Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — December 2010

Solitude in the Quehanna Wild Area

by Gary Thornbloom

Where do you go when you want “to find peace and solitude?” As great as our Pennsylvania natural heritage is — over 4.5 million acres of public land — this forest is increasingly becoming industrialized.

State Forests, 2.5 million acres, are managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Management is intensive in semi-developed areas, less so in semi-primitive and not at all in primitive areas. Semi-developed allows motorized recreation and industrial activity, primarily timber and gas. Semi-primitive allows limited industrial activity. Primitive areas are free of industrial activity, and this, the smallest zone by area, is where you must go “to find peace and solitude.” See the DCNR Natural Gas Impacts Mapping Analysis on this topic.

Wild Areas are protected to include the values of peace and solitude. The Quehanna Wild Area, over 48,000 acres at the corner of Cameron, Clearfield, and Elk counties, is Pennsylvania’s largest Wild Area. The Quehanna Trail is a 73-mile loop, and although it is the main trail, there are many more, including cross-connectors, that make all lengths of hikes possible.

Heading into the woods where Hoover Road meets a gas line right of way and following an unnamed road for one mile to the red-blazed Sanders Trail, and then heading north to where it meets the Quehanna Trail, west down Sanders Draft, north along Red Run and then west up Porcupine Draft is a hike that, on the map, has long interested me. The Quehanna Trail East Cross Connector south to the Quehanna Highway is, if you set up a shuttle, an 8-mile hike. Greate Buffaloe Swamp by Ralph Seeley includes the DCNR map, and with these two resources you can plan this hike.

We began this hike with lots of elk sign: droppings, small trees busted up by elk discovering their massive antlers, long groves left by elk peeling bark from trees.

Once on the Quehanna Trail, we followed the gentle lay of the land as the headwaters of Sanders Run wound through scattered mature white pine. Thick stands of pole-sized white pine as well as seedlings are indications of strong regeneration. Sanders Run flows slowly over a sandy bottom, with club moss and sphagnum banks. The trail cuts through carpets of teaberry with 2–3 berries hanging on many of the small plants.

Solitude in Quehanna

Mountain stream in the Quehanna Wild Area · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

As the trail drops into the draft, boulders increase in size and number. Rhododendron the size of small trees close in on the trail. The stream drops noisily through rocks and over down trees that form pools behind them. The habitat is that of a healthy clear running mountain stream.

Ridge lines drop away from the skyline. The boulders are bigger, and the stream speaks louder. As the sides of the draft close in rising steeply to the skyline now high above, the white pine are scattered above the bands and islands of rhododendron. White braided bark of tulip trees, and smooth bright barked beech stands, contrast nicely with spent fall leaves on the ground and the greenery of ferns, rhododendron, white pine, and an occasional hemlock.

Sanders Run drops through room size boulders coated with moss and into pools between rocks, with this years leaves a mosaic over the bottom. The stream fans out over one of the largest boulders and races past rocks that look precariously tilted across the rock face, but have tree roots spread across them. The stream navigates this jumble and reaches a series of drops through, around and over rock, ending in large pool deep enough to have a light turquoise tint at the edges of foam dissipating into the pool.

This is a place to stop. Whether for lunch, photos, or contemplation, here is where to take a break. Here is the essence of the primitive experience of our state forests. Here is the peace and solitude that many of us seek.

The Quehanna Trail continues on to a bridge that crosses beautiful Red Run, but here there is a road that removes you from the primitive area.

The trail climbs Porcupine Draft with its small stream — crossed and recrossed — until the trail moves away from the stream and crests. Many of the same attractions of Sanders Draft are here, but on a bit lesser scale. However, the climb will give you a chance to slowly take it in. A short walk across the flat top of the Allegheny Plateau brings you to the Quehanna Trail East Cross Connector, and while this is mostly a quick way to return to the Quehanna Highway the section near the Teaberry Trail is nice. The open area around the stream, another teaberry carpet, and the ruins of an old camp with two fire places — this must have been a luxury! — are worth exploring.

Places where you can experience peace and solitude are out there, present throughout our public lands. There is a need to protect and to expand these special places, or we will end up with an industrial forest that crowds out all other uses.

Sanders Draft, in the Quehanna Wild Area, is where you can get on the trail and experience peace, solitude, and only natural sounds.


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