Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — August 2002

Hiking in the Hook Natural Area

by Gary Thornbloom

A recent hot, muggy, mid-summers day found a group of us on a Sierra Club Outing enjoying the relative cool in the shaded depths of a hollow, walking along a stream under a mature canopy of hemlocks mixed with occasional hardwood trees. Miles removed from machine generated noise, only the occasional song of an unseen bird mingled with the sound of the stream, and even these sounds seemed suspended in the weighty silence of this place, The Hook Natural Area. The Hook is Pennsylvania’s largest natural area — areas where, to the greatest practical extent, wildness is allowed to exist and where biological and physical processes are given priority. Human presence is limited to that of a visitor.

As with many hikes in Central Pennsylvania the past is often present in a muted manner. In Natural Pennsylvania local author Charles Fergus writes: “The Hook” probably comes from the logging era, when timber cutters had to hook their rail line around the prows of Jones Mountain and Buck Ridge, which come nose-to-nose in this high mountain valley. It is not only the name, but much of the trail through the Hook follows an old railroad bed, and a bridge spanning the North Branch of Buffalo Creek rests on abutments from the same era. It is ironic that many of these quiet corners once rang with the sound of trains and men at work, in this case loggers. The Hook today offers more in the way of repose than it did fifty or even one

To hike an eight-mile loop through the heart of the Hook, park near the Mifflinburg Reservoir and walk up Brandon Road and go left on Buffalo Path, a jeep path. Just past a small stream crossing where the jeep path continues straight, care must be taken to turn right and follow Buffalo Path up the mountain for a steep one mile ascent to Jones Mountain Road. The ascent is rocky, and the elevation gain is 1,100 feet. At times you will be walking on boulders while a brook gurgles unseen beneath your feet. At the top, you are rewarded with a downhill hike for the next six miles as you progressively enter the more mature forest of the natural area.

Turn left on Jones Road and continue downhill for about two miles and turn left on Molasses Gap Trail. Along the way on Jones Road you can walk out the power line to your left to enjoy a view of the valley and mountains to the south. A bit further along Jones Road you get a view of mountains upon mountains to the northwest. Go past the Middle Ridge Trail and when you see a spring to the left of the road you are almost at Molasses Gap Trail. If you start a gentle uphill section on Jones Road, you have missed the trail.

Molasses Gap Trail drops gently alongside a tributary to Panther Run, a small stream that slips silently through moss covered boulders. Hemlocks increase in size and number as you proceed deeper into the gap. A bit more than a quarter mile after you passed Mule Shanty Trail, bear to the left leaving Molasses Gap Trail to follow the path that parallels the North Branch of Buffalo Creek. Sections of trail that now creep along the sidehill are relatively recent improvements that have eliminated hiking through soggy areas and the numerous stream crossings that were necessary in the past. Sidehill sections often offer good opportunities for seeing wildlife, as well as providing an interesting perspective of the valley below.

At times the creek bottom spreads out perfectly flat and open between steep mountain sides, while at other times the rhododendron and hemlock close in forming a tight canopy over both trail and stream. The rhododendron reach up to four inches in diameter and at times stretch out and over the stream. In places the lack of underbrush invites stopping and simply sitting in this serene setting. The trail seldom strays far from the North Branch of Buffalo Creek and all too soon you will find yourself passing the Mifflinburg Reservoir and be back to where you began your hike.

For a more relaxing look at the Hook begin this hike in reverse, but do not do a loop. Follow the trail along the North Branch of Buffalo Creek as far as you choose and then turn around and hike back. As an area to while away an afternoon in, it would be hard to beat the Hook, an area listed as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, a promising area for amphibians and reptiles, and an area where big trees have returned. The Hook also holds the promise of solitude.

Natural Areas have been set aside by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to protect areas of special value from human disturbance. The forest is allowed to grow old, to mature, and to change at its own pace. Human impacts are minimized. The Hook Natural Area can show you the value of just letting a place be, and the dense forest canopy offers great shade for the visitor on a midsummer’s hike.

If You Go: Take Route 45 East from State College through Millheim and Aaronsburg, over Bear Mountain (Hairy John State Forest Picnic Area is on the top) and through Hartleton. Turn left on State Route 3005 right before the Christ United Lutheran Church 2.4 miles from the Hartleton (the borough sign). Stay on this road for 2.3 miles and take a left on Moll Road. Take this road to the 4-way stop sign after 1.5 miles and turn left on Buffalo Mills Road. Take this gravel forest road another mile past the intersection with Brandon Road where it turns into Old Shingle Road. The Mifflinburg Reservoir is just another quarter mile.

For a slightly longer, but more scenic drive, you can take gravel state forest roads to the Mifflinburg Reservoir. This drive takes one through a maturing mixed forest. Turn left on Sheesley Run Road 0.7 miles past Hairy John State Forest Picnic Area, through the intersection of Stony Run Road two miles from Route 45. Proceed another 7.5 miles to the Reservoir. Make sure to stop on top of the mountain on the way to enjoy the Hodo Vista overlooking Penns Valley. At the point at which it bears right adjacent to the Silver Dollar Sportsman Club, the road forms the southern boundary of The Hook Natural Area.

Books and Maps

Natural Pennsylvania by Charles Fergus has a chapter on The Hook and, ever the curmudgeon, Chuck uses a raven to lead into his account.

In More Outbound Journeys in Pennsylvania Marcia Bonta’s chapter on the Hook describes her springtime visit where wildflowers, ferns, and songbirds set the tone.

Tom Thwaites’ book, Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, gives a nuts and bolts description with a map, which covers the eight-mile loop described above — although in reverse route.

The DCNR Public Use Map for Bald Eagle State Forest gives an overview of the entire area, while the USGS Hartleton map covers the area of this hike in more detail.

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