Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — December 2007

Elk Scenic Drive by Car — and Then by Foot

by Ben Cramer

In this age of expensive gasoline and carbon overload, your present writer is loath to recommend unnecessary and inefficient road trips. This column usually features on-the-ground experiences found during short outings to special natural spots around our area. However, north-central Pennsylvania features an outstandingly scenic and environmentally fascinating road trip that will inspire you to explore the region’s natural bounty on foot, offering many possible outings that the enthusiast can enjoy by easily getting out of the car and hitting the backwoods.

In 2004 the Commonwealth created the Pennsylvania Wilds program, an effort to promote tourism and natural appreciation in the heavily forested north-central region, which is sparsely populated and economically disadvantaged. As part of this program, the Commonwealth designated Elk Scenic Drive, which follows a variety of state roads in a 127-mile loop through portions of Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Clearfield, and Centre Counties.

Of course, the route is named for the elk herd that is currently thriving in the region, after numerous reintroduction programs. While you are not guaranteed to see any elk from the road, the scenic route will take you through three state forests and two dozen state parks, natural areas, wild areas, wildlife viewing areas, overlooks, and long-distance hiking trails. On foot, all of these resources will increase your appreciation for Pennsylvania’s wildlife and unsung ecological treasures.

Either end of the scenic loop can be reached easily from I-80. To the east, you can use exit 147 and proceed north on PA 144. Beyond the villages of Snow Shoe and Moshannon, an alternate scenic drive heads west on PA 879 through Karthaus and then on the paved Quehanna Highway to Medix Run. This route leads through the unique highland ecosystems of the Quehanna Plateau, featuring several dedicated elk viewing areas.

Meanwhile, back on PA 144, the main route of Elk Scenic Drive leads north through an eerily depopulated plateau region that is practically devoid of human civilization other than rarely occupied hunting camps. (At the time of publication it’s big game hunting season, so those camps will be occupied.) This area features the long-distance Chuck Keiper Trail, several unique natural areas, and the recovery zone of a 1990 forest fire. For more on these treasures, see the April 2007 edition of this column.

You finally reach civilization in the small riverside town of Renovo, which hosts a popular foliage festival every autumn. Elk Scenic Drive then heads west on the jaw-droppingly scenic PA 120, also known as the Bucktail Trail, through the very deep and steep canyon formed by the Susquehanna River and Sinnemahoning Creek. The village of Sinnemahoning offers access to three different long-distance backpacking trails — a vast hiking network discussed in this column in April 2005. At Driftwood, turn west on PA 555 into another scenic and even more remote canyon. On top of an imposing mountain just west of Driftwood is the highly enjoyable Fred Woods Trail, described in detail in the December 2006 edition of this column.

PA 555 leads to the famed town of Benezette —the center of the Pennsylvania elk homeland. Here you really might see some elk, as they have been known to hang out on the street. The nearby elk viewing areas at Winslow Hill and Dents Run feature the best possible use of reclaimed strip mine lands, which have been covered with new grass to create the wide-open meadows that our elk seem to adore. Benezette also serves as the terminus for the 16-mile Elk Trail, described here in September 2006, along which many backpackers really have seen many elk.

Just beyond Benezette at Medix Run is the outlet of the aforementioned Quehanna Highway alternate scenic route. At Weedville, Elk Scenic Drive turns south on PA 255, then a few miles later turns south on PA 153 at Penfield. This road leads to two more state parks, Parker Dam and S.B. Elliott, where elk have been spotted visiting the tourist features. The backcountry behind these two parks also features several small and very unique protected areas, including the unusual Wallace Sphagnum Bog. Elk Scenic Drive officially ends just south of S.B. Elliott at I-80, exit 111.

So unlike most editions of this column, this month’s installment does not give intimate details on a special natural spot in central Pennsylvania. But for those willing to burn the gasoline, Elk Scenic Drive will inspire the outdoor lover to get on foot and explore enough special outing locations to fill up this column for years to come.

The Elk Scenic Drive is well-marked with special brown road signs along its route. Other signs point to a plethora of natural points of interest on adjacent side roads. Elk Scenic Drive is also clearly highlighted on the official Pennsylvania tourism map, published by the Department of Transportation. For the more detailed previous editions of this column that are mentioned above, see the On The Trail listings on the Articles page.

Ben Crameris 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). Cramer is also the editor of a forthcoming guide to Pennsylvania hiking trails, to be released by Stackpole Books in Spring 2008.