Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2008

The Best of Nature and the Worst of Development in Allegheny National Forest

by Ben Cramer

One of our region’s most enjoyable natural resources can be found in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Allegheny National Forest (ANF) has been highlighted several times in this column, and with good reason.

There are very few national forests east of the Mississippi, and the ANF is the only one in Pennsylvania. Recreational opportunities abound in Allegheny National Forest — from varied scenic overlooks to boating on Allegheny Reservoir, and from canoeing on bucolic rivers to backpacking on a vast network of long-distance trails.

An excellent introduction to the scenic and recreational opportunities of the ANF can be found on the Morrison Trail, accessed via PA 59 just to the east of Allegheny Reservoir. This network of connected trails follows several branches of scenic Morrison Run, forming a figure-8 of about fifteen miles (including a short entrance trail leading in from PA 59). The layout of the trail network offers opportunities for shorter loop hikes of about ten and five miles each.

The Morrison Trail is unique because in either a lengthy day hike or a relatively easy overnight backpacking trip, the scenery ranges from deep-woods hollows and babbling brooks to beachside camping along the reservoir, with the latter being a rarity on Pennsylvania hiking trails.

About halfway around the ten-mile west loop, and all downhill from the parking lot on PA 59, is a U.S. Forest Service campground alongside Allegheny Reservoir, featuring lakeside tenting sites, drinking water, and toilet facilities. This remote campground cannot be reached by car, but it can be quite heavily populated thanks to boaters approaching from the other side of the reservoir. A fee charged to all campers covers the costs of the facilities.

For those seeking more solitude, primitive (and free) camping is also available throughout Allegheny National Forest, except for some protected areas. You also cannot camp within 150 feet of the water along Allegheny Reservoir. Thanks to the fairly open nature of the woods, backcountry camping is a treat in Allegheny National Forest, though in the Morrison Run area the terrain is more rugged than in other areas of ANF further away from the reservoir.

Backpacking hike on Morrison Trail

In August 2008, the Moshannon Group of Sierra Club travelled to the Morrison Trail from the State College area for an overnight backpacking trip. Joining the trip were backpackers of various ages and levels of experience, including a Penn State exchange student from Puerto Rico who chose this beautiful area for an introduction to Pennsylvania backpacking. One highlight of the trip was a run-in with a lost Bigfoot hunter, who got misguided while following up an apparently credible sighting. Sadly, no giant footprints were found on the Morrison Trail.

Hikers in Allegheny National Forest will be well aware that the area, though well-covered with trees now, was heavily industrialized in the past. The Morrison Trail often follows old roadbeds that remain from a bygone era of heavy logging and resource extraction. Some of these now-grassy lanes disappear under the waters of Allegheny Reservoir, headed to destinations that are have been submerged by progress. A myriad of old pipelines and access roads crisscross the region and now serve as handy hiking paths. Some newer resource extraction devices like wells, valves, and pipes have been constructed within sight of the Morrison Trail, as have some recent access roads for fuel and logging companies.

The ANF features a considerable amount of mineral wealth. Oil wells (many rusty examples of which still stand across the region) built the area’s economy until about the late 1970s. Though most of the oil is now gone, the area still offers abundant natural gas. These reserves are now coveted by private firms egged on by high fuel prices and perceived shortages. There are currently more than 10,000 oil and gas wells throughout the ANF, with drilling companies placing immense pressure on the U.S. Forest Service to allow more.

The Morrison Run area is not immune to these threats, because federal laws permit resource extraction in national forests, except in designated wilderness areas. Just one week after the Sierra Club backpacking trip, the Morrison Run area was afflicted with an intentional oil spill, between Morrison Trail and the long-distance North Country National Scenic Trail nearby.

Disgruntled employees of a small local oil company called Snyder Brothers sabotaged several storage tanks along North Chapel Fork and Indian Run, in a misguided attempt at revenge against their bosses. Perhaps the bosses suffered a little financial damage, but the damage to Pennsylvania’s only national forest was much more severe, with 18,000 gallons of crude oil released into the ecosystem.

Clean-up efforts are still ongoing and the true extent of the devastation will take months to fully understand. We must ask serious questions about whether healthy and valuable ecosystems should be damaged forever for the short-term profits of private companies, especially when few practical efforts have been made to minimize the potential damage from those companies’ drilling and storage infrastructure.

Here we can see that much of the remaining wilderness in Pennsylvania enjoys minimal government oversight and little proactive damage prevention. Several citizens’ groups are fighting to increase wilderness protection in Allegheny National Forest, with Morrison Run as one of several proposed Federal Wilderness Areas. A hike through this remarkable and scenic area will inspire your appreciation for the real dangers faced by our wilderness.

If you go: Much of Allegheny National Forest can be reached in two to three hours from State College. To approach the area, use US 219 or PA 36 from I-80. The Morrison Trail is reached via US 219 and then PA 59. Near the border between Warren and McKean Counties, the Morrison Trail parking lot is off of PA 59, 0.8 mile east of the road to Rimrock Recreation Area and 4.3 miles west of Bradford Ranger Station.

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 the editor of Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, 13th ed., (Stackpole Books, 2008) and is the author of a forthcoming hiker’s guide to the Allegheny Front Trail in Centre County.