Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — May 2002

Road-Less Wild Area in Pennsylvania

by Dave Coleman

It was after a couple of miles into the hike that we first came upon the Great Blue Heron. The large bird glided down the small creek valley away from us. The unusual thing about it was that this was not typical Great Blue Heron habitat. It was not a large, or even a medium size river valley. This was the very top of the Hammersley Fork, a small creek at this point that together with other tributaries and a couple of other small creek watersheds, form the Hammersley Wild Area.

Located at the southern portion of Potter County at the border with Clinton County, the Hammersley Wild Area is the State’s second largest state forest Wild Area with over 30,000 acres. The Quehanna Wild Area in Cameron and Clearfield Counties boast some 50,000 acres, but is trisected with the paved Quehanna Highway as well as Wykoff Run Road.

This area has not been logged since the turn of the Century (The 20th century), so the forest structure is fairly mature. Deer over browsing is very evident as entire hillsides along the creeks are blanketed by ferns rather than with tree under story. Still, other parts appear very healthy with a variety of hardwoods, hemlocks and pines. Large stumps of White Pine are encountered in several parts of the area — evidence of the character of the area before it was logged. Many of the pine and hemlock stumps now sprout Birch trees that have taken advantage of the rich nutrients left by the saw.

Especially with the attendant Dutlinger Natural Area enveloped in its Southwest corner, the Hammersley Wild Area is one of the state forest system’s jewels, and most likely the largest road-less area in Pennsylvania. In addition, the Hammersley Wild Area is basically in the middle of the largest portion of state forests in the state. Thus, various levels of forest protection and propagation surround the Hammersley Wild Area.

There are potential threats to the Wild Area, however. A dozen or two gas wells are operating along the northwest side of the area and a gas transmission main bisects that corner as well. The temporary moratorium on timber harvesting in wild areas may be lifted — potentially clearing portions of special places like Hammersley. In addition, some illegal ATV intrusion has been observed in the southern portion of the area towards the bottom of the Dutlinger Natural Area. It is hoped that the newly proposed (and much debated) deep high pressure gas drilling for state forest lands will be implemented far away (if implemented at all) from this section of state forests; that the Bureau of Forestry will make commercial timber harvesting a thing of the past in our state forest wild areas and that newly hired state forest rangers can keep the disruptive motorized vehicles out of the Wild Area. If you would like to help out with any of these important issues, contact the statewide conservation organization of your choice.

Our hike was down the Hammersley Trail, part of the Susquehannock Trail System, from the McConnell Road to the mouth of Hammersley Fork itself, at the bridge for Rt. 144. The hike was about 10 miles and a car was left at the bottom so that retracing our steps was unnecessary.

Many different hike circuits can be made through the Wild Area. There are seven or eight named trails, but the S.T.S. (Susquehannock Trail System) is the most popular, well-marked and frequently traveled. It is recommended that a car be placed at the lower end on Rt. 144 and another vehicle is used to shuttle hikers to the top of the trail off of McConnell Road. Other variations can be made with two cars, or loops of varying lengths can be made with one car — the most popular of these being the hike up from the Hammersley Fork mouth two miles, turning left on Beech Bottom Trail (big uphill) to visit the hundred acres of old growth Hemlock in the Dutlinger Natural Area.

However one has to be very careful. This is a large area. Some trails shown on the State Forest District map are not well traveled, marked or maintained. A lost hiker can readily become over five miles from any road — even more from a well-traveled road. This is not terrain for the un-chaperoned novice, or for even experienced individuals with little daylight remaining. Even when traveling with those with experience in this area, the party should be well versed in map and compass reading. Of course, terminating the excursion at the mouth of Hammersley Fork almost guarantees against becoming totally lost since almost all tributaries (with the exception of terrain south of Trout Run Ridge Trail) within the wild area drain to that point.

We followed the Hammersley Fork down to the mouth where our ride waited. We did not see the Great Blue Herron again; he may have flown back to the rookery that is reportedly in the eastern side of the area. We had just hiked the longest span of the largest road-less area of Pennsylvania in just under 5 hours. So, relatively speaking, it is not all that big — not all that wild.

But the Hammersley Wild Area is a true state treasure. No where else in Pennsylvania can you get so far away from roads, machines, development — truly “away from it all.” This area is not only a treasure in this recreational aspect, but in terms of wildlife habitat and water quality preservation. It would truly be a shame, and a disgrace to the Commonwealth, if mineral exploitation or timber harvesting is allowed to degrade what is slowly, but surely, becoming one of our states best example of an Old-Growth Forest.

If You Go: First, obtain a Susquehannock State Forest Public Use Map. Maps are available at any district forest office or by writing the Susquehannock State Forest office at P.O. Box 673, Coudersport, PA 16915-0673. Four USGS quadrangles cover the wild area: Conrad, Short Run, Tamarack and Hammersley Fork.

From the Centre Region, allow an entire day for the round trip, hiking a portion of the area and possibly visiting other attractions on the way back.

To get there proceed to Snow Shoe and take State Route 144 north to Renovo. From Renovo, Hammersley Fork the creek (not the town) is about 16 miles further on 144. Actually, when you see a sign for “Hammersley Fork” indicating a turn to the left, proceed straight on 144 about two more miles. (If you get to the town of Cross Fork, you have gone about four miles too far.) After crossing the creek, turn left on a small paved road, backtrack almost to the creek and turn right on a gravel road. Proceed slowly about a mile back on the gravel road until a sign “Susquehannock District Forest” indicates that you are on state property. Park here for the shortest way in to the Dutlinger Wild Area. You will need to cross the creek first, so a change of shoes or towel may be desirable. To get to McConnell Road, go back south on Rt. 144 and take the sign to the village Hammersley Fork and take a right on the gravel Trout Run Road. It will take between 45 minutes to an hour to circumnavigate the wild area by car on these state forest roads.

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