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Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Clubserving Bedford, Blair, Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Elk, Huntingdon, Jefferson, Juniata, McKean, and Mifflin counties
|Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet|
by Ben Cramer
Pennsylvania has more than 60 State Forest Natural Areas, which have been set aside for special protection against development and human intrusion. Some of these areas are in pristine natural condition and have never been developed, but most were exploited in the past and are being allowed to return to a natural state.
These Natural Areas are usually fairly small, averaging a few hundred acres, and are almost always surrounded by general State Forest lands.
According to state regulations, a Natural Area must have no human habitation except for primitive camping and backpacking (and even then only in designated areas), no access for motorized vehicles, no buildings (except those required for visitor health and safety), no timber harvesting and no surface resource extraction. The protected Natural Areas feature everything from humble hilltop forests to high-quality streams to breathtaking vistas. This type of Natural Area protection is now being discussed as a possibility for Spring Creek Canyon between State College and Bellefonte.
There are several State Forest Natural Areas less than an hour from State College, including four in the Seven Mountains area behind Tussey Mountain Ski Area alone. Some of these areas have been previously described in this space, including the unique bog ecosystem at Bear Meadows, the vast bird watching opportunities at Big Flat Laurel, and the magnificent old growth trees at Alan Seeger.
From State College, access to all these is provided by Bear Meadows Road, which goes to the ski area and continues up into the mountains. This road also takes you directly to the fourth local Natural Area — Detweiler Run. This Natural Area begins at the third U-turn encountered beyond Tussey Ridge, right behind a vehicle gate at a dirt track that is still known as Detweiler Road, though it can now only be traversed by foot or bike.
Detweiler Run Natural Area also features the Mid-State Trail. One of the great backpacking resources in the northeastern United States, the Mid-State is more than 300 miles long, and happens to traverse this Natural Area alongside the very bucolic Detweiler Run. This trail and the former dirt road run parallel to each other in the area, making a straight-forward, if rather rugged, day hike easy to put together.
From the vehicle gate, you can either go straight ahead on gated Detweiler Road, or plunge downhill to the right on the Mid-State Trail. I recommend that you start off by going straight ahead on the road. This road resembles a grassy double-track driveway, and is an example of the old logging roads that are extremely common throughout Pennsylvania’s forests.
Until approximately the mid-20th century, the forests were crawling with logging trucks on a vast network of dirt roads. Most of these roads are now grown over and gated off, as they haven’t seen truck traffic for generations. They now make incredibly convenient hiking and biking trails.
This road once carried a lot of industrial and human traffic, as can be seen by four or five stone spring houses that are built into the embankment on the uphill side. Once used to catch water for forest workers, and even to cool down industrial logging equipment, some of these spring houses are now bone dry, or offer only a small trickle of fresh water.
However, there is one, just before the Axehandle Trail, that still gushes forth with water and even has a recently-installed pipe. My dog went to the little pool below the pipe for a drink, and decided to jump right in to cool off. Also, while absent-mindedly sniffing around some bushes near the trail junction, my dog accidentally flushed out a large male wild turkey, which made a real ruckus as it bashed through overhead tree branches, making a straight-line escape.
About a mile and a half from Bear Meadows Road, the Axehandle Trail, which is only marked by an old post on which the trail sign has disappeared, plunges downhill to the right. This trail goes down a short distance to the Mid-State Trail. To really see the most that Detweiler Run Natural Area has to offer, I recommend continuing ahead on the old road grade for about three-quarters of a mile more, until you reach a bare pipeline swath. Here you turn right, follow the pipeline steeply downhill, and hop across Detweiler Run at the bottom of the gulch. Continue ahead for a few more yards, and watch closely for the trees with the orange paint blazes, which mark the Mid-State Trail. Turn right on the Mid-State and into the depths of the Natural Area.
The trail parallels Detweiler Run for about the next two miles, often walking right alongside the waterway. Note that the trail through here is extremely rugged and rocky, making sturdy hiking boots a necessity. As you stumble over the rocks, note the extensive stands of giant rhododendron. These large flowery bushes occur naturally and liberally in the central Pennsylvania hills, and when they bloom in early summer, the lucky hiker is rewarded with a veritable sea of white, purple and pink blossoms. Detweiler Run Natural Area harbors an especially dense stand of these bushes, which grow much larger than the rhododendrons found in private gardens.
Detweiler Run itself is often nearly buried by rhododendron bushes, as it gently weaves through its own green tunnels. The dense rhododendron cover offers shade and protection for the stream’s native fish, so they tend to congregate in these areas. Also of note in Detweiler Run Natural Area are a fair number of very large tulip-poplar trees, along with noteworthy stands of hemlocks and white pines, some of which may predate the old logging operations a short distance above on old Detweiler Road. This Natural Area is also a real treat for birdwatchers and butterfly enthusiasts.
Eventually the Mid-State Trail leaves Detweiler Run and reaches a junction with the Greenwood Spur Trail. This well-defined spur of the Mid-State goes south for about seven miles, through nearby Alan Seeger Natural Area and ultimately to Greenwood Furnace State Park. To complete your Detweiler loop hike, turn right at this junction to continue on the Mid-State Trail. It is a short distance back to your starting point, but expect a rather grueling (but relatively brief) climb back up to the old dirt road. At the top of a rocky outcropping, you finally pop out just next to the vehicle gate at Bear Meadows Road.
If You Go: All of the Natural Areas discussed here can be reached via Bear Meadows Road, which serves Tussey Mountain Ski Area, and begins at Route 322 about two miles east of Boalsburg. For Detweiler Run Natural Area, follow Bear Meadows Road for about 5.5 miles. Note that the pavement ends a couple of miles past the ski area, but the road is easily traversable for passenger cars. After passing by Bear Meadows Natural Area, continue over the ridge through two sharp U-turns. Continue downhill to a third sharp U-turn to the right. Straight ahead at this turn is the locked vehicle gate for old Detweiler Road, along with a sign for Mid State Trail. There is parking for a few cars here, and also at another junction a short distance below the U-turn on Bear Meadows Road. Make sure you do not block the vehicle gate.
All the trails discussed here have been well-mapped by the Mid State Trail Association. The loop hike described here is a little more than four miles long, while a shorter loop utilizing the Axehandle Trail is also possible.
Ben Cramer is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club. The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).