Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2005

Moss-Hanne Trail for Early Fall Colors

by Gary Thornbloom

Stretch out your enjoyment of the fall foliage season by hiking the Moss-Hanne Trail around Black Moshannon Lake. Each fall brings the guessing game of when the autumn colors will be at their peak. A mix of many factors combines to produce the best colors. Lengthening hours of darkness begins the process, and tree species and chemistry of the leaf determine the color. Amount of rainfall or lack of rainfall, temperatures — well you get the picture, many variables. One constant is that the species of trees growing in and the cooler air that settles into the low lying areas — read areas with water — results in areas with the earliest colors every year. The trees that surround Black Moshannon Lake and the streams that feed it are among the earliest in providing autumn colors. Mid-September brings hints of what is to come, and by late September/early October these trees and shrubs are at the peak of their color weeks before the surrounding forestlands.

The Moss-Hanne Trail is a flat, easy walking trail that snakes its way around the upper end of Black Moshannon Lake and the small streams that feed the lake. Signs at the trailhead caution that waterproof footwear is recommended, although this year, in mid-September, the trail was drier then I have ever seen it. The trail is an established, well maintained trail with orange blazed triangles marking it. Recent additions of boardwalks through wetlands, and a bridge over Black Moshannon Creek where it meanders through the Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area, allow you to hike into wetland areas that are generally inaccessible to most hikers.

The Moss-Hanne Trail begins and ends in pine plantations that are typical of the Civilian Conservation Corps plantings of the 1930s. These plantings were an effort to reforest lands that were previously left barren by poor logging practices. The many times that the trail skirts and goes through these plantings will give you a good look at them. Red pine was chosen because it grows quickly and does well on the poor soil of what were quite often severely eroded logging sites. These trees are now about 70 years old. Compare the diversity of surrounding areas that have regenerated naturally with the plantation plantings. Large, gray, weathered stumps and shells of stumps are also apparent along the trail, and their size can give you an idea of the white pine and hemlock forest that originally towered over this area.

Much of the Moss-Hanne Trail is in or around the Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area, an area that has been given special protection as a State Park Natural Area to preserve its ecological values and its uniqueness. A bog is basically a poorly drained low area where sphagnum moss builds up thick layers that hold the water. This particular low area does not drain well because of shallow underlying sandstone. The bog ecosystem that is present here is typical of bogs hundreds of miles to the north. With a little exploration interesting plants such as the carnivorous pitcher plant and arctic cotton grass can be discovered. There are cranberries, and even in mid September it did not take me long to fill my quart water bottle with blueberries.

The trail also passes along the edges of many beaver dams in all stages of succession. Among the many species of wildlife that benefit from the work of the beavers are wood ducks. Wood ducks were pushed toward extinction by overhunting and loss of habitat. With protection, increased habitat, and the help of nesting boxes — which you can see on this hike — wood duck numbers are increasing. The male is particularly beautiful and the beaver pond at the beginning of the hike offers a good opportunity to see one. The beaver ponds and the shoreline of Black Moshannon Lake are also good spots to see great blue herons. Binoculars will help you to better experience the wildlife on this as well as on every hike.

The wild character of this area of the park was underlined by comments from a hiker I met while hiking the trail. When I asked if he had seen any wildlife he commented that he had seen deer, but that he was “ — sure glad I didn’t meet the bear that left the poop on that long boardwalk section a little further back!” When I got to that section of trail I noted coyote, as well as bear scat as I followed the narrow corridor the boardwalk provided. I also noted how the marsh was encroaching on that space making it even narrower, and I could see how that hiker may have had nervous thoughts about meeting a bear in those close confines!

Some of the lowlands surrounding the small streams that feed Black Moshannon Lake are surrounded by stands of hemlock. While not the towering hemlocks of old growth areas — the giant weathered stumps can lead you to imagine what once was here — the areas of hemlock vary from thick impenetrable growth to stands that are a little older and more open. One such stand gave me the sense, if not of standing in an old growth cathedral, then of standing in a chapel. Silence reigned under the thick canopy. As I stood and looked around, the fern covered openings lit by sunlight had all the charm of stained glass windows. The ferns were lime and yellow in their autumn glory and they glowed, surrounded by the darkness under the hemlocks.

Large areas carpeted with individual frond ferns — bracken, hayscented — while brightening up the early fall forest, are nonetheless a clear indication of an unhealthy forest. These ferns spread rapidly by rhizomes, are not eaten by wildlife, and soon cast a thick blanket that smothers and inhibits the germination of other plants. Overgrazing by deer has eliminated whatever other plant growth there is and only the individual frond ferns, which deer do not like to eat, are allowed to thrive. But not all ferns are signs of trouble. Many other ferns appear as a clump of fronds, are site specific, slow to spread, and are eaten by wildlife. One of these, royal fern, is striking, often standing waist high in solitary fountains of gold, bursting from the forest floor.

Autumn is a delightful time to get out in the woods. The bugs are gone. Temperatures are comfortable for hiking. The colors are spectacular, and a hike on the Moss-Hanne Trail extends your opportunity to enjoy the brilliant colors of the season.

If You Go: The Moss-Hanne Trailheads in Black Moshannon State Park are at the end of the West Side Road and on the Beaver Road. Black Moshannon State Park is accessed from State Route 504 nine miles east of Philipsburg or from the Beaver Road ten miles north of Julian. The Moss-Hanne Trail has mile markers — one through seven — numbered from the West Side Road Trailhead to Beaver Road.

Orange triangle blazes mark the trail and signs at all trail junctions will keep you going in the right direction, but always carry a map.

The Moss-Hanne Trail is 7.7 miles long. To use the highway to complete a loop will make this an 11-mile hike. A car or a bicycle shuttle can easily keep you on the trail for just the 7.7 miles!

Maps of the Moss-Hanne Trail are available for free at the Black Moshannon Park Office, which is located along the Beaver Road just before the junction with SR 504.

Gary Thornbloom is the Chair of the Moshannon Group, Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout Central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).