Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2003

Charles F. Lewis Natural Area

by Dave Coleman

It was supposed to be a short walk. I had convinced my wife, youngest son and even my dog, that we could complete a short loop in the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area in less than an hour. We were on our way to my parents’ house where I was to cut the grass. The natural area is about half way on the way there and is only a few miles out of the way of our travels that day in early July.

This is one of those hikes that one should not carry out quickly. There are many natural biological and geologic features that prompt one to stroll slowly and stop frequently to explore nooks and crannies, take in the view, listen to the sounds and just take in the natural world.

The Charles F. Lewis Natural Area is on the western flank of Laurel Ridge on the north bank of the Conemaugh River where it cuts through the ridge. This hike starts along a nice small stream, Clark Run, which cuts through the natural area. There is a wood carved sign at the trail head that displays the trails through the natural area. The Clark Run loop (yellow blazes) described here is only two miles whereas the Rager Mountain Trail (orange blazes) adds an additional three miles.

The Clark Run loop, if completed counterclockwise (recommended) begins as an ascent up the Clark Run gorge where one will see many waterfalls and sluices. The second growth forest is comprised chiefly of hardwoods — maples, oaks and tulip poplar — as well as some hemlock. As you progress the trail climbs higher above the creek chasm. Many fine views are available off to the left of the trail, but parents may want to stay close to the little ones as there are many drops off large rocks. My son David had an adventure exploring some of the larger rocks. Eventually after a little over half a mile the creek climbs up closer to the elevation of the trail. Casual walkers can simply turn around and return the way they walked up the creek. Those that would like a longer stroll, or hike, can take on a longer loop.

Continuing up the trail, you will eventually see a see an old logging road/ trail on the other side of the creek. Almost a half mile of the Clark Run loop can be bypassed by crossing the creek here and turning left on the trail. The Blazes here will be orange and yellow since this part of the trial is shared by both loops. The old road grade ascends up the other side of the creek gorge and quickly moves away from the sounds of the creek. Continue up the grade less than a quarter mile and look for the trail to cut off the grade to the left. If you reach a gate, you have gone a hundred yards too far.

Here, the trail traverses the northern bank of Clark Run. It generally descends into a rocky area. Eventually, to the right of the trail, the rocks will be large and inviting for children to climb on. We investigated the larger rock outcrops; taking flash pictures in the overhang/holes that are frequent here. The images we looked at on screen a few days later revealed no hiding animals, but showed the inside of these openings. The trail itself is rocky enough to warrant sturdy footwear if this portion of the hiking loop is contemplated. The trail itself was rocky enough; a few times I had to lift our medium sized dog up, over and down the larger boulders that constituted this part of the blazed trail.

After three-quarters of a mile of this part of the trail, another left turn before a power line opening has to be taken. Take a few minutes to walk out and take on this view of the Conemaugh valley. The power line both creates and distracts from this fine vista.

The blazes should be all yellow again at this point, but smatterings of orange and yellow adorn the trees. At one point a fake trail is blazed on the left. A few steps and you will realize it is not the well worn trail.

The rest of the loop is a descent down into the confluence of Clark Run and the Conemaugh River. Only here will you hear the road noise of Route 403 below. Finally, you will reach Clark Run itself. Cross on the saw-flattened log or de-shoe and wade across the cool stream. We arrived back at the starting point in almost 3 hours. We would arrive at my parents’ house too late to mow. The grass could wait; this hike was worth that small sacrifice.

This natural area is not a virgin forest, such as the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area described in last month’s column. It is a second growth forest having been cut several times about 100 years ago. However, the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area is proposed to be included in the Old Growth management zoning by the Bureau of Forestry. The trees will get larger, more large trunks will eventually fall to the ground adding soil and structure to the forest floor and biodiversity will increase. In less than a century — perhaps as soon as 50 years, it may be indistinguishable from the Snyder-Middleswarth. At the northern end of a string of public lands (state forests, state parks and state game lands) on Laurel Ridge stretching from the Mason-Dixon Line, this land will serve as a component of interconnected wildlands important to Pennsylvania’s biodiversity future. Although not an old-growth forest — yet — this area is worth preserving for future generations to enjoy and appreciate. Try this short circuit through the Charles F. Lewis Natural Area and you will agree.

If You Go: The Charles F. Lewis Natural Area can be reached in less than an hour and a half from State College. Take I-99 south to Route 22 East. After the detour on Route 22 (where you follow a pilot car along a twisting temporary road around the construction zone), take Route 403 South 3.5 miles. The natural area parking lot will be on the left.

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