Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — July 2010

Hiking Through Central Pennsylvania’s Old-Growth Forests

by Dr. Stan Kotala

old growth

Central Pennsylvania has the highest concentration and most acreage of old growth in the Commonwealth. · Photo by Stan Kotala

Upon hearing the term “old-growth” many people think of redwoods or other forests on America’s west coast. However, we in central Pennsylvania are blessed with several stands of old growth within a short drive of State College. As a matter of fact, central Pennsylvania has the highest concentration and most acreage of old growth in the Commonwealth. This article will concentrate on two of these, Alan Seeger Natural Area and Detweiler Run Natural Area, both in northern Huntingdon County.

Nestled in a broad bowl along Standing Stone Creek is the 390-acre old-growth forest of the Alan Seeger Natural Area. Although in the heart of charcoal and furnace country, this tract of old growth trees was spared the axe because of a boundary dispute between two logging companies. (I wish that there had been more such disputes!) The deep soils along the stream provide a great substrate for this Natural Area’s trees and shrubs, including ancient eastern hemlocks, white pines, white oaks, tuliptrees, black gums and an extraordinarily thick understory of massive rhododendrons. The tallest trees in the Natural Area are white pines and tuliptrees close to 140 feet high. The Alan Seeger Natural Area also has the finest stand of old growth black gum in the state and an equally impressive old growth mixed-oak forest on the mountain slope above is considered to be one of the best in Pennsylvania.

Starting your hike from the Natural Area parking lot, walk towards Stone Creek Road and pass the Alan Seeger Natural Area sign. Another sign with a map of the trail marks your entry point for this easy half-mile hike. Walk slowly and observe and admire the characteristics of an old growth forest: large standing trees, both living and dead; pit-mound formations caused by windthrows of trees; extensive moss on the tree trunks; a multilayered canopy; and downed boles.

Stay on the trail as it makes a loop to the east and then south, crossing over Standing Stone Creek. You'll see towering eastern hemlocks, some more than five centuries old. The fallen giants (some close to 1,000 years old) resting among the 20-foot tall rhododendrons serve as nurse logs for many trees and shrubs. Going off the trail to get close to some of the giant trees nestled in the rhododendron tunnel area will require “rhodo surfing” for considerable distances.

The trail crosses Standing Stone Creek on wooden bridges and emerges onto the road a short distance east of where you left your vehicle. You can stop at one of the Natural Area’s pavilions for a snack or a picnic. For those who would like to continue their old growth adventure in a more rigorous setting, drive back to Stone Creek Road and turn left, travel a quarter mile and turn right onto Bear Meadows Road. Travel on Bear Meadows Road for a mile till you come to the first sharp switchback and park near the gate, but do not block the gate. This is the Detweiler Run Natural Area.

As you pass the gate, descend the trail to your right, part of the 300-mile Mid State Trail, toward Detweiler Run. This 463-acre area in Detweiler Hollow is recognized for the old-growth white pine and hemlock that grow there. The giant trees shade an understory of massive rhododendrons that cover both sides of Detweiler Run. Additional tree species in the area include red, scarlet and chestnut oaks and red maple. The ridge is composed of very steep, talus-strewn slopes and a small area of open talus fields. You'll hike upstream through this narrow valley with Thickhead Mountain to your left and Grass Mountain to your right. Look carefully into the stream and you're sure to see many small colorful brook trout.

You can hike upstream for a mile to the Axe Handle Trail and turn left, which takes you to Detweiler Road, where you’ll make another left and follow the road back to your vehicle for a 2-mile hike, or you can continue upstream for another mile to a large natural gas pipeline and turn left, hiking steeply up this clearing and turn left onto Detweiler Road, heading back down to your vehicle for a 4-mile hike.

The old-growth forests at Alan Seeger Natural Area and Detweiler Run Natural Area are unique ecosystems that are a vital part of Pennsylvania’s ecological health. Species such as the blackburnian warbler, the Canada warbler, the hooded warbler, the blue-headed vireo, the winter wren and the northern goshawk are more common here than in the surrounding managed forests. Both of these State Forest Natural Areas and their birdlife are described in the new book Birds of Central Pennsylvania from Stone Mountain Publishing, available locally at Webster’s Book Store and Appalachian Outdoors in State College and at the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Education Center. This book gives detailed historical and ecological descriptions of some of the best areas for birding in the Centre region. It should be a part of every central Pennsylvania nature enthusiast's library. Knowledge of the natural history of your hiking grounds and familiarity with its flora and fauna will add immensely to your enjoyment.

If you go: East of State College on US Rt 322, turn south on Bear Meadows Road at the sign for Tussey Mountain Ski Resort. Alan Seeger Natural area is 10 miles south along this road, one mile past the Detweiler Run Natural Area. When you reach Stone Creek Road, turn left (east) for one-quarter mile across a small bridge and into the Alan Seeger parking lot.

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Outings Co-Chair for the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club.