Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — November 2005

Two Loops at S.B. Elliot State Park

by Dave Coleman

Back in July, the On The Trail column was about S.B. Elliot State Park. Ben Cramer described the physiology and the ecology of this Appalachian plateau environment as well as the current lodge issue. A semi-commercial overnight lodge is proposed to be developed in this state park, ostensibly to promote DCNR’s “PA Wilds” campaign. Conservationists and Sportsman partnered to successfully oppose a similar proposal for Prince Gallitzin State Park last year. S.B. Elliot State Park may not have a nice lake or the charisma of Prince Gallitzin, but it is a pleasant little state park with picnicking, camping, rustic cabins and other buildings, a small natural museum and plenty of recreational opportunities.

This column will describe two nice short loops available at the park — one a little under 3 miles, the other a little over 5 miles. These are hikes that would be very nice to do during the autumn colors, so grab your boots and go today. At most any time of the year, you most likely will have the trails to yourself.

Both loops share the first mile or so and start at the park office. Park there and grab a park map off the porch. Walk down the service road to the right of the office towards the ball field and the cabins. After passing the cabins (to your left) keep going straight and you will reach Old Horse Trail. Turn right, and go a couple of hundred yards keeping an eye out for the trail post for Sinnemahoning Road. Turn left and follow this grassy old logging road through the poorly regenerating woodland. The surrounding forest floor is composed mostly of Hay Scented Ferns with little, if any, trees (mostly maple and oak) less than 30 years old. Deer overbrowsing is very evident here. However, (although we weren’t there at the best time of year to see wildflowers) we found leaves and/or fruit of painted trillium, goldthread, white wood sorrel, Indian cucumber-root, Canada mayflower and other spring ephemerals. In some of the small bogs that dot the area, one can find carnivorous sundew plants and plenty of cranberries.

Especially if you are alone and not engaged in chatter, you will hear the noise from I-80 over your footsteps. In fact, there is not a square foot in the park itself that is totally free from the highway noise. But, at this point (as well as the rest of the loops described here), you are not in the state park; you are in the adjacent section of Moshannon State Forest. The scenery is still nice, and gets better as you continue.

Follow Sinnemahoning Road about a quarter mile and watch for the sign post on the left for North Fork Trail. As the name suggests, this trail leads down the North Fork of Doctors Fork — which, in turn, is a fork of Lick Run. At one point, the trail crosses the north fork, but you will not notice it as the stream this far up is intermittent at best.

You will also notice that as you descend into the shallow hollow, the highway noise will be practically imperceptible. The trail winds through a couple of sections of hemlocks.

After about three-quarters of a mile you will reach the intersection with South Fork Trail.

For the shorter loop (3 miles total), turn right on South Fork Trail, take it up half a mile to the end of Old Sinnemahoning Road (near Kennedy Road) turn right and take Old Sinnemahoning Road three-quarters of a mile back to the park cabins.

For the longer loop (5 miles total), continue following the shallow hollow on Doctors Fork Trail. The forks are still intermittent at this point and as you enter a broader, more open creek valley, the highway noise will again be noticeable. However, after a while, you will start hearing the sound of running water and you won’t hear the highway again the rest of the way down the trail. The trail descends along the left bank of Doctors Fork for one and a quarter miles from the North and South Forks juncture. As one descends the trail, the creek rapidly becomes a real forest stream dropping over rock ledges and boulders. Large rocks and patches of evergreen are all around. This is really a pretty little gorge and it pleasantly comprises the highlight of this hike. Take your time here, to scramble over the frequent rocky sections as well as to enjoy the scenery.

At the bottom of Doctor’s fork is a marsh-bog bottom valley of Lick Run. Turn left on Lick Run Trail and go just a quarter of a mile as the trail goes up further from Lick Run where a big sign clearly indicates your left hand turn on Rattlesnake Trail. This will be the only climb of the 5-mile loop. The trail rises only 400 vertical feet in less than a third of a mile. This is not one of those climbs that seem to never end, with one “summit” after another coming into view. Here, the summit is obvious as you climb and ends abruptly in a grove of pine.

Rattlesnake Trail from here is a grassy old logging road — fairly straight and flat. You will go past large sections of deer fencing — an attempt to reestablish forest regeneration after the thinning harvests of just few years ago.

After a total of one and one-quarter mile on Rattlesnake Trail, you will see the wood sign for Old Horse Trail. This is also a grassy and fairly flat trail. Take it about two-thirds of a mile until you see the park cabins on the right.

The park map indicates that the shorter loop is designated for cross country skiing as well as hiking. A minimum of six inches of snow would be in order, especially for the couple of rocky sections on North Fork Trail. Novice skiers should have few problems on this loop. South Fork Trail is steeper than North Fork Trail and would be taken uphill with the loop direction (clockwise) described. More adventurous skiers may want to try taking South Fork downhill if they can handle sliding over the dozen water bars across the trail.

The longer loop would make a very interesting ski for advanced skiers. A foot of snow would be necessary to negotiate the rocky outcrops on Doctors Fork Trail, but even then, falls may be particularly dangerous as they would most likely be on top of larger rocks on the trail. Skiers of almost any experience level would have to de-ski and walk up the first third of a mile of Rattlesnake Trail, not just because of the grade, but because the trail is narrow, rock filled and twisty. Going down Rattlesnake Trail would not be advisable even for experts. The top of Rattlesnake Trail, Old Horse Trail and Old Sinnemahoning Road are easy trails suitable for beginners although you may have to share the latter with snowmobiles.

If You Go: S.B. Elliot State Park is easy to reach and is a little less than an hour from State College. Take Route 322 West through Philipsburg and to the Woodland interchange with I-80. Take the interstate west two exits to the Route 153 North (Pennfield exit).The park entrance is just three-quarters mile from the exit ramp on the right.

If looking at the park map, you get the bright idea that you can access the lower portion of the longer loop from Kennedy Road, forget it. Even if you don’t get tricked and end up on State Game Lands No. 90 — instead of at the dead end next to Lick Run, the drive down to the bottom requires a serious four-wheel drive vehicle.

Dave Coleman lives in Patton Township and volunteers for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club as well as the local Moshannon Group. Dave can be reached at dyatesc@aol.com