Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — October 2013

Ironstone Trail shows Nature’s resilience

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Jo Hays Vista Ironstone Trail

Hikers at Jo Hays Vista Ironstone Trail · Photo provided by Dr. Stan Kotala

A little over a century ago, central Pennsylvania’s mountains began recovering from a period of resource extraction which left them largely denuded of trees. Much of the area that is now Rothrock State Forest was an industrial landscape in the late 19th century, dotted with mills, furnaces, logging camps, and railways. The Ironstone Trail, in Huntingdon County’s Rothrock State Forest, traverses a landscape that has recovered from such intense use.

This article will describe a 4-mile portion of the Ironstone Trail from Jo Hayes Vista to the area near Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. Many people hiking on the Mid State Trail use the Ironstone Trail as a detour to visit the environmental center. The hike described here is done as a shuttle, with vehicles left at Jo Hays Vista parking lot on Rt 26 and the Woodcock Trail parking area on Red Rose Road.

Leaving your vehicle at Jo Hays Vista, carefully cross Rt 26 and look for the orange-blazed Mid State Trail to your right. It descends the steep eastern flank of Tussey Mountain for close to a mile, through a forest of chestnut oaks, black gums, and mountain laurel. Near the intersection with the Ironstone Trail, you will encounter an old logging road. Cross it and look carefully for the trail through this recently-logged area. An area of young white pines signals the intersection with the Ironstone Trail, marked by a sign, where you will turn right, now following yellow blazes.

Notice the large numbers of young white pines in this area. A decade or two from now, the forest will look very different, as these fast-growing conifers mature. They will provide some additional winter cover for wildlife that has begun to suffer because of the demise of the eastern hemlock caused by the hemlock woolly adelgid that was imported to the US from Asia.

After you encounter a small tributary to Shaver’s Creek, the trail ascends slightly through a dry oak-hickory forest with a huckleberry/blueberry understory. Look for the leathery green leaves of trailing arbutus which hug the ground. Often found on trails and roadsides, this evergreen was once a popular Yuletide decoration.

The Ironstone Trail emerges onto an old moss-covered road, where you will turn left, following the trail for a few hundred feet to Pine Swamp Road. Cross Pine Swamp Road, bearing to the right, looking for the yellow blazes. Shaver’s Creek will be downslope and to your left as you hike past a cabin and through the forested valley.

Again approaching Rt 26, now at the base of the eastern slope of Tussey Mountain, you will encounter a large stone structure, the Monroe Furnace. Built in the late 1840s, this iron furnace was used to extract metal from the iron ore found in Stone Valley. The process required the use of charcoal, produced by burning wood very slowly. Because of this, Tussey Mountain and Shaver’s Creek valley were denuded of trees by lumbering. The boom period lasted about two decades, at the end of which Monroe Furnace was abandoned.

The intervening century-and-a-half brought respite to the mountains surrounding Stone Valley. Slowly, the trees sprouted from stump and from seed. Many of the mountains were purchased by the state to protect our forest and water resources. Now, most of the area’s mountainous terrain is part of Rothrock State Forest. Most of the valley for a few miles downstream of Monroe Furnace is Penn State’s Stone Valley Forest.

After observing Monroe Furnace, continue along the trail till you come to Route 26. Be careful crossing, bear slightly to the left, aiming for the wooden power line poles in the meadow across the highway, and look for the blazes (now two-tone yellow and blue) and a wooden sign indicating the Ironstone Trail. For most of the rest of this trail, for a little over a mile, you will be parallel to, and usually within sight of Shaver’s Creek.

At several points you will notice shale outcrops exposed by the stream and its tributaries. Take time to explore these. Rock-flipping, even in winter, is likely to yield northern dusky salamanders, northern two-lined salamanders, and northern spring salamanders.

The Ironstone Trail, near the terminus of this hike, coincides with the PSU Stone Valley Forest Woodcock Trail. The interpretive signs along the trail explain how this area is being managed for woodcock, an unusual member of the shorebird family that prefers to live in young forests.

Crossing a narrow power line corridor and then bridges over tributaries to Shaver’s Creek signal that you are nearing the end of the hike. Continue following the trail back to Red Rose Road and the Woodcock Trail parking area. Don’t forget to pick up the other vehicle at Jo Hays Vista!

The Ironstone Trail offers a view into Stone Valley’s industrial past and the resilience of Nature.

If you go: From State College, take SR 26 south to Pine Grove Mills. Once you are in Pine Grove Mills, take Rt 26 south for 4.1 miles over Tussey Mountain. At the base of the mountain, turn right onto Charter Oak Road. Stay on Charter Oak Road for 1.7 miles and turn left onto Red Rose Road. The Woodcock Trail parking area is a few hundred feet from this intersection, in the woods on the left side of Red Rose Road. Take the shuttle vehicle back the way you came, leaving it at the large gravel parking lot at Jo Hays Vista along Rt 26 at the top of Tussey.

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