Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — June 2007

Explore an Appalachian River in the Little Juniata Natural Area

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Unique geological features combine with distant and modern history to make the Little Juniata Natural Area a favorite hike for all seasons. This Rothrock State Forest Natural Area consists of 624 acres of Appalachian forest bordering the Little Juniata River water gap through Tussey Mountain in Huntingdon County. Water gaps without highways running through them are rare in Pennsylvania, so enjoy your experience in this unique setting freed from the drone of trucks and cars.

After parking in the gravel parking lot set between the mountain and the river, the riverside trail, which you’ll be hiking, follows the Little Juniata River upstream for about a mile and a half. The trail is flat, so walking is easy and enjoyable. The orange-blazed Mid State Trail also crosses this parking lot, but we'll be staying on the riverside trail for this hike.

There are several interesting geologic features in this area, including an exposure of Tuscarora sandstone, one of the most prominent mountain-building formations in Pennsylvania, and a horizonatal thrust fault along the railroad cut. The Little Juniata Natural Area occupies a water gap that was formed as the ancient Little Juniata River carved down through a rising Tussey Mountain 300 million years ago. Across from the parking lot, on the south side of the river, a horizontal thrust fault is exposed 20 feet above the floor of the railroad cut. A fault occurs when the rock layer fractures, and there is movement between the separate parts. The Spruce Creek Gap fault is distinguishable where a greenish or reddish Rose Hill shale contrasts with a gray or white Tuscarora sandstone.

Little Juniata gap

Little Juniata Water Gap

Steep slopes on either side of the river make a rapid transition from characteristic riverside plants to mountain trees. As you walk along the trail, the peaceful sound of rushing water is interrupted only by the occasional hum of a passing train. Sassafras and greenbriar are abundant near the river. Both species provide berries enjoyed by songbirds. Sassafras roots are used by people as a spice or to make tea. Wood asters, violets, jack-in-the pulpit, starry campion,columbine, joe pye weed, cardinal flower, Pennsylvania snakeroot, tall bellflower and several species of goldenrods can be found near the river along the trail.

To the left of the trail many small paths have been worn down to the river. Take the opportunity to visit the river’s edge and you may glimpse some riverine wildlife. Belted kingfishers fly above the water surface in search of food, their loud rattling call echoing above the sound of rushing water. The kingfisher feeds on small fish and occasionally can be seen hovering above the surface before plunging into the water to catch its prey. They nest in holes that they dig in the riverbank. Great blue herons and green herons frequently may be seen feeding in the shallow water along the river’s edge. Many species of ducks, such as mallards, wood ducks, common mergansers, and hooded mergansers, can be seen on the water. In the summer, wood ducks nest in the holes of large trees, especially sycamores, and raise their young along the stream. The ducklings’ first step out of the nest may be a 30-foot drop to the water!

To the right of the trail you’ll see evidence of the quarries where Tuscarora quartzite was mined till the 1950s. The quartzite was used to make ganister bricks to line steel and copper furnaces. In some places, funicular routes used by the miners to lower the rocks are still visible. Black birch and moosewood rapidly are covering the traces of this industrial past.

Continuing down the trail, you will see box elder trees growing on the side toward the river. Box elder, a member of the maple family, has 3-7 leaflets per leaf and prefers wet areas. Blackberries line the trail along with pokeberry, a tall plant that produces dark-red to purple berries in late summer and early fall. Although poke berries are not edible, they have been used historically as a natural dye and to make ink.

Soon you’ll come to a stone-arch railroad bridge that carries the trains to your side of the stream. The trail climbs a small hill and then you'll see another stone-arch bridge carrying the rails back to the south side of the river to enter the Barree Tunnel. This tunnel was the assigned target for a group of German commandos who landed from a U-boat near Cape May, New Jersey in World War II. The saboteurs, however, decided that they’d rather stay in the United States, so they just turned themselves in when they got to Philadelphia. I guess that New Jersey made a really good impression on them.

Across the river from the tunnel, the trail drops down to the level of the stream and leaves even the railroad behind. As you walk along the trail, watch carefully for snakes. The Little Juniata Natural Area, like other state forest Natural Areas, has been designated as a special protection area for reptiles and amphibians. Northern water snakes, black snakes, copperheads, and timber rattlesnakes are found along the trail and the steep rocky slopes of the water gap. If you encounter a copperhead or timber rattlesnake, do not panic, simply walk around it. They’ll often use their camouflage to avoid a direct encounter with people. Seeing one of these snakes is a rare treat!

As you continue your walk along the river, you’ll notice more and more eastern hemlocks, particularly young ones, and large rocky outcrops closing in above the trail creating a cool moist microclimate. Soon you will see a small wooded island in the river where cardinal flower and joe pye weed bloom in summer. This rocky section of the riverside trail leads to a large hemlock grove. The trail is not marked clearly in this area but, if you follow along the river, then the trail will again become evident. In the hemlocks, gray and red squirrels chatter and swing about. In the evenings, you may encounter a barred owl here, calling “who cooks for you, who cooks for YOU all.”

The upstream border of the hemlock grove marks the end of the trail. Private property lies upstream, so turn around or stop and enjoy a picnic among the hemlocks. Retrace your steps back to the parking lot, savoring the rich sights, sounds, and smells of this river. The riverside trail is a delight at any time of year, but summer's my favorite because the Little Juniata Natural Area provides a cool haven on even the hottest days.

Hike distance: 3 miles
USGS Topographical map: Alexandria

If You Go : From State College, follow Route 26 south through Pine Grove Mills and over Tussey Mountain and turn right onto the first paved road, Charter Oak Road. Follow it for 6.1 miles and then bear right onto Route 305. Follow Route 305 for 7 miles, passing through Petersburg. Continue on Route 305 for 0.7 miles beyond the metal bridge over Shaver’s Creek in Petersburg and, where Route 305 makes a sharp left turn, instead go straight, following SR 4004 for 2.5 miles, where you’ll turn right onto Mountain Road. Follow Mountain Road for 0.6 mile to its end, a gravel parking lot in the Little Juniata Natural Area.

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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 Little Juniata Natural Area Riverside Trail hike on Sunday, June 17, from 3–5 p.m. Meet at the Little Juniata Natural Area parking lot. For more information contact Stan at 814-946-8840 or ccwiba@keyconn.net or visit the Moshannon Group Outings Page.