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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
There are very few National Forests east of the Mississippi, and only one in Pennsylvania. The northwestern corner of the Commonwealth is the site of the vast Allegheny National Forest (ANF), which covers parts of four different counties. This region was deemed “worthless” by early settlers and industrialists, as the hilly terrain prevented development and the poor soils were unable to sustain farms, though they could certainly sustain a thick and healthy forest.
Recreational opportunities abound in the ANF. Scenic wonders range from the dramatic hills emerging from the Allegheny Reservoir (which is, perhaps, unfortunately, the largest artificial lake in the Northeastern U.S.) to the rare plateau wetland complex at the Buzzard Swamp Wildlife Management Area near Marienville. The Clarion River and Tionesta Creek offer some of the best canoeing and kayaking in Pennsylvania. There are also several long-distance hiking trails in the ANF, including 96 miles of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which is complete through the ANF and is projected to reach from upstate New York to North Dakota.
An excellent introduction to the scenic and recreational opportunities of the ANF can be found at Minister Creek recreation area, between the towns of Tionesta and Sheffield in an especially remote area of the aptly-named Forest County. Despite its isolation, Minister Creek is among the most popular spots in the ANF, and with good reason. A relatively easy hike leads to babbling brooks, sweeping vistas, imposing rock formations, and the best of the deep forest environment.
This 6.3-mile hike starts at a parking lot nestled in a U-turn on PA 666, across from the Minister Creek campground and picnic area. First, head up PA 666 for a short distance to an old dirt road, which begins the hike by conveniently going around the picnic area. In six-tenths of a mile, reach a trail loop junction and turn right (you will return on the trail that comes from straight ahead). Descend to Minister Creek then head upstream, crossing the creek and some of its tributaries several times on footbridges.
You are now on the eastern side of the Minister Creek loop, and huge boulders, some as large as mansions, begin to surround the trail. Most have sizeable trees growing on top. The trees of Allegheny National Forest have learned to live without deep topsoil, and can grow on rocks by sending their roots down through cracks to find dripping rainwater (a process made easier by the heavily cracked and porous limestone and sandstone that makes up much of the Allegheny Plateau).
At 2.5 miles turn left on the North Country Trail, which the Minister Creek loop trail follows for about half a mile. In the future, if you turn right at this intersection you could walk about 500 miles to Lake Champlain. Continuing on the North Country Trail to the west will lead you on a ramble of more than 4,000 miles to central North Dakota, once the trail is completed. The section of trail you are now following also visits to an outstanding backcountry campsite at a “triple fork” of Minister Creek’s upper tributaries.
Turn left again off of the North Country Trail and head south, now on the western side of the Minster Creek loop. You soon trend above Minister Creek, crossing a few more tributaries on the slope of a mini-canyon. Here you reach even more impressive boulders, and the trail passes along a cliff and climbs through several rock formations. A great view of Minister Creek’s isolated valley is reached at 5 miles. Continue an acrobatic hike through several more rock formations until reaching the entrance trail at the end of the loop. Go straight ahead and retrace your steps to PA 666.
While Allegheny National Forest may seem worthless to agriculturalists and city builders, the area features a considerable amount of mineral wealth. Oil wells (at least one of which can be still seen from the Minister Creek trail) built the area’s economy until about the late 1970s, and though most of the oil is now gone the area still offers natural gas. These reserves are now coveted by private firms egged on by high fuel prices and a perceived shortage.
Minister Creek is not immune to these threats, because even though the area is within a National Forest, federal laws permit resource extraction except in designated Wilderness Areas. Currently, only 2% of the acreage of Allegheny National Forest has been protected as federal wilderness (the Hickory Creek area near Warren and a few pristine islands in the Allegheny River), and this is far below the average 18% wilderness protection of National Forest lands across the country.
Several citizens’ groups are fighting to increase federal wilderness protection in Allegheny National Forest. Pristine areas like Morrison Run near the east shore of Allegheny Reservoir, and lands immediately adjacent to Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, have been subjected to drilling (and the associated building of infrastructure) in 2008 alone. National Forests, regardless of whether certain areas are protected as federal wilderness, are meant for the enjoyment and recreation of all Americans, and we must ask serious questions about whether healthy and valuable ecosystems should be damaged forever for the short-term profits of private companies.
A trip to the remarkable Minister Creek recreation area will whet your appetite for the wonders of Allegheny National Forest and will increase your desire to explore more of its natural wonders. Getting out of your car and exploring the forest on foot will also build an appreciation for what could be lost.
If You Go: Much of Allegheny National Forest can be reached in 2–3 hours from State College. To approach the area, use US 219 or PA 36 from I-80. The Minister Creek Trail is reached via PA 666 in Forest County, about 15 miles southwest of Sheffield. A map for this hike should be available at the picnic area.
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, and will host a backpacking trip in Allegheny National Forest in August . See the Outings Page for details. Cramer is the editor of Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, 13th ed., and is also the author of a forthcoming hiker's guide to the Allegheny Front Trail in Centre County.