Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — June 2003

Hike On The Wild Side: Old-Growth Forest

by Gary Thornbloom

Old-Growth Forest. The definition of this term is much debated. A good way to get a feel for old-growth is to go hiking in such an area. Fortunately there are still a few areas — albeit small — of old-growth. The stone monument at the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area has a metal plaque set in it noting that the area “Has Been Designated A Registered Natural Landmark… This Site Possesses Exceptional Value In Illustrating The Natural History Of The United States… 1967.” The state purchased the land in 1902 and with a combination of luck and foresight the area was protected. Many of these trees were old when the state purchased the land. In Natural Pennsylvania, local author Charles Fergus relates that while there he counted the rings on a hemlock that had been chain sawed after it had fallen across the trail. He determined that tree was 250 years old.

Hemlocks are the giants that dominate this old-growth forest. There are also some huge yellow birches. Hemlocks have a lot of fine needled branches which filter the sunlight. This makes for a damp understory with lots of ferns, moss, and wildflowers. The filtered light and the towering pillars of the tree trunks give the feeling of being in a cathedral. There is a sense that everything here has been in place for a long time.

After the initial awe of the tall trees takes hold, even the casual observer will notice the large number of fallen trees. The fallen giants are everywhere. Some are recent. Some are merging with the forest floor. Some are nurseries, covered with many seedlings. Some are in the stream, creating water falls and silt filled pools. Others form bridges to cross the stream. When the giants fall they also create openings, and this causes a mass of seedlings to stretch up competing for newly revealed light. Everywhere the giant trees define the habitat, the sense of place. Old-growth is self-willed land.

In the political arena self-willed land is said to be “locked up” for an elite few who are hardy enough to backpack or hike many hard miles. However, on the day I visited the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, I met an 80-year-old woman who had just enjoyed a hike, and another group just beginning a hike included a father with his children, the youngest of which looked to be about seven.

Tall Timbers Trail begins at the upstream side of the parking area at the Tall Timber Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area. The trail follows the north side of Swift Run. After about half a mile you can cross the stream on a wooden bridge and follow a trail back to the parking area. Hemlock needles cover the trail and this makes for easy walking, although if there has been recent rain there are short stretches of wet ground.

Swift Run lives up to its name, and after much recent rain the stream was nearly constant white water. Among the many small water falls was a larger one that my hiking companion, Phil, located by exploring off the trail after noticing the deep bass sound produced by the volume of water coming over a four foot falls. Here a delightful double falls was set in a fern and bush ringed grotto. In other places the emerald moss covered stream bank was studded with wild flowers. Open sections of the stream bank invite you to stop, sit, and just listen to the sound of rushing water. Boulders and moss are joined by pools formed upstream from fallen giants. The pools add silt filled habitat to the otherwise rocky descent of Swift Run. Hobblebush, with its large heart shaped leaves, stands out in this fern filled setting. The trail occasionally moves away from the stream where you will more easily hear the voices of hidden birds. A knowledgeable birder would have been a welcome companion to identify the numerous bird songs.

For a longer hike continue walking upstream about another mile and follow the trail across the stream. A fallen giant provides a convenient, although slippery crossing. The stream is braided here and some judicious rock hopping can also get you across. A steep, steady half mile climb will bring you to an old fire tower foundation. An obvious scene of many parties, the broken bottles and cans make a case for closing old forest roads to motor vehicles.

When you leave the fire tower site take Thick Mountain Trail to the right (east). Continue another mile and a half to complete the loop. This mountain top section of the trail will provide a beautiful display of mountain laurel blooming sometime in the last part of June. You will also pass debris at the site of a 1980 plane crash (see Tom Thwaites book Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania). The trail enters a stand of hemlock trees and their size increases as you descend down the mountain. As the din of Swift Run grows louder the end of your hike grows near. After another adventure of rock hopping across the stream you come to Swift Run Road. Follow the road to the left and down to the picnic area where you began.

The Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area has been set aside to be managed by nature. Some would say this forest has been locked up, but a visit there will show you that the old-growth has been set free, some would say self-willed. Even a short stroll amidst such giants will reveal a vast difference between nature managed and human managed. Out of over 2 million acres of State Forest Land less than 4 percent is designated as Natural Areas.

Visit the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, take a walk on the wild side, and see if you agree that we can, and should, do better than a few percent.

Resources and Maps

More Outbound Journeys by Marcia Bonta and Natural Pennsylvania by Charles Fergus have chapters on Snyder-Middleswarth. Natural Pennsylvania will inform you about all of Pennsylvania’s Natural Areas. Tom Thwaites book, Fifty Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, along with describing the hike, provides a map of the hike.

If You Go: From Route 235 in Troxelville turn at the sign for Tall Timbers Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Areas. From here it is 4.8 miles to the Tall Timbers Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area. Follow signs for Tall Timbers. The road becomes Swift Run road as you enter the State Forest. Continue past Rock Springs Picnic Area. Look for the Tall Timbers Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area on the right. The picnic area has tables. Begin the hike at the sign for Tall Timbers Trail. The short loop is about one mile. The longer loop is about 3.4 miles.

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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