Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2013

Hiking Rothrock State Forest's Little Juniata Natural Area

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Hiking LIttle Juniata Natural Area

Hiking the Little Juniata Natural Area · Photo by Stan Kotala

The Little Juniata Natural Area consists of 624 acres of Appalachian forest in the Little Juniata River water gap through Tussey Mountain in Huntingdon County. The water gap was formed as the ancient Little Juniata River carved down through a rising Tussey Mountain 300 million years ago. Pennsylvania’s state forest system includes dozens of special natural areas set aside to protect unique or unusual biologic, geologic, scenic and historical features or to showcase outstanding examples of the state’s major forest communities. Natural areas are “managed” by nature and direct human intervention is limited. They provide places for scenic observation, protect special plant and animal communities and conserve outstanding examples of natural beauty.

After parking in the gravel parking lot set between the mountain and the river, the riverside trail, which you’ll be hiking, follows the Little Juniata River upstream for about a mile and a half. The trail is flat, so walking is easy and enjoyable. The orange-blazed Mid State Trail also crosses this parking lot, but we'll be staying on the riverside trail for this hike.

As you walk along the trail, the peaceful sound of rushing water is interrupted only by the occasional hum of a passing train. Sassafras and greenbriar are abundant near the river. Both species provide berries enjoyed by songbirds. Wood asters, violets, jack-in-the pulpit, starry campion,columbine, joe pye weed, cardinal flower, Pennsylvania snakeroot, tall bellflower and several species of goldenrods can be found near the river along the trail.

To the left of the trail many small paths have been worn down to the river. Take the opportunity to visit the river’s edge and you may glimpse some riverine wildlife. Belted kingfishers fly above the water surface in search of food, their loud rattling call echoing above the sound of rushing water. The kingfisher feeds on small fish and occasionally can be seen hovering above the surface before plunging into the water to catch its prey. Great blue herons and green herons frequently may be seen feeding in the shallow water along the river’s edge.

To the right of the trail you’ll see evidence of the quarries where Tuscarora quartzite was mined till the 1950s. The quartzite was used to make ganister bricks to line steel and copper furnaces. In some places, funicular routes used by the miners to lower the rocks are still visible. Black birch and moosewood rapidly are covering the traces of this industrial past.

You will come to a stone-arch railroad bridge that carries the trains to your side of the stream. The trail climbs a small hill and then you'll see another stone-arch bridge carrying the rails back to the south side of the river to enter the Barree Tunnel. Across the river from the tunnel, the trail drops down to the level of the stream and leaves even the railroad behind. As you continue your walk along the river, you’ll notice more and more eastern hemlocks, particularly young ones, and large rocky outcrops closing in above the trail creating a cool moist microclimate.

A small wooded island in the river where cardinal flower and joe pye weed bloom in summer is adjacent to cliffs along the riverside trail that leads to a large hemlock grove. The trail is not marked clearly in this area but, if you follow along the river, then the trail will again become evident. Continue upstream between the river and the cliffs, enjoying the spectacular scenery, until you encounter a mowed area which is private property. That marks the end of the trail, so turn around and retrace your steps back to the parking lot, savoring the rich sights, sounds, and smells of this river.

If You Go: From State College, follow Route 26 south through Pine Grove Mills and over Tussey Mountain and turn right onto the first paved road, Charter Oak Road. Follow it for 6.1 miles and then bear right onto Route 305. Follow Route 305 for 7 miles, passing through Petersburg. Continue on Route 305 for 0.7 miles beyond the metal bridge over Shaver’s Creek in Petersburg and, where Route 305 makes a sharp left turn, instead go straight, following SR 4004 for 2.5 miles, where you’ll turn right onto Mountain Road. Follow Mountain Road for 0.6 mile to its end, a gravel parking lot in the Little Juniata Natural Area.

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