Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — February 2008

Exploring the Non-Profit Wonders of Bald Eagle State Park

by Ben Cramer

Our area of Central Pennsylvania occupies a transitional zone between two dramatic landscapes that create the unique topography of the region. Happy Valley is the second-to-last interlude in a series of long, narrow, and roughly parallel ridges that begin near Harrisburg. The steep and continuous Tussey Mountain and Bald Eagle Ridge are highly evident from the ground in State College, while Mount Nittany is merely the end of a long ridge that marches off dozens of miles to the northeast, all the way to the Susquehanna River near Williamsport.

Just over Bald Eagle Ridge, the narrow valley of the same name is the last of the low-lying areas before the landscape rises inexorably up the Allegheny Front, above which elevations stay high. Nature lovers will notice great differences in ecosystems and landscapes above the Front, as opposed to the Ridge and Valley region to the east. A great place to see these two noteworthy Pennsylvania landscapes in collision is at Bald Eagle State Park, just outside of Howard in northern Centre County.

The park surrounds a large artificial lake named after Foster Joseph Sayers, an area native who was commended for bravery in World War II. The lake was created in 1969 when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed Bald Eagle Creek to protect Lock Haven from flooding. While not all nature lovers are fans of manmade lakes, Foster Joseph Sayers Lake certainly brings the area’s dramatic landscape into relief. Bald Eagle Ridge rises abruptly from the east side of the lake, while the lowlands to the west of the lake offer great examples of the original ecosystems of Bald Eagle Valley before the landscape ascends to the rocky forests above the Allegheny Front.

The valley side of the lake, where most of the park’s facilities are located, allows for great wildlife viewing and ecosystem appreciation on six different named hiking trails. Of special interest is the aptly-named Butterfly Trail, which leads from the beach parking area and loops for about 1.5 miles around a pond. This trail traverses an area that the park staff maintains for butterfly preservation. Native plants of interest to butterflies, such as milkweed and the especially eye catching Joe-pye-weed, are allowed to propagate in the area thanks to the control of invasive species. This in turn attracts large numbers of butterflies, particularly in the spring and fall.

Beautiful and fairly common monarchs and black swallowtails are seen frequently in the area. I also observed an intriguing species that I had not seen before — a butterfly with patterns resembling splotches of powdered sugar on a cinnamon background. I had to consult the park brochure to learn that this was a great spangled fritillary.

More intrepid hikers can explore the Skyline Drive Trail, a two-mile loop around a low ridge in the park grounds on the west side of the lake. This trail leads through former farm fields that are now in various stages of reforestation. The varied habitats of the area attract many bird species, most notably bluebirds and pileated woodpeckers, both of which I have seen on recent visits.

The state park’s most remote trail is on the east side of the lake and must be reached via a side street in Howard, opposite the main park area. The road to the primitive campground leads to the Lakeside Trail, which rambles alongside a currently active railroad track while exploring the rocky environment of the lower slopes of Bald Eagle Ridge. Of historical interest are many charcoal hearths remaining form the logging days of the late 19th Century.

The bucolic back country of Bald Eagle State Park might be put in jeopardy if recent plans by Harrisburg lawmakers come to fruition. For about the past five years, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) has been promoting the development of “eco-lodges” or “nature inns” at various state parks to promote tourism. While such lodges would feature environmentally friendly design and construction, they would also be operated by private entities for profit.

Proposed lodges at Prince Gallitzin State Park (Blair County) and Erie Bluffs State Park (Erie County) have already been defeated by concerned local citizens. A proposal for S.B. Elliott State Park (Clearfield County) was dropped by DCNR in late 2007 after, in the agency’s words, “a careful review of the costs and benefits of a large lodge.” This indicates the extent of the agency’s plans for large tourist-oriented facilities that would not benefit the natural areas that they are meant to promote.

Plans have now been made for the construction of a nature inn at Bald Eagle State Park, to begin in late summer 2008. The entire endeavor contradicts the Pennsylvania State Parks mission statement, which can be seen prominently on all state park maps and brochures:

“The primary mission of Pennsylvania state parks is to provide opportunities for enjoying healthful outdoor recreation and serve as outdoor classrooms for environmental education — Stewardship responsibilities should be carried out in a way that protects the natural outdoor experience for the enjoyment of current and future generations.”

Bald Eagle State Park is an enjoyable and convenient location for “current and future generations” to pursue “healthful outdoor recreation.” One must consider the ramifications of for-profit indoor facilities on land that has been preserved for its natural qualities and protected by taxpayer money for all citizens. An open house on the nature inn project will be held at the park in spring 2008. In the meantime, explore the natural wonders of this unique park that already has everything that the outdoor lover could ask for.

Bald Eagle State Park is located near the town of Howard in northern Centre County, a few miles north of I-80. From State College, take either PA 150 or PA 26 north. Opposite Howard on the west side of Foster Joseph Sayers Lake, the main park facilities are reached via PA 150 about one mile north of the intersection with PA 26. The primitive camping area and the Lakeside Trail are on the east side of the lake and are reached via Park Road, a side street in Howard.

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 editor of a forthcoming guide to Pennsylvania Hiking Trails, to be released by Stackpole Books in April 2008.