  We reached an old forest road, Southbrook Road, on which we turned left.

The climb was gradual through the open, silent woods.  Despite the cold, I was warm and even found the hiking enjoyable.  With the right clothing, you can hike in almost any weather.

The stone cabin soon appeared and we took a break to eat.  I couldn’t stand still for long, I could feel the intense cold invading.  We left the old road and dropped down to Somer Brook.  There was a beautiful spruce forest, the canopy was green and glowed in the sun.  But this forest seemed to hold onto the cold, it was freezing.  The top of the falls soon appeared and we made our way down.  The falls have several drops, totaling about 80 feet.  The ice flows were beautiful between the cliffs as the sun lit the hemlocks.  The creek made a strange sound, like a hammering sound between ice.  An ice chunk was trapped in the current, slamming against the frozen surface above it.  It was a little eerie, but the sound soon went away.

We scrambled down to Mashed Potato Falls, a fifteen foot drop so named for its buttery and creamy ice flows.  Below was the rugged gorge of Somer Brook- big boulders, frozen pools, rapids, and ledges.  A beautiful place, encased in snow and ice.  Hemlocks rose through the canopy.

We retraced our steps back to Mehoopany Creek as the sun was setting, electrifying the ice over the clear water.  A beautiful sight in the wilderness.

One of my favorite trees is the hemlock.  As you may know, the hemlocks are dying from an invasive insect- the woolly adelgid, an aphid that sucks the sap out of the tree.  However, when it gets to about -5 degrees Fahrenheit, the adelgid begins to die.  As a result, I love sub-zero temperatures.  There is a silver lining to everything.

More photos.

Approximate location of the falls (can’t see them through the trees).

Finding Peace in the Hammersley

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Old growth pine tree on the Twin Sisters Trail

 

 

The PA Wilds of northcentral Pennsylvania is the best kept secret in the eastern United States. It is an outdoors wonderland filled with gorges, views, big rocks, old growth, great camping, star-filled skies, pristine streams, and incredible isolation.  There are hundreds of miles of trails, dozens of state parks, natural, and wild areas.  And within the core, the soul, of all of this is the impeccable Hammersley Wild Area.

A place you simply must experience.

We drove up to my friend’s small cabin, a basecamp to explore the Hammersley. After getting a fire going to fend off the cold, we drove up to Cherry Springs State Park.  It was a new moon, and the skies were clear.  We were treated to an amazing panorama of stars across the sky, as the cloud-like veil of the Milky Way connected the horizons.  It was amazing, among the darkest skies in the east.  Despite the frigid cold, there were some other people there to experience the universe.  In the face of the thousands of stars, I felt so small, yet so alive.  In a world filled with electrified screens, we had the best one of all.

We awoke the next morning and were soon heading off to Cross Fork to follow the Susquehannock Trail System (STS) into the Hammersley. The ground was dusted white, a pleasant sight in a winter devoid of snow.  The trail made long switchbacks up the mountain, around glens, and under hemlocks.  The morning light tried to electrify the horizon under the brooding clouds.  We reached the top as the trail separated jungles of mountain laurel.  The top laurel branches were green and free of snow; the lower branches were covered with it.  This created a striking contrast in color.

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Sky on the STS, between snow dusted mountain laurel

 

The STS turned left and we headed straight onto the yellow blazed Twin Sisters Trail. This was a very beautiful trail that was well marked and fairly easy to follow, aside from one laurel thicket.  We hiked through an impressive forest of hemlocks, old growth white pine, seep springs, and a small stream with carpets of moss.  The forest soon opened up to stately hardwoods with last year’s ferns and ground pine.   The forests were serene and vast, without a sign of civilization, or noises from cars or trucks.  Only distant streams filled the gorges and glens with the melodies from their currents.

The trail brought us to what I call the Hammersley Meadows, or Twin Sisters vista. We spent some time here, exploring the south and north meadows with their vast views to the west and south, overlooking the rolling ridges, deep glens and gorges, and infinite forests.  It was truly breathtaking.  The meadows were a golden brown, as the north facing slopes were white with snow.  These meadows are like those in the southern Appalachians of Tennessee and North Carolina, but right here in Pennsylvania.  The meadows were created by a wildfire in the 1960s, with 20-30 mile views.  How is this not famous, I thought.

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Exploring the Hammersley Meadows, this is the south meadow

 

To complete the loop and return to the STS, I decided to follow the ridge along the north edge of the meadows down to Hammersley Fork and the STS. As we hiked down, the terrain soon formed a distinct ridge with non-stop views to the south into the Hammersley Canyon.  It was an impressive hike and the finest ridgewalk in the Mid Atlantic that does not involve talus slopes or rock outcrops.  Below us was a narrow glen through which a stream flowed, above us, were the Hammersley Meadows from which we hiked down.  Aside from some steep sections, the woods were open and the walking was easy.  There were some low picker bushes we had to endure.  The views continued almost all the way down to Hammersley Fork.  We crossed the creek over some logs and took a break at a campsite next to meadow with old apples trees.

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View from the top of the north meadow

 

The STS was nearby and we followed it down along the pristine Hammersley Fork. The trail followed narrow sidehill above the creek, offering views.  The bottom of the canyon was beautiful with open forests and side streams that tumbled into the Hammersley Fork over small waterfalls.  We saw one cascading waterfall that came right out of the ground as a spring.  The north facing slopes were dusted white from snow, the south facing slopes had no snow.  All we heard was the sound of water, with no man-made noises.  This felt like a place set apart.  We could feel the wilderness.  Along the way were several superb campsites with impressive stone furniture.

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View into the Hammersley Canyon from the ridge walk

 

As we hiked, the Hammersley Fork grew into a large stream and we had to carefully cross it over some strategically located fallen logs. We soon came upon the famous Hammersley Pool, a deep bedrock pool formed by a rapid.  The water was clear.  Nearby was a large campsite.  We continued down and the nature of the Hammersley Fork changed with more rapids, bedrock slides, and pools.  What a beautiful stream.  All around us were woods, mountains, glens, and streams, revealing themselves through the bare forests.

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A cascading waterfall that came right out of the ground as a spring

 

The STS left the Hammersley Fork and climbed up along Elkhorn Hollow, a stream with many small cascades. The trail became snow covered, a curving, white thread through the forest.  I looked down a nearby glen to see a distinct boundary of white snow, with brown earth above it, marking how far the sunshine reached down into the glen.  The hike revealed more beautiful forest and some large hemlock.  We completed the loop and retraced our steps to PA 144.

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Hiking along the beautiful Hammersley Fork, near the Hammersley Pool

 

Afterwards, we stopped by the tiny mountain hamlet of Germania to get a bite to eat at the Waldheim Bar and Restaurant. The food was great, prices reasonable, and the people were friendly.  It was fascinating to hear the stories and experiences of the locals.  Here, the vast woods define their lives.  We told the bartender that we were hiking in the Hammersley, he responded, “It doesn’t get any wilder than that.”

The Hammersley is surely one of Pennsyylvania’s crown jewels and it has attracted the attention of more and more hikers and other outdoor lovers. I will surely return to explore more of this special place.  The Hammersley has come to represent what is increasingly rare in our developed world: an isolated sanctuary for nature, a wilderness insulated from the designs of man.  It protects the serenity we need to exist, a refuge for not only animals, but also for ourselves.

Here, peace prevails.

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More photos.

Our route was somewhat similar to the Hammersley hike on Mid-Atlantic Hikes.  We did not hike the Dry Run Bushwhack, and we completed the northern end of the loop via the ridge just north of Twin Sisters Hollow.  I highly recommend this fairly easy, and very scenic, off-trail route.

Susquehannock State Forest, home of the Hammersley.

Into an Emerald Forest: Scouten and Kasson Brooks (SGL 57)

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Rock shelter with caves

 

You know you lived a day to its fullest when you create a memory, an experience, a feeling that will forever stay with you.

For me, that was this hike, this place…

Over ten years ago I hiked up Scouten Brook in SGL 57.  I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of this stream, as the water slid over red bedrock and tumbled down small cascades under a hemlock forest.  This off-trail hike was only the beginning for me, the first of many beautiful places I would see during my exploration of SGL 57.  This past weekend, I returned.  And it was amazing.

I’ve spent little time in this area of the SGL 57.  Recently, I’ve become intrigued by what might be there.  Google Earth revealed a vast, deep green forest, even in winter.  I suspected it might be a spruce and hemlock forest.

Our plan was ambitious.  Hike up Scouten Brook, explore the cliff rim of the spruce forest, find a vista, descend a side stream of Kasson Brook, visit Kasson Falls, and hike back out.  This rugged hike would be about 17 miles.

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Looking through the cave.

 

We followed an old grade along Scouten Brook as cascades danced far below over the deep red bedrock I remembered from years ago.  Large boulders adorned the creek. The hemlock forest was not as verdant, dying from the woolly adelgid.  The creek was beautiful and pristine as it flowed through a gorge of towering hardwood trees.  Ryan mentioned there was a sidestream falls and iceflow across Scouten Brook.  We scrambled up the steep glen and a grotto soon appeared with a 20 foot cascade and columns of melting ice.  The day was warm under overcast skies and Ryan had to jump across the stream when an icicle suddenly collapsed.

We continued up this rugged gorge, climbing over large boulders under towering old growth white pine and dead hemlocks.  At the rim were jungles of mountain laurel and a cave formed by boulders that Wes explored.  We continued along the rim, following a bear path, but the thick laurel made it slow going.  We descended steeply back to Scouten Brook to see a beautiful ice covered waterfall.  Upstream were more waterfalls, all adorned with ice.  It was a beautiful, serene place.

Easier hiking was provided by an old forest grade that gradually climbed the plateau.  The hemlock and spruce forest that was the goal of this hike soon came into view.  We left the old grade and climbed to this evergreen forest and were greeted with a massive rock overhang with a cave behind it.  The rock was made of pebbly conglomerate.    I reached the overhang by descending through the cave, where one hanging rock looked like it was about to fall.  We sat there to enjoy the scenery as spruce trees surrounded us.  The best was yet to come.

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Incredible forests of spruce, hemlock, and moss.  One of the most scenic forests in the state.

 

We left the overhang and cave to the plateau rim to be immersed in an amazing forest of spruce, hemlock, and carpets of moss.  It must be one of the most scenic forests in Pennsylvania.  The greenery was simply incredible, invoking a forest from the Adirondacks or New England.  Despite it being winter, when most forests are bare brown, this one was an endless green.  We were awestruck.  Carpets of moss spread through the forest, harboring countless spruce saplings.  We could have been in the Pacific Northwest.  Massive boulders comprised the forest floor, and in a few places, the separated boulders created long, straight chasms.  Stunning.  Moss and lichens covered the boulders.  We pushed on through this sylvan wonderland.  The cliff rim provided some views through the trees from the exposed boulders, as more caves and crevasses hid beneath our feet.  The bedrock had separated, creating mazes of passageways and narrow, deep crevices that we had to be careful not to fall into.

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Exploring the chasms.

 

As we made our way around the western edge of the forest, the clouds cleared, offering deep, blue skies and warm sunshine.  A strong westerly wind filled the spruce forest, as shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy to electrify the forest floor.  It was a complete sense of wildness as the wonderful aroma of the spruce filled our lungs.  Few people have ever seen this place.  The rim featured more boulders and crevasses, and tangled, fallen spruce trees.  We continued along the rim and soft carpets of moss.  I saw a slight rise ahead of me and I climbed up to it.  The spruce forest separated to reveal a beautiful view to the west, with vast plateaus, and the canyons of Mehoopany Creek, Stony Brook, and Red Brook.  The view was untouched, with no sign of development.  We were all impressed as we enjoyed the warm sun and blue skies.  We knew we had found a special place.  We weren’t the first ones here, but few have ever seen what we saw.  I imagined what the sunset must look like from here, it must be beautiful, I thought.

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Views of the vast plateaus to the west, with no sign of development.

 

We pulled away from the view, each of us burning it in our memories for a future return.  Our hike continued on the southern edge of the “emerald” forest, the boulders were not as big, but it was scenic nonetheless.  We found a tributary of Kasson Brook, and descended along it.  The creek was filled with boulders and frozen cascades.  As we descended, the creek became much steeper, with many slides and frozen waterfalls.  It was too steep and icy for us to explore so we left the tributary and reached Kasson Brook.

By this time we were exhausted.  The climb up Kasson Brook was tiring, even with the fine scenery.  We hiked over fallen trees and loose rock above a streambed torn from prior floods.  The amazing iceflows of Kasson Falls came into view and I was speechless for a second.  This grotto is truly impressive, and even with the warm weather, there was still a lot of ice.  The ice had a bluish hue and descended like draperies.  Springs tumbled from the edge of the grotto.  The falls itself were frozen as well, next to an ice cave.  Everything was dripping and melting.  We were happy to see it before it collapsed or melted away.  What is most beautiful about this stunning place is not the falls itself, but the surrounding springs that descend for the cliffs and freeze in winter.  So much beauty in one place.

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The incredible ice flows of Kasson Falls.

 

We hiked out to the road, passing more falls and pools along Kasson Brook.  Twilight soon came as we flushed some wild turkeys from the pine and hemlock trees.  The dark, bare tree branches reached across the last light of the day.  The air was warm and still, making it feel like April and not January.  Darkness surrounded us as we completed our hike on the road.  The rapids of the Mehoopany Creek filled the isolated valley, the air had the scent of woodsmoke.  An owl hooted in the distance.   I slipped through the darkness, walking quickly along the road and startling deer in the woods.  Constellations filled the clear sky, with Orion being the most vivid.  We felt alive, seeing such a new and beautiful place, a place to which I must return.

We lived this day to the fullest.

More photos.

Location of the Emerald Forest.

Location of the vista.

The chasms are located approximately here (can’t see them through the trees).