On the trail: Exploring virgin forest at Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area

Hiker GerneyLee Carter, of State College, looks along Swift Run Trail in the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.
Hiker GerneyLee Carter, of State College, looks along Swift Run Trail in the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area. Photo submitted

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, almost all of Pennsylvania’s forests were clear cut, with only a few isolated tracts of virgin forest surviving.

This hike will take you through one of the best such old growth areas in Pennsylvania, Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, a 500 acre National Natural Landmark in a narrow east-west valley in Snyder County just northeast of Centre County, between Jacks Mountain to the south and Penn’s Creek Mountains to the north.

Two hundred and fifty acres of this Natural Area are virgin forest, meaning that it has never been logged. These 250 acres constitute a picturesque remnant of the original stream bottom forest along Swift Run.

A mile-long hiking trail follows the grade up Swift Run through a steep hollow lined by virgin white pine and eastern hemlocks.

The Rock Springs Picnic Area is at the eastern end of the preserve, with the Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area west of this, in about the center of the tract, where Swift Run Road climbs up the mountain above Swift Run. Tall Timbers Natural Area, an old second-growth forest of oak, white pine, and hemlock, forms the western border, while Bald Eagle State Forest lands surround Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area in all other directions.

This area was passed up by early loggers since it would have been difficult to move the felled giants to the tram road which ended near the Rock Springs picnic area, about one-half mile below the park. The land that became Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area was purchased by the state in 1902 as part of a larger 14,000 acre parcel. In 1937, the state named it a “Forest Monument” as an “area of botanical or historic interest.”

In 1967, the area was named a National Natural Landmark, as an “outstanding example of a relict forest composed predominantly of hemlock, birch, and pine, with scattered oaks.” By 1981, boththe Snyder-Middleswarth and Tall Timbers Natural Areas had been established, the former as part of what was then Snyder-Middleswarth State Park and the latter as part of Bald Eagle State Forest.

Snyder-Middleswarth lost its status as a state park in the mid-1990s, becoming a Natural Areawithin the state forest system. State Forest Natural Areas are communities that are free of human intervention. They can be described as “self-willed land.”

The trailhead for this 3 mile hike is located at the Rock Springs Picnic Area at the eastern end of the Snyder Middleswarth Natural Area. The picnic area has pavilions and restrooms. After parking in the gravel lot, take some time to explore Swift Run around Rock Springs Picnic Area, particularly downstream, where you will find a gorgeous waterfall formed by a tributary joining the stream from the north.

After your exploration of this area, walk upstream along Swift Run Road, where you will have an elevated overlook over this aptly named mountain stream. Observe the many rapids, riffles, and small waterfalls in the stream, which allow the water to carry large amounts of oxygen needed by aquatic life. Also observe the many downed branches and logs in the stream. Aquatic ecologists refer to this as coarse woody debris, and it is a critical part of the food chain of streams. In addition, coarse woody debris provides important habitat for fish and insects such as mayflies, stoneflies, and caddis flies.

Continue upstream along Swift Run Road for about 3/4 mile till you come to the Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area, following the gravel access road down to Swift Run. Then follow the yellow-blazed Swift Run Trail upstream. Fallen giants covered with mosses and ferns sometimes cross the trail and the stream.

Towering hemlocks and yellow birches line the trail. The old growth extends from the streamside all the way up to the ridgetop. The bottom of the ravine is dominateby hemlock, yellow birch, and white pine, then changes into black birch, chestnut oak, pitch pine, and white pine forming a dwarf old growth forest community at the ridgetop. The very steep mountainsides rise 300-500 feet above the stream bottom.

Some of the trees at Snyder-Middleswarth are more than 150 feet tall. As measured by its growth rings, one of the fallen giants was found to be 347 years old. Most of the oldest trees here are in the in 350-400 year old range. Sadly, many of the hemlocks are succumbing to the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect brought to North America inadvertently through commerce. Along with the emerald ash borer and the Asian long-horned beetle, these exotic invaders are having a major detrimental impact to the Commonwealth’s forests.

Hike upstream along Swift Run for about a half mile, admiring the trees and the stream and then turn left, cross a bridge over Swift Run and follow the Hemlock Trail back downstream.

The Hemlock Trail is higher above the stream than is the Swift Run Trail, so it gives the hiker a different perspective of the narrow valley. The Hemlock Trail will take you back to the Snyder-Middleswarth Picnic Area, from where you will follow Swift Run Road back downstream to the

Rock Springs Picnic Area and your vehicle.

Old growth forests such as this are reference points which help us evaluate other forests that have been subject to human disturbance. Ninety-six percent of our forests in Pennsylvania have been logged.

Here in the central part of the state, we are fortunate to have some of the best remnants, such as the Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area, to explore.