Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2006

A Scramble and Ramble Over Grass Mountain

by Ben Cramer

In the January 2005 edition of this column, I described two lovely recreational spots near State College — Alan Seeger Natural Area and Penn Roosevelt State Park — which are just a bit off the beaten path in the hills behind Tussey Mountain ski area. You can also hike between these two attractions, over an intervening hill called Grass Mountain

Central Pennsylvania residents often assume that they are surrounded by hills, but these are actually snaking ridges that slither off into the distance for dozens of miles. For example, the “Mount” Nittany that towers over State College is merely the southwestern end of a long ridge that marches off to the northeast, all the way to the Susquehanna River near Williamsport.

These ridges are usually “knife edged” and predominantly rocky on top. Backpackers on Central Pennsylvania’s ridge tops are surely familiar with arduous hiking conditions that range from very rocky to extremely rocky to completely rocky. Even through-hikers on the famous Appalachian Trail, who have walked from Georgia to Maine, have a joke about Pennsylvania’s rocky environment. To them, our area is “where boots go to die.”

The densely packed ridges that come together in the Mountains region near State College offer more of these typically brutal ridge tops, but there are a few exceptions. One is Grass Mountain between Penn Roosevelt and Alan Seeger. In hiker terminology, this is a “soft” hill that offers a refreshingly non-rocky hiking experience in the quiet wilderness just outside of town.

From the parking area at Penn Roosevelt State Park, walk past a large stone chimney and turn left on the closed Thickhead Mountain Road. Walk around a gate and continue up the road, climbing slightly. This old dirt road is already a haven for wildlife. Visiting the area in mid-February to research this article, I was able to follow nearly continuous coyote tracks. On a previous visit during the spring, I nearly stepped on a little gang of baby garter snakes, barely larger than earthworms, and which were probably just a few days old.

After about half a mile, Thickhead Mountain Road begins a very wide horseshoe curve to the right. Just after the beginning of this curve, watch very carefully for an unmarked but obvious footpath turning off to the left. If you find yourself making a U-turn on the road, you’ve missed this trail junction. This is the beginning of the Grass Mountain Trail (this initial section is also known as the Colon Trail on some maps), and you soon begin a very steep climb up the side of a ridge. This climb is rather harsh but is over pretty quickly. Along the way up you can turn around to several vistas of the hollow containing Penn Roosevelt.

Once you reach the top, the rest of the hike to Alan Seeger is an easy walk downhill, which makes this brief but steep climb tolerable. In the words of longtime central Pennsylvania hiking expert Jean Aron, Grass Mountain is “scramble up, amble down” when tackled in this direction.

Once you reach the top of the ridge, the Grass Mountain Trail proceeds on an easily followed footpath through open woods. You soon cross a bare swath that carries a gas pipeline. Continue straight ahead on an old jeep road that is quite grown over and sometimes heavily eroded. This road makes your downhill ramble even easier, and even though it once carried vehicles, it has obviously not been used in quite some time. This road is now a great convenience for both hikers and wildlife. During my mid-February visit, there was a thin covering of snow and I was walking with coyote tracks nearly all day. The wily canines dutifully followed the trail, and occasionally veered off into the woods after deer tracks.

About two-thirds of the way down Grass Mountain, you reach a logged area that explains the existence of the old road you’ve been following. This small area was clear-cut sometime in the last ten to twenty years, and the environmental effects are very evident. The absence of trees allows sunlight to hit the ground with unnatural intensity, resulting in the growth of invasive species that would not occur in a mature forest.

This particular clearing is heavily colonized by broomsedge, a tall brown grass that is a familiar enemy to area farmers. That species is alien to the forest but not to Pennsylvania in general. However, this clearing on Grass Mountain contains many specimens of a true invasive alien called barberry. This large gray bush with red berries colonizes new areas when birds spread its seeds, and in Pennsylvania it favors newly sunny areas where it can crowd out native species.

Back on the trail, still following the old jeep road downhill, you soon pass a vehicle gate and emerge on paved Stone Creek Road. At this junction there is a wooden post sign calling the path you just followed the “Long Mountain Trail,” though I have not seen this name on any maps. Alan Seeger Natural Area is about 1/3 of a mile to the right.

The hike described here is about 4 1/4 miles in length, and requires a car shuttle, with one car each at Penn Roosevelt State Park and Alan Seeger Natural Area. If you only have one car, this hike can also be done in both directions for 8 1/2 slightly strenuous miles. The intrepid backpacker can also create a rugged loop hike of about 9 1/2 miles. Follow the hike as described here, but just before Alan Seeger, turn right off Stone Creek Road onto the Greenwood Spur Trail. Follow this trail 1 1/2 miles until it ends at the Mid-State Trail. Turn right and follow the rocky Mid-State for a little less than four miles back to Penn Roosevelt.

If You Go: Both Alan Seeger Natural Area and Penn Roosevelt State Park are 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. The one-way hike described here is also featured in the book The Short Hiker by Jean Aron, while all the trails discussed here have been well-mapped by the Mid-State Trail Association.

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).