Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2005

Finding Green Amongst the Winter Blahs

by Ben Cramer

For most of the year, Central Pennsylvania’s forested hills and plateaus are a feast for the eyes. From the vivid bright greens and blooming flowers of the spring, to the moody rolling expanses of dark green of the summer, to the classic changing colors of the autumn, the hills are alive with visual beauty whether you’re on foot or zooming by on a sightseeing road trip. But in the winter, after the leaves have fallen and there is little or no snow cover, the hills can look a little — you know — drab. Miles of dull browns and tans are not especially stimulating to the eye or the spirit. But fortunately, our area still offers plenty of green to beat the winter blahs, with only a short trip off the beaten path.

The Seven Mountains region along the border of Centre and Huntingdon Counties offers several rewarding winter rambles and explorations, within recreation areas that are easily reachable for the slightly adventurous. The premier location for year-round natural beauty, plus unique winter experiences, is Alan Seeger Natural Area. This small preservation site, named after a World War I soldier, offers an outstanding circuit hike that takes you along several converging creeks and an awe-inspiring patch of old growth forest. This hike can be completed in twenty minutes, or it could take hours and hours if one decides to explore the streamlets, hillsides, and copses of large trees.

Following the Seeger Trail from the signboard at the small parking lot, in either direction the hike starts with an easy ramble through a quite typical (and non-green) Central Pennsylvania forest of oak, beech, dogwood, and a little hickory. For a portion of this loop hike, the Seeger Trail shares the path with the long-distance Greenwood Spur Trail, which goes south about five miles to Greenwood Furnace State Park, while a short distance to the north it connects with the Mid State Trail, which at more than 200 miles long is Pennsylvania’s premier hiking and backpacking resource.

Back on the Alan Seeger loop hike, you cross four footbridges over various branches of Standing Stone Creek. Amongst these footbridges you suddenly enter of riot of green that can really lift one’s spirits in the winter. For a while, the trail is completely surrounded by giant rhododendron bushes, which do not drop their leaves in the winter, forming a literal green tunnel for the hiker. And then there are the majestic evergreens of Alan Seeger.

Hundreds of years ago, Pennsylvania was covered with endless forests of centuries-old evergreens, especially white pine and the celebrated state tree, hemlock. Almost all of this primordial forest was lost to logging by the early 20th century, except for a few out-of-the-way locations that were either inaccessible or which fell between the territories of competing logging companies. Due to poor surveying and cutthroat business practices, logging companies would not dare cut trees near the boundaries of their competitors, creating small “no man’s lands” where the old trees survived. This is likely what happened at Alan Seeger Natural Area, leaving us with a small but magnificent treasure trove of ancient monarchs. (Other good examples of this in the region are Snyder-Middleswarth State Park in Snyder County and Cook Forest State Park in Clarion County.)

Alan Seeger Natural Area offers a neck-breaking view upward as you are dwarfed by 150-foot hemlocks and white pines, with an occasional shorter but fatter red pine thrown in. There are even a few lonely spruce, which are quite close to the southern limit of their mostly Canadian range. Many of the largest trees are believed to be more than 500 years old, and give an indication of the once tremendous and never-ending old growth forests that were found by the original Pennsylvania pioneers.

Meanwhile, you will find that areas beneath these green giants, especially the hemlocks, are noticeably colder than the surrounding areas. This is due to both the profound shade offered by these trees, as well as their processes of bringing ground water and stream water up through their roots. Unused water is released by the leaves and needles back into the air through a process called evapotranspiration. This results in a concentrated burst of coolness and humidity that can be either refreshing or shocking, depending on the time of year and how long you have been hiking. The unexpected greenness of the Alan Seeger Natural Area, as well as its ice-fringed streams and opportunities for unique wildlife viewing, offer real treats for those willing to bundle up a little and venture outdoors in the winter.

A couple of other natural areas near Alan Seeger offer their own unique experiences. The little-known Penn Roosevelt State Park nearby offers relaxing camping and rambling around its small artificial lake, which is itself rather fascinating if you inspect its perennially leaky dam. Some water has been bypassing the spillway to the side of the dam by trickling directly underneath it. Here we can see an artificial lake demanding to return to its natural state as a babbling brook by simply ignoring, little by little, the large manmade edifice that is blocking the small valley’s natural flow of water.

Also within reach is the highly unique Bear Meadows Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark high in the hills behind the Tussey Mountain Ski Area. This unusually high and flat valley is a natural gathering place for water, but it is almost entirely surrounded by ridges, offering the water little chance to escape the area. This has resulted in a bog and swamp ecosystem that is quite uncommon for this region of the United States, with plenty of unique wildlife present, especially migratory birds and yes, bears. All of these unique and little-known but easily reached natural areas can offer a refreshing burst of green to beat the winter blahs.

If You Go: All of the areas described here can be reached via Stone Creek Road, a narrow but paved road that roughly follows the southern boundary of Centre County, between PA 26 at McAlevys Fort and US 322 at Laurel Creek Reservoir. Alan Seeger Natural Area is at the approximate midpoint of this road, at the corner of Seeger Road. Penn Roosevelt State Park is to the east, a short distance north of Stone Creek Road on Crowfield Road. Bear Meadows Natural Area is located along the unpaved road of the same name, between Stone Creek Road and Tussey Mountain Ski Area to the north. Do not assume these roads to be passable after snowfall, and inquire with State Forest personnel on road conditions when in doubt. Also note that at the time of this writing, the Alan Seeger loop hike is partially blocked by downed trees, making some exploratory bushwhacking necessary.

Ben Cramer is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast living in State College. He is also a committee member for the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club.