Cranberry Swamp Natural Area is located in the Deep Valleys section of the Appalachian Plateaus Province. In the last mile as you drive or walk to the trailhead you can see that you are dropping down into a bowl-shaped area. Cranberry Run drains this natural bog area.
“Geologic evidence suggests this area once supported an ancient high-mountain bog that passed through successional stages, and by the late 1800s was covered by white pine,” according to the DCNR’s “Sproul State Forest Map and Recreation Guide.”
Next came logging, fire and beaver dams. Today, swamp species characterize this state forest natural area. Natural areas protect unique ecological communities that are in a natural condition — humans, for the most part, step aside and let nature be.
There are 60 natural areas comprising about 79,000 acres of the 2.2 million acres of state forest. Natural areas include all of the virgin areas in our state forests and are part of the core acres that protect and preserve their wild character.
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Take your time on the drive north to the Cranberry Swamp Natural Area, south of Renovo in Clinton County. This a scenic drive with numerous possibilities for interesting stops. Most of the road north of Moshannon are in the Sproul State Forest.
Specific suggestions for stops are Fields Ridge Road Overlook, Two Rock Run Scenic View and Fish Dam Run Scenic View.
Fields Ridge Road is on the left 10.5 miles from Moshannon. The state forest gravel road — 5 miles one way — ends at an overlook with a view of a bend and straight section of the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
Two Rock Scenic View is on the right 16.1miles from Moshannon. Two short paths lead to open areas where kiosks provide perspective for where you are in the landscape: the eastern edge of the Appalachian Plateaus Province looking across the Allegheny Front, Bald Eagle Valley, Bald Eagle Mountain — including Howard Gap — and on to the Ridge and Valley Province with its long ridges stretching across the horizon.
Fish Dam Run Scenic View is on the left 21.5 miles from Moshannon. Here, you are viewing an entire watershed. Fish Dam Run is a headwaters stream — one of many — that feeds the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. Ridge line after ridge line descend to Fish Dam Run as it winds down to the the West Branch.
There are several options for getting to the Cranberry Swamp Natural Area. The most direct is Pete’s Run Road (22.7 miles from Moshannon), and then driving or walking in.
If you do not have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, consider parking where Benjamin Run Road meets Pete’s Run Road. As you drive farther, the road becomes minimal.
Follow Benjamin Run Road for 0.5 mile and turn right; continue for 0.3 mile and stay to the left; continue 0.2 mile and park — if you are still in your vehicle — in a small area to the left just as a camp gate comes into view. The way in gives you a nice look out and over the area leading into the natural area.
As you approach the camp gate look to the right. Walk around the chain link gate and follow the pipeline. You are on the trail — a three mile loop — around the Cranberry Swamp Natural Area. It is poorly blazed, but I had no problem following it.
When you come to Cranberry Run, walk upstream — 50 feet or less — until it is narrow enough to step across. Return to the trail — pipeline — and continue, looking to the left for where the trail leaves the pipeline. If you start uphill you have walked too far.
As the trail parallels the southwest side of the wetlands it occasionally follows a logging railroad grade from the past. Signs of that grade — depressions where the ties have rotted away, stonework, stretches of grade that are built above lower areas — as well as logs that have been cut to clear the trail and the occasional faded paint blaze should keep you on the trail.
There are nice views into the wetland. A lot of the coniferous trees you are looking at are white pine. Along the trail you can see white pine at all stages of growth — seedling to mature tree. Stumps in the wetland are white pine that were cut in 1915.
Explore the edges of the wetlands. Or you can be more adventurous, as Charles Fergus was when he visited Cranberry Swamp, “I sloshed through the narrow, black-water stream and stepped onto the pine island in the middle of the swamp. White pines and pitch pines …”
Fergus observed the wildlife — birds, deer, bear — that appeared as he stood quietly. He closed his account by wondering “… what might have come past — walking, stalking, slithering, crawling, fluttering — had I sat in that one prolific spot all day.”
Sitting, simply being open to the natural world unfolding with wildlife going about its essential busyness of survival is a magnificent way of immersing yourself in nature. Silence is the key to seeing and hearing more.
The trail passes near a fence to the right of the trail — this is a deer enclosure. It allows a logged area to regenerate by keeping deer out. Often there is a dramatic difference in the contrast of the lush vegetation and species inside the fence, and the sparse vegetation outside the fence.
An additional 10-15 minutes of walking should bring you to the Four Ridge Trail, a section of the Chuck Keiper Trail. Cross the bridge over Cranberry Run, and immediately follow the less traveled path on the left. Look for the campfire ring on your left.
Leave the Four Ridge Trail, walk past the campfire ring, and head roughly north upstream and parallel to the stream.
The trail soon skirts the edge of a hemlock swamp. It is easy to explore this hopping from hummock to hummock. If you leave the trail be certain to maintain a sense of where the trail is.
The trail continues immediately in front of the woodshed of a camp. Respect the privacy of the camp owner. Follow the camp driveway out to the gate. This completes the Cranberry Swamp Trail loop.
State forest natural areas are dependably unique, interesting destinations. Destinations to experience the natural world and to find solitude. Destinations that can focus your enjoyment and exploration of Pennsylvania’s state forests.
Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
Directions: I-99 north to I-80 and then west to Exit 147; PA-144 north toward Snow Shoe. This will put you on the Elk Scenic Drive, in the PA Wilds.
At the town of Moshannon set your odometer to 0. At 10.5 miles is the left turn to the Fields Ride Overlook; at 16.1 miles the Twin Rock View is on the right; at 22.7 miles turn right onto Pete’s Run Road and continue 2.6 miles to Benjamin Run Road on the right. Decide whether to park here and walk in or continue driving.
Walk or drive 0.5 mile to a split in the track; take the track to the right 0.3 mile and stay on the track to the left for an additional 0.2 mile. Park on the left as you approach a camp gate.
Resources: You can get a copy of the DCNR map for the Chuck Keiper Trail System, which includes this hike from the Sproul State Forest District Office 3.6 miles west of Renovo on PA-120.