Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2007

Nature Surges Back at Canoe Creek State Park

by Dr. Stan Kotala

The awakening of spring and the resurgence of nature can be observed easily at this time of year at Canoe Creek State Park near Hollidaysburg in Blair County. About 45 minutes southwest of State College, the park offers glimpses of an industrial heritage that has been overtaken by nature.

A favorite trail at the park is the blue-blazed Moore’s Hill trail, a 3.2-mile long footpath encircling Moore’s Hill and traversing deciduous forest, old fields, thickets and riparian areas. To reach this trail, it’s easiest to park at the Canoe Creek State Park Environmental Education Center. A large brown kiosk between the center and the parking area has a list of ongoing programs at the park led by environmental education specialist Heidi Boyle. Start by picking up a map of the park from the box near the center’s door, and, if the center’s open, stop in to look over the exhibits, which include a model of the park’s long-gone industrial past.

Follow the asphalt road leading down to Mary Anne’s Creek for a short distance till you come to a small gray kiosk. Turn left onto a gravel pathway, the red-blazed Limestone Trail, that separates the marsh on your right from the deciduous hillside on your left. Note the abundance of ferns, particularly evergreen Christmas fern, on the slope above you. At this time of year you may observe bright yellow marsh marigolds blooming in the marsh among the cattails and alders. If the day’s mild, you might be treated to a chorus of spring peepers greeting the changing season.

Soon you’ll cross Mary Anne’s Creek on an aluminum bridge. This bridge is a recycled boat dock from Codorus State Park in York County. Looking upstream of the bridge, you’ll see a small vernal pool under the large pine to the left of the stream. This pool is used by salamanders, toads and frogs for egg-laying. Seasonal pools like this dry out in summer, making them uninhabitable by fish, which prey on amphibian eggs. You can walk to the pool to search for golf-ball to baseball-size white egg masses of the spotted salamander, clear gelatinous grapefruit-size egg masses of the wood frog, or stringy egg masses of the eastern American toad, all of which are breeding at this time of year.

Continue upstream along the gravel pathway until you reach another gray kiosk near the large limestone kilns. Cross Mary Anne’s Creek again and walk through the rich streamside forest of beech, hemlock, tuliptree and basswood. If you overturn some logs on the ground, you may catch a glimpse of a valley and ridge salamander or a northern red salamander, both of which are common in this streamside zone.

This area is also rich in wildflowers, including trout lily, rue anemone, bloodroot, violets and columbine. Along the stream you may see and hear the Louisiana waterthrush, a small warbler that depends on stream insects for its food. The presence of this warbler is an indicator of good stream quality, because the insects that it feeds on need cool clean water to survive. You may also hear the pit-see call of the Acadian flycatcher, a well-camouflaged olive-colored bird that lives along wooded waterways.

Soon you’ll come to a fork in the path. Turn right and cross Mary Anne’s Creek once again and continue walking upstream. Looking to your right, it’s hard to imagine that 100 years ago this was the site of intense industrial activity, with denuded hillsides, limestone mining, and frequent fires. Look carefully at the ground to observe the heart-shaped leaves and shy purple flower of wild ginger. A little further up the trail is the site of the large yellow ladies slipper colony, which is a spectacular sight around Mother’s Day.

The Moore’s Hill Trail ascends the northern slope of Moore’s Hill through a shaded forest of maple, hemlock and oak rich in wildlflowers. Some of the ascent can be described as strenuous but short, and benches are provided at strategic locations for those wishing to rest and perhaps have a snack or just observe the forest. While resting, listen for the sweet calls of the blue-headed vireo or the raucous laughter of pileated woodpeckers. If you’re lucky, then you’ll hear the loud croaking of ravens cavorting over Brush Mountain, which you can see through the trees to the north.

The footpath levels off for a while near the top of the hill before descending through a young forest full of redbud. This pink hillside of redbud is spectacular in May and can be seen from the Beaver Dam Road to the east. As you descend, you enter the riparian, or streamside, zone of Canoe Creek, which emanates from a forested watershed that has seen minimal development. Much of the upstream area is protected as State Game Land 166 and is home to bobcats, rattlesnakes and broad-winged hawks.

You walk closer and closer to Canoe Creek, finally ending up walking on an old railroad bed, with the stream on your left and vernal pools and a steep limestone hill on your right. It’s easy to spot trout in the stream and you’ll likely see wood ducks and possibly a great blue heron. Further downstream you may see a beaver, or at least see his handiwork in the form of tooth-cut stumps, dams and lodges.

At a wooden bridge over a pool to your right, turn uphill climbing stairs made of old railroad ties. Trilliums, hepatica, and bloodroot are some of the beautiful wildflowers you’ll enjoy in early spring on this hillside. The large tuliptrees and oaks in this area may carry the nest of a great horned owl or a barred owl, both of which are common in the park, but which demand a discerning eye for discovery.

Emerging from the wooded footpath onto a wider pathway bisecting a young tuliptree forest on the left from an old oak forest on the right you begin to see signs of Canoe Creek State Park’s farming heritage. Just a decade and a half ago the young forest to the left was mostly shrubs and there was actually an interpretive sign suggesting the best way to take photos of the lake from this area, which now is covered with forest.

Continue following the old farm road till you reach a large white oak at the wood’s corner on your right. From here you can observe the extensive warm season native grass plantings in the abandoned farm fields. Switchgrass, Indian grass, and bluestem provide excellent habitat for wildlife. The shrubs and forest edges are home to yellow-breasted chats, large warblers that sing a peculiar slow song throughout the day and even on moonlit nights.

Continuing uphill, and still following the blue-blazed Moore’s Hill Trail, you’ll pass through a former farm that has been overtaken by alien invasive species, particularly tree-of-heaven, Russian olive and multiflora rose, which are the focus of a removal effort by volunteers from Juniata Valley Audubon and park staff. These exotic species will be replaced with native shrubs to create additional habitat for the golden-winged warbler, a species of special concern that is doing rather well in the park.

An asphalt road marks the boundary of the invasive species area and the Moore’s Hill Trail continues into a damp hillside of hemlocks, beech, and black birch, rich in clubmosses and ferns. You emerge from the forest near the large limekiln complex and turn left retracing your steps along the red-blazed Limestone Trail back to your car and the Environmental Education Center.

Although the Moore’s Hill Trail at Canoe Creek State Park is a great hike at any time of year, spring is best because of its rich variety of spectacular wildflowers, migrating birds, and spring peeper choruses.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Wildlife Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club and president of Juniata Valley Audubon. He’ll lead a Moore’s Hill Trail hike from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, May 6, 2007. Meet at the Canoe Creek State Park Environmental Education Center.