Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — May 2008

THE LOWER TRAIL: Where history and wildlife abound

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Spring is a great time to observe wildlife and there are few places that offer better opportunities to do that than the Lower Trail, a 16-mile long rails-to-trails route along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River between Canoe Creek State Park in Blair County and the village of Alfarata in Huntingdon County. The trail is owned by Rails-to-Trails of Central Pennsylvania and lots of information about the trail can be found at their website http://rttcpa.org

The Lower Trail runs through an outstanding example of a Ridge and Valley riparian forest. The combination of steep, wooded slopes, floodplain forests, and high soil moisture produces a diverse, healthy lowland riparian ecosystem. The northern portion of the trail runs through a narrow gorge with a low ridge to the west and the high ridgeline of Tussey Mountain, up to 1500 feet above the river, to the east. There is little human disturbance there other than the trail. To the south, the river meanders through mostly forested riparian habitat that contains some agriculture and sparse human settlements.

The Juniata River has historic roots as an important transportation corridor through southcentral Pennsylvania. It served the Native Americans as part of the Kittanning Trail and later became known as the Frankstown Road carrying westward-bound pioneers seeking to avoid the steep ridges of the ridge-and-valley province. Built in the early 1800s, the Pennsylvania Canal parallelling the Juniata River and its Frankstown Branch linked Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as part of the Mainline of the Public Works of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As the railroad industry grew more powerful, the canal systems became obsolete and by the 1850s most of Pennsylvania’s canals were abandoned. The Pennsylvania Railroad purchased the entire Mainline Canal system in 1857 and the segment along the Frankstown Branch operated until 1979 and was abandoned in 1982. Many reminders of the canal and railroad days are visible along the trail.

In 1990 the rail line was purchased by Rails-to-Trails of Central Pennsylvania and developed into a recreational trail, the project being made possible by a donation from T. Dean Lower, with the trail being named in honor of family members.

Access to the trail is easy and you have many access points from which to choose: Alfarata Station (Near Alexandria), Mt. Etna Station, Cove Dale Station, Williamsburg Station, Grannas Station, and Flowing Spring Station. All the trailheads have ample parking facilities. Picnic tables, pavilions and portable toilets can be found at the Alfarata, Mt. Etna, Williamburg, and Flowing Spring Trailheads. The trail is 8 feet wide and has a hard surface of crushed limestone, perfect for bicycles, even those with skinny tires. Wide grass berms alongside the trail accommodate horseback riders. Being an old railroad grade, the trail is flat with a minimal grade as you make your way upstream, with mile markers posted at each mile. The trail is open year round, free of charge, and is well-maintained by volunteers of Rails-to-Trails of Central Pennsylvania.

This site was identified as an Important Bird Area by the Ornithological Technical Committee of the Pennsylvania Biological Survey in October 2001. Juniata Valley Audubon has officially adopted this site for the purpose of stewardship and bird monitoring. More than 150 species of birds have been observed along the Lower Trail since Juniata Valley Audubon began a Special Areas Project there in 1995. Because of early leaf-out along this river, the number of neotropical migrants during the early portion of spring migration is typically much higher at this site than in surrounding areas. The portion of the Lower Trail between Mount Etna and Water Street is a great place to see and hear yellow-throated warblers, and ospreys can frequently be seen fishing along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River in spring and fall.

This site is home to an impressive concentration of breeding riparian bird species. Breeding bird counts of up to 200 birds per hour have been tallied during walking tours along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. Species present at exceptional breeding concentrations include eastern wood-pewee, acadian flycatcher, warbling vireo, red-eyed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher, wood thrush, yellow warbler, cerulean warbler, American redstart, Louisiana waterthrush, and Baltimore oriole. The Lower Trail hosts one of Pennsylvania’s most important cerulean warbler breeding areas, with estimates of 50–60 breeding pairs along this 16 mile long corridor.

If an easy and relaxing springtime hike in a setting full of both history and wildlife is what you’re after, you can’t go wrong by visiting the Lower Trail in Blair and Huntingdon Counties.

If you go: From State College, follow Route 26 south to Pine Grove Mills, then taking Route 45 south to Route 453. Turn east (left) on Route 453 and follow it to Route 22 at Water Street. Turn left (east) on Route 22 and follow it for a short distance to the first asphalt road on the left (Main Street) and then follow it for a few hundred yards to the Lower Trail parking lot on your right. A picnic pavilion at the parking lot is a great place for a meal.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair on the Executive Committee of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club