Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — January 2007

Winter Excursions in Central Pennsylvania

by Ben Cramer

Outdoor lovers in Pennsylvania need not stay indoors all winter, beset by boredom and cabin fever. Anyone with the ability to bundle up a little and face some not-so-brutal challenges can hike, ski, or even camp in our great state during the winter.

Exploring the central Pennsylvania wilderness during the winter offers not just badly needed exercise during the lazy season. There are aesthetic treats as well, from snow-fringed streams and picturesque vistas, to easier wildlife viewing. Such acts of outdoor fortitude merely require some extra preparation, and knowledge of Pennsylvania’s weather patterns and geography. Except for occasional blizzards and deep freezes, typical daytime winter temperatures in our region can usually be weathered with sensible outdoor clothing.

The more important weather-related challenges in this region are wind and sun. The wind chill factor can pose a real danger even on relatively warm days, so avoid windy conditions whenever possible. The wind is especially harsh and biting on central Pennsylvania’s ridge tops. Chafing from the wind, along with general exposure to the wind chill, make maximum coverage of the face and hands imperative.

Bright sunlight, while uplifting for the spirit, can also have harsh consequences in the winter when it reflects off of snow. This can result in sunburn and snow blindness. When skiing or hiking in sunny conditions, ski goggles or high-quality sunglasses are a necessity, though beware that your peripheral vision will be compromised.

The other important consideration for winter excursions is geography. Central Pennsylvania is divided by the Allegheny Front into the ridge and valley region (east and south) and the plateau region (west and north). The more rugged topography in the ridge and valley region will limit casual enthusiasts to the valleys. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing can be enjoyed at the valley-level state parks (such as Bald Eagle in Centre County or Canoe Creek in Blair County), and often on back roads for the more ramble-inclined.

On the other hand, the extremely rocky ridges of this region provide virtually zero opportunities for skiing. Hiking should only be attempted by experienced hikers, who preferably have adequate footwear for the possibly dangerous conditions. Expect miles of sharp rocks covered with ice and snow for most of the region’s ridge tops.

The highlands above the Allegheny Front, with their scenic but less rugged topography, provide a treasure trove of outdoor opportunities for the adventurous. Large public areas such as Black Moshannon State Park (Centre County) and Quehanna Wild Area (Clearfield/Cameron/Elk Counties) provide dozens of miles of “soft” and mostly level trails that are perfect for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and hiking. However, hikers should defer to skiers during that sport’s comparatively short season, and should avoid creating “postholes” (deep footprints in the snow) that present a hazard for skiers.

Hikers should stick to more remote or rugged trails on which cross-county skiing is unpopular or impractical. When hiking in the high plateau areas, consider the depth of the snow pack, which can become considerable in the later winter months. Snowshoes may be a necessity, both for safety and for conserving your personal energy, because hiking in deep snow becomes unexpectedly tiring.

Once the Pennsylvania outdoor enthusiast becomes accustomed to winter conditions, the only other real safety concern is hunting. Of course, hunting is immensely popular in Pennsylvania, and a “season” for one type of animal or another is almost always in session. This is especially the case in winter, when snow cover and lack of foliage make hunting easier.

By far, the most hunting takes place during the deer seasons (various periods from October to January), special coyote hunting events (evenings in February), black bear season (November and December), wild turkey season (various periods in October and November), and, increasingly in the northern portions of Central Pennsylvania, elk season (two different periods in September and November).

These hunting events attract significant numbers of hunters to central Pennsylvania’s State Game Lands and State Forests, and even some State Parks. The outdoor lover should particularly avoid venturing into forested areas during the deer and turkey seasons, and stick to Sundays during which hunting is prohibited in Pennsylvania — at least for the time being. Also, be aware of any bear, coyote, or elk hunting that may be taking place in your particular area of interest.

For all other time periods, hunting for different less-celebrated species is permitted throughout the year. For example, hunting of groundhogs and opossums is almost always open, and there are specialized hunting seasons in Pennsylvania for everything from bobcats to starlings to muskrats. These more laidback hunting seasons do not present serious safety hazards for outdoor enthusiasts, though during the winter it is advisable to wear at least one piece of “safety orange” clothing for visibility.

Also be aware of any specialized hunting taking place in your area on the particular date of your planned activities. This information can be found easily at the websites for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

With quality winter clothing, knowledge of the local weather conditions and terrain, awareness of hunting activities and good old common sense, Pennsylvania’s outdoor enthusiasts need not vegetate indoors and wait for spring to arrive.

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. Cramer is also the author of a forthcoming hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail.