Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — August 2006

Marion Brooks Natural Area — A Slice of Pennsylvania Wilds

by Ben Cramer

Within very easy driving distance from State College, there are vast public lands, which in aggregate, approach America’s largest National Parks in size. The area between I-80 and the New York border, and roughly from Warren in the west to Wellsboro in the east,features more than a million acres of recreational lands in a collection of State Forests, State Parks, and State Game Lands.

In 2004, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) inaugurated the Pennsylvania Wilds program, to draw recreation to the region and to promote conservation and protection. The portion of north-central Pennsylvania covered by the PA Wilds program is traversed by the increasingly popular Elk Scenic Drive, and contains several State Forest Wild Areas and many Natural Areas. The controversial landfill proposal in western Centre County would seriously infringe on pristine PA Wilds lands as well.

State Forest Wild Areas are large tracts of land that have been set aside for recreational purposes, and on which only limited development is allowed. The smaller State Forest Natural Areas have received special protection against development and human intrusion. Some of these areas are in pristine natural condition and have never been abused, but most were exploited in the past and are being allowed to return to a natural state.

According to state regulations, a Natural Area must have no human habitation except for primitive camping and backpacking (and even then only in designated areas), no access for motorized vehicles, no buildings (except those required for visitor health and safety), no timber harvesting, and no surface resource extraction. This type of Natural Area protection is now being discussed as a possibility for Spring Creek Canyon between State College and Bellefonte.

Both types of protected areas can be reached easily. A large Wild Area that is surprisingly accessible from all points in Central PA is the Quehanna Wild Area, which stretches across Clearfield, Cameron, and Elk Counties, and encompasses a very unique plateau ecosystem. The Wild Area is traversed by the paved Quehanna Highway, which in turn runs approximately from Karthaus to the famed elk-viewing village of Benezette. Quehanna Wild Area contains hundreds of miles of trails for hiking and cross-country skiing, as well as a special Natural Area that highlights the diverse landscapes and wildlife of the region.

Marion Brooks Natural Area, reached via Quehanna Highway in the southeastern corner of Elk County, serves as a good introduction to the wonders of the PA Wilds region. The area is served by a parking lot right on the highway, while unpaved Losey Road provides access to the other side of the area for high-clearance vehicles.

Named after a local clean water activist, Marion Brooks Natural Area is known for its stands of uncommon birch trees, extensive fields of blueberries, and some large white and pitch pines that survived the logging era. Other attractions of the area are its abundant wildlife, particularly porcupines and raptors, and the relatively flat and open terrain that allows for easy rambling.

The Natural Area is surrounded by three long-distance trails, which allow greater exploration for the adventurous nature lover. The 76 mile-long Quehanna Trail, a holy grail for area backpackers, passes along the northern fringe of the area, while the Mosquito Creek Trail and the East Quehanna Trail Cross-Connector (a 9 mile-long spur of the main trail) pass around the Natural Area borders to the west and east.

Meanwhile, the Marion Brooks Loop Trail offers a very pleasant afternoon ramble, starting at the parking lot and traversing both the woods and meadows of the Natural Area. This easy loop hike is less than three miles long, but in that short distance you could spend all day enjoying the best of the unique landscape and environment on the Quehanna plateau.

Another noteworthy natural attraction nearby, on the opposite side of Quehanna Highway, is the Beaver Run wildlife viewing area. This area can be reached via a driveway about three-quarters of a mile back on Quehanna Highway, or on foot via the East Quehanna Cross Connector Trail, as it branches off the Marion Brooks Loop Trail. Traveling south on the blue-blazed connector trail, you pass by a small artificial lake around which many migratory birds and amphibians can be seen year-round. In the next mile the trail enters a large area of open high-altitude meadows, a rarity in Pennsylvania, containing extensive stands of blueberry, wintergreen, mint, and blackberry bushes. Humans aren’t the only lovers of these tasty plants, as visitors have reported bears and elk in the area.

You can learn more about Marion Brooks Natural Area, and Quehanna Wild Area, in the books Natural Pennsylvania by Chuck Fergus and Great Buffaloe Swamp by Ralph Seeley. The Pennsylvania Wilds program is described on the state website at www.dcnr.state.pa.us. All of the areas and trails discussed here can be easily seen on the DCNR map for the Quehanna Trail, or the public use maps for Elk and Moshannon State Forests.

If You Go: Take I-80 west to Snow Shoe, then PA 144 north to Moshannon, and then PA 879 west to Karthaus. Just beyond Karthaus, where PA 879 turns left toward Clearfield, instead turn right onto Quehanna Highway. The boundary of Quehanna Wild Area is reached about four miles after this intersection. For Marion Brooks Natural Area, travel 13.9 miles from the Karthaus intersection. The natural area is marked by a memorial and a small parking lot on the right side, at the corner of Losey Road. The short access road to Beaver Run wildlife viewing area is on the left about three-quarters of a mile before Marion Brooks. From the west, take Quehanna Highway 8.8 miles from PA 555 (at Medix Run) to Marion Brooks on the left, and three-quarters of a mile further to the Beaver Run access driveway on the right.

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).