Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2005

A Day on the Plateau at S.B. Elliott State Park

by Ben Cramer

Residents of the Centre region can’t help but notice the dramatic topography of the area. We live in what Pennsylvania’s geographers aptly call the “Ridge and Valley” province, in which long, snaking ridges alternate with lush valleys that are ideal for farms and small towns. Happy Valley is surrounded, almost literally, by heavily forested Nittany Mountain, Bald Eagle Ridge, and Tussey Mountain — all formidable ridges that march off for dozens of miles into the distance.

However, travel a couple of ridges to the west and you’ll see the landscape change dramatically. The steep and lofty Allegheny Front marks the transition of Pennsylvania’s geography into the “Plateau” province, where elevations stay high and forests are larger. The Allegheny Plateau, which is several counties wide in all directions, features unique ecosystems of dense hardwood forests and important high-altitude wetlands and meadows. These natural areas are crucial habitats for Pennsylvania’s more glamorous flora and fauna, including a great variety of birds as well as bears and elk.

A great place for a sampling of the Plateau’s charms is S.B. Elliott State Park in Clearfield County. The roots of this park date back to 1911 when the state purchased land in the area that logging companies had completely denuded of trees. The plan was to place the land under state supervision in order to allow the forests to regrow and the local ecosystems to recover. Fortunately, after a century of being left to its own devices, nature has resumed its course in Central Pennsylvania. The state park was designated in 1933 and named after longtime state legislator Simon B. Elliott, who was an influential advocate for the conservation of Pennsylvania’s forests.

The park itself consists of a pleasant picnic area and organized campground, under a canopy of awe-inspiring white pine and oak trees. This structured park area is still quite civilized, but you have already observed the primary forest type of the Allegheny Plateau. To really experience all the wonders of the Plateau ecosystem, a network of hiking trails offers easy rambles through not just woods, but meadows overflowing with wild blueberry and huckleberry, and even an occasional swamp. The patient naturalist is highly likely to spot all kinds of wild creatures in these unique areas, especially amphibians and large birds of prey, and sometimes an elusive black bear if he hasn’t smelled you coming from a mile away.

For the more adventurous hiker, the CPL Trail utilizes former road and railroad beds used by the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company back in the logging days. This trail leads north about seven miles from S.B. Elliott to Parker Dam State Park, a larger park where elk have been spotted hanging out on the softball field. Parker Dam also serves as the trailhead for the long-distance Quehanna Trail. This dramatic backpacking resource is a 76-mile loop that stretches across three counties, centering on the valuable Quehanna Wild Area, a thinly-forested and surprisingly flat system of meadows and hollows that are now nurturing Pennsylvania’s emerging elk herd, as well as some of the most dense concentrations of wildlife in the state.

For both adventurous ramblers and observant nature lovers, S.B. Elliott State Park is an ideal, easily reached gateway to the Allegheny Plateau, a unique ecosystem that few Pennsylvania natives seem to be familiar with. Unfortunately, this humble but valuable park has been named in a state plan to allow the development of private lodges operated by for-profit business interests. In 2004, a plan of this type at Prince Gallitzin State Park, also on the Allegheny Plateau above Altoona, was declared unfeasible. However, the state has not dropped the basic idea, and S.B. Elliott has been slated for another stab at a private lodge on public land, as has the brand new Erie Bluffs State Park in Erie County.

At S. B. Elliott, conservationists are concerned that a lodge in the park itself, no matter how environmentally friendly its construction, could fuel spill-over development on ecologically sensitive lands outside the park. This is especially a risk in rural Pine Township, where no zoning ordinances limiting development exist. The Clearfield County Natural Heritage Inventory, prepared by ecologists working for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, identified the area surrounding the park as a Biological Diversity Area (BDA). BDAs are “those areas in the best condition and those areas which make important contributions to biodiversity by harboring species or communities which have declined or are naturally uncommon in the state, region, or world.” The report describes the BDA around S.B. Elliott as specifically rich in wildflowers, such as round-leaved sundew, small green woodland orchid, starflower, goldthread, and other species that indicate a high-quality forested wetland environment.

S.B. Eliott — as well as our other state parks — has been developed enough for the public to enjoy. They have all of the amenities, and more, to fulfill the mission of state parks — to “provide opportunities for enjoying healthful outdoor recreation and serve as outdoor classrooms for environmental education.” Climb the plateau and visit S.B. Elliot yourself. Hike the trails, camp under the stars, observe the wildlife, and you will be convinced of this yourself.

If You Go: S.B. Elliott State Park is about one hour and fifteen minutes west of State College, and is accessed via PA Route 153 just one mile north of Exit 111 on I-80.

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. The Moshannon Group hosts regular outdoor adventures throughout central Pennsylvania (see the Outings page for details).