Rambling Through Penn's Woods

Hikes in Pennsylvania State Parks
Gorp.com

When King Charles granted a young troublemaker named William Penn a beautiful but useless piece of land back in 1681, Penn's Woods was a modern rambler's dream. Once away from the Atlantic seaboard, 300-year-old beeches, hemlocks, and maples stretched endlessly into a dense forest. The land where southern and northern species met and mixed was filled with beaver and otter in the rivers, deer, elk, and wild turkey among the trees. A rambler could head into the woods from the Delaware River, demarcating the colony's eastern line, and walk literally forever. For the king had set no western limit.

The dream was not to last, of course. Squabbles with colonial neighbors led to surveying boundaries. Logging felled all but tiny sections of the virgin timber. Hunting and trapping devastated the wildlife. Penn's Woods were in decline as a walker's paradise.

But in the late nineteenth century, enlightened stewardship emerged. The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners formed to protect and restore endangered animals. A forestry commission tempered the lumber industry and began buying and replanting the forests. The efforts that would lead to a remarkable legacy for the modern rambler had begun.

Today almost 60% of the Commonwealth's land is covered in forest. No rambler is ever more than 25 miles from a state park. The third largest state park system in the U.S. encompasses 116 parks, offering hikes only a few miles from the back door of every Pennsylvanian. We've chosen a selection of six parks to highlight rambles through Penn's Woods.

French Creek State Park

French Creek played a small part in the American Revolution. Along the stream, the Hopewell Furnace turned out iron, which was eventually cast in arms and cannon for the Revolutionary Army. The chestnut forests were repeatedly logged to feed the iron works. When the furnace closed in 1883, the area reforested with a mix of oaks. Today, the once barren hills of French Creek State Park are thickly wooded, with an abundance of wildlife, from deer and squirrels to song and migratory birds. French Creek covers 7,339 acres in the southeast between Philadelphia and Reading.

The park has over 30 miles of interconnecting trails. A grand loop of 11.5 miles combines several of these in the park's western section. It runs through forests of red, white and chestnut oaks, maples and tulip trees. The route passes two lakes, Scott's Run where cold-water species like trout are stocked, and Hopewell Lake, where warm-water species like northern pike and bass walleye give anglers a run for their money. A section of the hike follows the Horseshoe Trail, a joint walking and equestrian trail that runs from Valley Forge to the Appalachian Trail near Harrisburg.

Susquehannock State Park

Susquehannock State Park sits on cliffs that rise 380 feet above the Susquehanna River in Lancaster County. The bluffs offer panoramas of the river dotted with small islands and of the lake formed as the river spreads out behind the Conowingo Dam in northern Maryland. The vista takes in Mt. Johnson Island, the first bald eagle sanctuary in the world.

Crammed into the park's 224 acres is a 3.5 mile hiking loop. The walk is through a wooded plateau from which ramblers can enjoy expansive views. Rhododendron groves will be blooming in the late spring. Hawk Point overlooks Mt. Johnson Island, where eagles and birds of prey may be soaring in the wind currents.

Blue Knob State Park

Blue Knob State Park got its start in the 1930s as a federal demonstration park operated by the National Park Service. The projects employed the Civilian Conservation Corp to develop recreational facilities at five Pennsylvania sites, which were turned over to the Commonwealth after World War II. The park's claim to fame is its majestic quartzite peak, Blue Knob. The peak rises in a spur of the Allegheny Front to the second highest point in Pennsylvania at 3,146 feet.

In the 1970s, Blue Knob benefited from another conservation effort, this one from the Youth Conservation Corp. The group built the Lost Turkey Trail, a 17-mile point-to-point traversing state and private lands. The best of the Lost Turkey is a 10 mile stretch that starts at Herman Point. The route follows old logging grades, then runs along streams like Ciana Run and Bobs Creek where locals claim the brown and brook trout run fifteen inches or more.

Black Moshannon State Park

The timbering tradition around Black Moshannon State Park goes back a long way. In the middle of the 3,394 acre park near State College is a three-armed lake originally created by beaver knocking down trees and damming Black Moshannon Creek. The beaver dam was eventually replaced by a man-made one and an adjacent sawmill. Three million feet of logs were stored in the lake to feed the mill.

Today the lake is the centerpiece of the park. A 10.7 mile trail circles the lake, showcasing the landscape developed by an active beaver colony. Hikers will see remnants of past dams and ongoing dam and lodge projects of the busy creatures. The marshy terrain created was evidently once prime moose habitat. The Native American term"Moss-hanne," from which the park takes its name, translates to Moose Stream."

Laurel Hill State Park

The legacy of camping at Laurel Hill State Park began in 1794, when George Washington encamped his troops within its boundaries during the "Whiskey Rebellion." But it was in the 1930's that the park got its start as a recreation area for leisurely campers and hikers. Another of the federal demonstration parks in Pennsylvania, Laurel Hill was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, whose camps remain among the group sites at the park. Located in the mountainous terrain of the Commonwealth's southwest, the park covers 3,935 acres.

A 7.7 mile loop wanders through the park. One section follows an old railroad used to haul logs to a sawmill near the town of Confluence. The route criss-crosses Jones Mill Run, where anglers are likely to be chasing trout, and circles around Laurel Lake. The highlight of the hike is a stand of old growth hemlock, which somehow escaped the lumberman's blade.

Presque Isle State Park

As a natural laboratory of geologic succession, Presque Isle has been named a National Natural Landmark. This sandy peninsula which juts into Lake Erie in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania slowly migrates west to east as waves scoop up and redeposit sand and pebbles. Six ecological zones have resulted, snapshots of the stages through which the land is transformed on its steady march east. With this diversity of habitats, Presque Isle has become one of the top birding spots in the country. Shorebirds rest here in spring and autumn as they migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. Snowy owls winter here and osprey, hawks and bald eagles soar overhead. Over 320 bird species have been recorded.

A 3.9 mile path circles the end of the Presque Isle Peninsula. A lighthouse keeper originally developed the first section as a route down to Misery Bay, famous as the shipyard of Commodore Perry during the War of 1812. The return stretch along Dead Pond Trail offers a glimpse of the varying ecology, from aging sand dunes to oak-maple forest and sandplains.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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