Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2014

Hiking in an Urban Wilderness

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Thompson Woods Preserve

Gerney Lee Carter next to an ancient bur oak in the Thompson Woods Preserve · Photo provided by Dr. Stan Kotala

State College has many fine parks for us to explore. One of the best, for seeing interesting plants and wildlife, is the 86-acre complex formed by Thompson Woods Preserve, Walnut Springs Park, and Lederer Park.

Thompson Woods Preserve was purchased in 2000 to protect one of the few remaining valley forests left within the State College area. The land was slated for development when ClearWater Conservancy stepped in and raised the necessary funding from the community to purchase the property. ClearWater then placed a conservation easement on the land, which ensures that it will be protected in perpetuity. Ownership was transferred to College Township and State College Borough. Centre Region Parks & Recreation is officially charged with managing the Preserve. Consisting of 44 acres of varied terrain, covered by a mixed hardwood forest of 80–90-year old trees, Thompson Woods Preserve is the largest contiguous tract of mature forest close to downtown State College.

Thompson Meadow Spring, located next to the Preserve, is home to many plants and animals found in clear, pure springs, and has been identified by the Pennsylvania Natural Diversity Inventory (PNDI) as an area of high conservation significance. One of the animals in this spring is a globally rare copepod (Stygobromus stellmackii). The streams running through the preserve are home to northern spring salamanders, northern two-lined salamanders and red-backed salamanders, all of which can be found along the water even in winter.

The 20-acre Walnut Springs Park is adjacent to and upstream of Thompson Woods Preserve. A brochure showing the interconnected trails in these two parks can be found at http://www.crpr.org/Parks/details/TWP-brochure5-07.pdf. Walnut Springs Park forms a narrow forested corridor along Walnut Run. In 2005 a wetland was constructed in Walnut Springs Park to allow for the settling of sediment, stormwater drainage, and water purification which mitigate the negative impacts of urbanization on the Spring Creek watershed. Stormwater flows into the park and along Walnut Run which joins Thompson Run, eventually reaching Spring Creek via Slab Cabin Run.

In all, more than 200 species of plants can be found in the contiguous Thompson Woods Preserve/Walnut Springs Park. The trees in this woodland are oaks, ashes, hickories, black walnuts, sugar maples, white pines, and black cherries. The understory species are primarily oak seedlings and flowering dogwood, along with the non-native honeysuckle, privet, and multiflora rose. These tree varieties provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife including great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks, pileated woodpeckers, gray foxes, red foxes, and white-tailed deer. A small wildlife observation blind can be found near Walnut Run in Walnut Springs Park.

Across Walnut Spring Lane is the 22-acre Lederer Park with its picnic pavilions and Oak Arboretum. The park may be accessed via a path on Walnut Spring Lane, a path at the intersection of University Drive and Walnut Spring Lane, or the main parking area for Lederer Park, just off University Drive.

Lederer Park contains a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees with a shrubby understory and is home to the W. James Evans Memorial Oak Arboretum. The central area of the park, where the arboretum is located, is maintained as a mowed field with various species of oaks, all of which are labeled. These include red, scarlet, sawtooth, chestnut, Shumard, swamp white, laurel, bur, pin, willow, English, and shingle oaks. At the eastern edge of the arboretum is a charming statue of Lucy Lederer, whose generosity helped to establish this park. Around the perimeter of the field is a ½-mile circular hiking trail with side branches to the main parking area, the intersection of University Drive and Walnut Spring Lane, and Walnut Spring Lane itself.

This urban wilderness of three adjacent parks offers residents the ability to escape the hustle and bustle and also provides valuable habitat for its varied flora and fauna. Take time to enjoy this small portion of wild Pennsylvania near the heart of State College.

If you go: All three parks are accessible from University Drive. The Lederer Park parking area is on the north side of University Drive, just east of Walnut Spring Lane. The Thompson Woods parking area is on Walnut Spring Lane, about ¼-mile from the intersection of that street with University Drive.


Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club