Explore Spring Creek Canyon

The Spring Creek Canyon cliffs lit by a January sunset in State Game Land 333.
The Spring Creek Canyon cliffs lit by a January sunset in State Game Land 333. For the CDT

Central Pennsylvania has many great places to hike, and it can be fun to hike somewhere that is new to you. Different trees, views and wildlife, new friends and conversation. Learning the lay of the land. Hiking with organizations like Ridge and Valley Outings Club will provide new opportunities.

On a recent Friday, I received an email from the RVOC listserv that informed me about a hike that Greg Tothera was leading the next day. The brief description sounded interesting, and I had not hiked with Greg recently so I decided to show up at the trailhead.

Four of us met at the Shiloh Road Trailhead for the hike: Ruth, Carmen, Greg and me. Greg welcomed us, summarized the hike, and asked us to sign a Risk and Release Form.

The trailhead is at the west end of the public parking lot at the end of Shiloh Road. The hike is mostly on State Game Land 333, which is included in the Spring Creek Canyon Co-operative Management Area. This is the former Rockview State Correctional Institution land that includes Spring Creek Canyon.

The orchard loop is three miles and includes views of Bald Eagle Ridge, Nittany Mountain and Spring Creek Canyon cliffs. It finishes with a walk along Spring Creek.

We began by walking around the gate at the west end of the parking area and climbing up a gentle hollow that led away from Spring Creek. The trail is a grass-covered forest road that climbs for a mile through a mature forest that in places has the feel of old growth. There are some impressive white pine trees, a lot of younger white pines and a few hemlock.

As the terrain levels at the top there is a T in the road. Follow the road to the right — it was immediately much muddier, but with enough space on the berm to avoid the mud. Greg had summed up the hike instructions with “if you have to choose, go right.”

Ahead you will see a rusty water tank. As you walk past the water tank, Bald Eagle Ridge is to the left and Nittany Mountain is to the right. The fog was thick on the RVOC hike so it was not until a subsequent hike that I actually got to see the view. I walked to the far side of the water tank for a better view of Mount Nittany.

Looking out of the valley and toward Bald Eagle Ridge and Nittany Mountain was a different perspective. I have seen these mountains from many other locations but never looking out and across to first one and then the other.

The open area is where a lush apple orchard of 9,000 trees tended by Rockview inmates once grew. The orchard has deteriorated, is now mostly gone, and was described in The Spring Creek Canyon Conservation Strategy document as about 150 acres of open uplands “… characterized by thin, dry nutrient poor … soils which … provide excellent opportunities for the re-establishment of native grassland and shrub communities — or barrens communities.”

Re-establishing that sort of opening in the woodland would create prairie-like openings that historically were present in Pennsylvania. This habitat offers the possibility of seeing non-woodland species — mammals, birds and insects. That is the direction the Pennsylvania Game Commission has been guiding this land with old field management that includes working with the soil seed bank, prescribed burns, and planting warm-season grasses and wild flowers.

At the next intersection, once again bear to the right. Nittany Mountain stretches in front of you, and Tussey Mountain is beyond that.

Along the trail are remnant rows of apple trees, and battered limbs and stumps. For the next several years the PGC will continue nudging this land toward better wildlife habitat. In the long term this will become an interesting, beautiful ecosystem, better wildlife habitat, and a fascinating stretch to hike through. Greg said last September this opening was already thick with golden rod, which pollinator insects love.

As you walk out of the one-time orchard, the road begins dropping back into the canyon. There is another view to the right as you walk under power lines. Spring Creek whispers at the bottom of the slope.

Bear to the right after the gate at the bottom of the hill and follow the path that parallels Spring Creek. But before you continue upstream, take a moment to walk across the bridge over Spring Creek. Take in the view upstream and downstream. On the far side of Spring Creek are some impressive cliffs.

Spring Creek has cut through the surrounding limestone. Today we have the canyon, rock ledges and cliffs. Admire the cliffs, but stay off them! The rock ledges and cliffs comprise a small percent of the area, but the Management Plan refers to this as “… environmentally sensitive area … providing habitat for several rare and threatened plant and animal species.”

Several days after the moody magic of the fog filled RVOC hike, I returned and enjoyed that day’s sunset lighting the cliffs. Crossing back over the bridge the sun was low and in the trees as I looked directly upstream.

The last mile of this loop parallels Spring Creek. This trail seems to get a lot of use. I saw fishermen, runners, walkers, adults pushing children in strollers, people walking their dog, and one guy sitting along the bank staring across the stream with a notebook in his hand.

Spring Creek Canyon is an easily accessible wonder in Centre County. We must take care so we do not love it to death with our use of it. Minimize your impact by heeding the regulations that are posted at the kiosk. Then, enjoy a hike in SGL 333, exploring Spring Creek Canyon and its uplands.

Gary Thornbloom is the co-chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net

If you go

Directions: Traveling from State College, take I-99 north; take the Shiloh Road exit and go north, cross the bridge over Spring Creek and continue to the public parking lot at the end of the road.

Resources: To find out about upcoming RVOC outings copy the following into the “TO: section” of an email, and send it to: RVOC-L-subscribe-request@lists.psu.edu

Clearwater Conservancy’s annual Mother’s Day Hike in Spring Creek Canyon focuses on wildflowers. For information send an email to andrea@clearwaterconservancy.org