Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2002

Hiking in Detweiler Run Natural Area

by Gary Thornbloom

The towering old-growth eastern hemlock, the thick understory of dense rhododendron, and the persistent song of Detweiler Run as it drops through mossy boulders and over small falls provides a nearby escape from the hustle and drone of the urban fast lane of State College. A short drive will put you on the trail and down into the hollow between Thickhead and Grass Mountains where the well worn Mid State Trail hugs the stream and traverses the Detweiler Run Natural Area.

Park at the gated Detweiler Run Road and follow the old grassy road, which is closed to vehicles and provides a steady, gentle pathway along the side of Thickhead Mountain. Detweiler Run is to your right. After about 0.75 mile you can either drop down the Ax Handle Trail, blue blazes, to Detweiler Run or you can continue for another mile or so until you come to a pipeline and take that to your right and down to Detweiler Run. In both cases when you get to the orange blazed Mid State Trail follow it to the right — you will be heading downstream. The short loop is about 2 miles, and the longer loop is about 4 miles.

The regenerated forest that you began this hike with has by now given way to the old growth hemlock and rhododendron in the hollow. Some of the hemlock trees approach three foot in diameter. The rhododendron at times frames the trail well overhead. This would be a spectacular section of trail in early July when the rhododendron is blooming.

The trail is rocky at times, but that only adds to the feeling of timelessness and the sense that everything here, at least, has found its place a long time ago. Moss-covered boulder fields and moss-covered roots at the base of these towering trees can transport the hiker, who will let their mind wander further than their feet, back to an earlier time when mature woods covered Pennsylvania.

Detweiler Run Natural Area along with three other nearby natural areas — Bear Meadows, Big Flat Laurel, and Alan Seeger — and the Thickhead Wild Area of Rothrock State Forest may contain as many as 1,300 acres of old growth, according to past estimates by members of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Old-growth areas are a tiny part of the total state forest acreage and as such represent important reservoirs of biological and genetic diversity.

Many old-growth areas that are included in the state’s system of Natural Areas exist only due to chance. In the case of Detweiler Run it may have been due to a logging steam engine that blew up. Loggers may simply have never got around to finishing the logging in this area. The remains of that engine are said to still be in the Detweiler Run area, although no one I have spoken with has any clue as to where — perhaps in the thickest of the rhododendron! You may, however, see evidence of the tram bed that supported the ties and rails for the small gauge logging trains. These old tram beds serve as sections of many trails in Central Pennsylvania.

Continue following the orange blazed Mid State Trail when it turns and heads back up the mountain to where you began this hike. If you are not yet ready to leave this enchanted hollow, continue on the blue blazed Greenwood Spur Trail instead of taking the Mid State Trail. The spur continues to follow Detweiler Run and you will find a rather rustic log bridge crossing the stream. At any time in the next mile bushwhack to the right and up the mountain side where you will hit Bear Meadows Road. Follow it to the right and back to where the hike began.

The green of hemlock, rhododendron, and moss can serve as a balm during this grey time of the year for those impatiently awaiting the greening of Pennsylvania’s woodlands.

Resources and Maps

More Outbound Journeys by Marcia Bonta, and Natural Pennsylvania by Charles Fergus have chapters on Detweiler Run.

The Public Use Map for Rothrock State Forest is available free from the Bureau of Forestry. The Mid State Trail System Map 203, as well as the USGS McAlevy’s Fort and Barrville topographic maps, covers this hike.

If You Go: Take route 322 east out of State College, continue through Boalsburg and make a right onto Bear Meadows Road SR 2001—this is the turn into Tussey Mountain Ski Area — and continue about seven miles to Wampler Road. Turn left and go 0.6 mile and park at the gated Detweiler Run Road (please do not block access to the gate). Note that this road can be treacherous in freezing weather.

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