Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — February 2009

Cross Country Skiing in the Hemlocks at R.B. Winter State Park

by Gary Thornbloom

“Enjoy the skiing, enjoy the day” and “A place to ski with facilities” is how Park Manager Bob Deffner summed up our discussion on cross country skiing in R.B. Winter State Park.

Skiing inthe hemlocks

Skiing through the hemlocks · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

R.B. Winter is 28 miles east of Centre Hall on SR 192. The thick hemlocks you encounter as you enter the park are the perfect setting for a winter outing. When you see the park sign continue straight onto Sand Mountain Road and park in the large Trailhead Parking area. A park map, available online at the DCNR website or at the Park Office, is all you will need to lose yourself in this winter wonderland.

Here, hemlocks and white pine offer a glimpse back to Pennsylvania forests of the mid 1800s. This was one of the first State Park Natural Areas, places set aside so we can see how natural systems work, places that protect unique plants and animals, places of special beauty.

Hemlock old growth stands have a certain feel to them. The tall trees filter out most of the sunlight, and this leads to an open forest floor, a floor of white in the winter. The thick green canopy above along with the white blanket below deadens sounds, and the silence of summer presses even heavier in winter. Streams, as here, often flow through hemlock stands. Snow mounds lining the stream bank and snow mounds rising up out of the stream add to the enchantment of the setting. But water is not all that moves through here, deer tracks move from sheltered areas to the water and back. Mice tracks abound. Look closely and you may also see fox tracks.

Trails in the park, relatively rock free, are skiable with as little as four inches of snow although with seven inches or more the skiing is much nicer. There are gentle downhill runs with short uphill stretches. The many stream crossings are all on bridges.

Ski east on Sand Mountain Road and take the first turn right onto Boyer Gap Road. After you cross Halfway Run turn left and follow the campground road to the loop at the end. Continue on a short uphill climb to the Old Boundary Trail.

A short downhill run through hemlocks takes you back across Halfway Run before you return to Sand Mountain Road. Follow the road to the left about five hundred feet and turn left on Boiling Spring Trail. In less than half a mile a rest room and a Pavilion are just off the trail. At this point you are just south of where you parked. The Pavilion has a fireplace and would be a great place to build a fire, warm up, and have lunch.

Continue skiing Boiling Spring Trail, cross over Rapid Run and turn right onto Rapid Run Nature Trail. After crossing the old stone highway bridge you are entering the Rapid Run Natural Area.

Rhododendron in R.B. Winter State Park

Rhododendron in winter · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

By looking at the rhododendron leaves you can reinforce your impression of how cold it is. As temperatures drop below the mid 30s the leaves will cup and curl in at the edges. Mid 20s and the leaves curl tight enough to conceal half of their surface area. And by the low teens the leaves are so shriveled and discolored that they look like dried up shells hanging on the branches. The plant is protecting itself by conserving moisture, and if you return in spring you will find most of those leaves healthy and green.

Once through the Natural Area, turn left on Overlook Trail and follow it back to Sand Mountain Road. Go right and you have returned to where you parked. The park facilities — restrooms, pavilions, fireplaces, and never far from your car — make this a “civilized” way to get out and enjoy winter snows.

If you would like to try cross country skiing, you can rent equipment in R.B. Winter State Park at Snowfest 2009 on Sunday, February 8, from noon to 3:30 p.m.

The Natural Area with its hemlocks is a place anyone, who enjoys getting out and away in the outdoors, will enjoy. Beginners as well as hard core cross country skiers will find skiing in the hemlocks at R.B. Winter State Park as good as it gets for winter fun.

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Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of Sierra Club Moshannon Group, and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net