Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2014

Exploring Penn State Altoona’s Seminar Forest

by Dr. Stan Kotala

Seminar Forest Trailhead

Ann, GerneyLee and Ruby at the Penn State Altoona’s Seminar Forest Trailhead · Photo by Dr. Stan Kotala

The Seminar Forest at Penn State’s Ivyside Park campus in Altoona is a 40-acre tract of land obtained by the university in 2008 and located right across the Juniata Gap entrance to campus. The Environmental Studies Senior Seminar created Seminar Forest trail system in the spring of 2010.

Previously known as the Ritchey Property, the forest now has hiking and mountain biking trails, and a restored pond. The forest itself is blossoming into a thriving environmental education center made possible by the vision and efforts of many faculty, staff, and students at Penn State Altoona. The land has been geologically assessed and surveyed for its biodiversity.

In 2011, a replica Thoreau cabin was built by Penn State students at the trailhead along Becker’s Lane. This was part of an interdisciplinary course combining English and environmental studies, during which students were reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Published in 1854, Walden describes Thoreau’s experiences of Nature, simple living and self-sufficiency over the course of two years in a cabin he built near Walden Pond. The replica cabin also houses environmental research projects that have been undertaken at the forest. Recreational and educational opportunities found at Seminar Forest teach lessons about human connections with our home landscapes for Penn State students as well as anyone else who wishes to come and enjoy the land.

To enjoy all that the Seminar Forest has to offer, start out at the grassy parking area on Becker’s Lane. Rustic benches and a fire ring are located next to the parking area. You will also see a white oak that was planted in 2012 in memory of Staff Sergeant Francis Campion, an Army Special Forces veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and environmental studies major who lost his life in a military training accident in 2011.

Adjacent to the oak is the replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin and behind the cabin is a picnic table where you can relax before or after your hike. At the base of the trail, you will see a large wooden kiosk with a large map of the Seminar Forest, as well as maps and pamphlets describing the trails and features of the forest.

There are many trails through the forest, so, for the first-timer, it is best to become acquainted with the area by following the red-blazed Rocco’s Trail, the yellow-blazed Izzie’s Loop, and the green-blazed Split Trail which forms a circle around the perimeter of the forest. A gentle ascent past white cedars, white pines, oaks, and Scotch pines marks the first part of this trail. Upon reaching an old forest road you will see rustic benches. Rocco’s Trail bears off to the right just after passing these benches and continues through a young forest of red maples.

Another old forest road will be crossed by Rocco’s Trail and you will notice more and more sassafras trees, both young and old. Notice the green twigs, and on older trees the deeply furrowed bark. On some of the trees, you will see the large rectangular holes bored by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker. If you are lucky, you may see one or hear his raucous call echoing through the forest.

You pass the blue-blazed Jack’s Shortway and continue on, gently ascending the hillside through a forest of red maples and scarlet and red oaks. You may also notice a few pitch pines with their distinctive plate-like bark. Again, you will come upon an old forest road. This time, stray from the red-blazed Rocco’s Trail and turn left to follow the old road to the pond. Fed by springs emanating from beneath the large oaks above the pond, this pool is an important breeding ground for amphibians such as the wood frog and the spotted salamander in early spring.

Retrace your way back along the old road back to Rocco’s Trail and follow it upslope till you see the yellow-blazed Izzie’s Loop and then follow the yellow blazes across an old logging road and through a mountain laurel thicket on the north-facing slope of the hill. Soon you will see the green-blazed Split Trail bearing off to your left so follow the green blazes and look for a post on your left bearing the number 9. North of this post, high in an oak, you can see the nest of a red-tailed hawk. Do not approach it closely because you may disturb the hawks.

Continuing on the Split Trail, you soon again encounter the old logging road, so look for the red blazes of Rocco’s Trail on the opposite side of the road. Follow Rocco’s Trail downslope and back to the parking area. If you took a map from the kiosk, and the map is still intact, then please return it to the kiosk.

The Penn State Seminar Forest serves as a place for students and members of the community to enjoy nature and is a focal point for ecological research. Its multiple interconnecting trails enable hikers to create a variety of loops to explore this fascinating woodland. Enjoy all that it has to offer.

If you go: From State College, take I-99 south to the Pinecroft Exit, turning right onto Sabbath Rest Road. Follow Sabbath Rest Road to its end and turn left onto Old Sixth Avenue, following it for three miles and then turning right onto North Eighth Street, crossing a bridge over railroad yards and then turning left onto North Fourth Avenue. Travel on North Fourth Avenue to Juniata Gap Road and follow it to the PSU Ivyside (Altoona) Campus, looking for the large Seminar Forest sign on the left, and turn left onto Becker's Lane, across from the campus' main entrance. Park near the reconstructed Thoreau cabin.

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