Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — June 2009

Beat the Heat on the Little J

by Dr. Stan Kotala

In a canoe along the Little Juniata River

Canoeing the Little J · Photo by Stan Kotala

If you’re looking for a way to cool off and relax this summer, then I highly recommend a float on the Little Juniata River, affectionately known as the Little J, in Blair and Huntingdon Counties. This scenic and wildlife-rich stream offers some of the best attributes that central Pennsylvania waterways have to offer.

Although the Little Juniata River begins close to 20 miles upstream from Tyrone, near Penn State’s Altoona Campus, it is consistently suitable for canoes and kayaks starting at Tyrone.

In a canoe along the Little Juniata River

Aerial of Little J near Altoona Campus

A great place to launch your canoe or kayak is at the large gravel parking lot on the south side of Route 453 just east of the Tyrone Exit off of I-99. It’s fine to leave your vehicle in this lot. The parking lot is separated from the river by only 20 feet of gently sloping woodland, so launching here is very easy. The starting point is a water gap in the long westernmost ridge of Pennsylvania’s Ridge and Valley Province. To the north of the water gap, the mountain is called Bald Eagle Ridge and to the south it’s called Brush Mountain, but it is all part of the same ridge that extends from Willamsport to Maryland.

The Little J is a world-class trout stream that is fished heavily. River courtesy dictates passing behind fishermen when possible. When boats pass over trout the trout will always stop rising, sometimes for one-half hour or more. Also, boaters should speak up when they are still upstream of fishermen and ask which side to pass on. It’s also safer if the fisherman knows you are there so that he can stop casting. This will prevent inadvertent body piercings.

Soon after you launch, the calm waters pick up speed under the concrete Rt 453 bridge at Nealmont. Cliffs on your left downstream of this village force the stream to the right and create exciting waves in high water, which ends at the railroad bridge at Tyrone Forge. The next bridge is the one between Tyrone Forge and Ironville, downstream of which are a series of tricky rapids that can swamp a careless boater.

In a canoe along the Little Juniata River

Getting swamped on the Little J · Photo by Stan Kotala

Calm waters soon allow you to regain your composure and enjoy the large groups of mallards and Canada geese that frequently congregate on the still waters before you go under another bridge carrying Rt 453’s traffic. This bridge is a signal for you to be on guard for one of the most exciting chutes on the river, which is a few hundred feet downstream. Although the waves are high, you’ll likely make it through without taking a plunge if you just go with the flow!

You may need to bail some water out of your boat after the Ironville chute, but you’ll have plenty of time to do so as the next section is a long stretch of flat water paralleling Rt 453. You’ll pass under the steel bridges at Silver Barn Road and Pine Hill (Irish Flats). Note the shamrocks on the iron work. Take time to enjoy the scenery, especially some of the large sycamores and tulip trees you’ll see in this area. Also watch for river birds such as great blue herons, green herons, common mergansers, wood ducks, and belted kingfishers, all of which are constant features of the summertime Little J.

The river then turns right, away from Rt 453 and into a deep gorge heralded by a railroad bridge. The water here is swift and bouncy, with tall cliffs to your right. Listen for the loud “pit-sa” call of the Acadian flycatcher on the hillside and the harsh rattle of the belted kingfisher as he flies along the stream. If you’re lucky, you might see the kingfisher make a spectacular head-first dive into the water to catch small fish!

Shortly before you reach the small Schoenberger Bridge, you’ll pass a large rock on the right side of the stream. During high water, this rock creates spectacular waves and is a favorite spot for “playboaters” who like to surf the waves.

In a canoe along the Little Juniata River

Those opting for a shorter trip can take out at the Pemberton parking lot on the left side of the river before you pass under the concrete Pemberton Bridge. Parking in this lot is by the courtesy of New Enterprise Stone and Lime Company, so please observe the parking signs. Travel time via the river from Tyrone to Pemberton is about and hour and a quarter. While at this bridge, observe the nests and activity of cliff swallows and barn swallows.  Both species nest under this bridge: the barn swallow makes cup-shaped nests while the cliff swallow makes fully-enclosed juglike nests, both species using mud as the construction material. Contrast this with the rough-winged swallow, which uses the crevices in the stone arch railroad bridges for its nest site.

Continuing downstream from Pemberton, you’ll be surrounded by forest for several miles. You’ll see lots of trout in the water, spotted sandpipers at the riverside, and possibly a barred owl flying across the river, particularly in the early morning or late evening. Sinking Run, a limestone stream that emanates from Sinking Valley, enters the river on the right. Look for old stone foundations of mills, part of a once-bustling forge on the right just before the river makes a sharp left-hand turn prior to entering a long stretch of flat water. Water speed picks up after the next railroad bridge. Listen for the songs of wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, and yellow-throated vireos coming out the woods on both sides of the river. Interesting limestone outcrops on the left side of stream often are basking sites for northern water snakes, which the ignorant often mistake for copperheads.

After going under a few more railroad bridges, you’ll pass the USGS Spruce Creek stream gauge on the right, shortly before entering the village of Spruce Creek. The take-out spot in Spruce Creek is at the parking lot of the white church on the right side of the river just before the concrete Rt 45 bridge. Parking (and a picnic table) in the church parking lot are provided by the church. Donations can be made in the Spruce Creek Outfitter’s shop just across the bridge. Travel time via the river from Pemberton to Spruce Creek is 45 minutes.

If you choose to continue on, then you will be rewarded with the wildest and most scenic section of the river, the Little Juniata Water Gap — one of only a few water gaps in the Commonwealth that does not have a road running through it. After passing under the Rt 45 cement bridge you’ll see Spruce Creek flowing into the river from the left, followed by a short stretch of open area on your left before entering a deep forested canyon. Here, in Rothrock State Forest’s Little Juniata Natural Area, Tussey Mountain rises 1,500 feet above the river on each side, the scenery rivaling anything that our Keystone State has to offer. Bald eagles can often be seen cruising above the river looking for a meal. It’s not uncommon to see an otter or a mink in this stretch of the river. You can relax and enjoy the wildlife because, except for the areas at the railroad bridges, the river is relatively gentle in this area, free of the treacherous chutes, rocks, and rapids that make the upper sections of the “Little J” a challenge.

The last take-out point for this trip is the DCNR Rothrock State Forest parking lot in the Little Juniata Natural Area at the end of Mountain Road near the village of Barree. Travel time from Spruce Creek to Barree is one hour.

As you can see, this trip can be broken up into several sections or done as a whole, with trip times lasting from about an hour to a whole day. There are numerous islands on the river suitable for resting and picnics. Further information about the Little Juniata River can be found on the websites of the Little Juniata River Association and the Juniata Clean Water Partnership.

So enjoy the Little J, a remarkable river close to home that lives up to Henry David Thoreau’s adage: “The river is by far the most attractive highway.”

If You Go: From State College, take Route 26 south to Pine Grove Mills, going straight through the light onto Rt 45 and follow it to Spruce Creek or continue on to Rt 453. Rt 453 parallels the Little Juniata River upstream to Tyrone. If going to the Little Juniata Natural Area, then take Rt 453 to Rt 22 east to Route 305, following it into Alexandria and turning left on Main Street and making a right at the road by the Mead Products factory. Follow this road through Barree, cross a bridge and make the first left, Mountain Road, which leads to the DCNR Little Juniata Natural Area parking lot.


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