The Lower Trail — more than a walk or bike ride

Cream violets are found along the Lower Trail.
Cream violets are found along the Lower Trail. For the CDT

The Lower (rhymes with “flower”) Trail follows an abandoned railroad bed along the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River. The crushed and rolled limestone is a great biking or walking surface. Birds, butterflies, turtles, wildflowers, interpretive signs and ruins along the stream can come together to relax your pace.

There are six trailheads that give options for the 16.5-mile trail. All have a pavilion with tables, a parking lot and toilets. Shelters and benches are located along the trail.

Recently, I asked Stan Kotala, who has been using the Lower Trail for the past 25 years, if he would join me for a bike ride on the trail. He is a former member of the board that oversees the trail.

The Alfarata Station trailhead is where we began our ride with Alice Kotala and Gernilee Carter. We began by observing and photographing an eagle that was standing in its nest on the mountainside.

Back on the trail, we soon stopped at one of the many informational signs. This one was about Japanese knotweed, an invasive species that was introduced as an ornamental plant in the 1800s and then used by the railroads to stabilize banks.

After the first mile, which parallels U.S. Route 22, the trail turns away from the highway and into the silence of the stream corridor. It was not always this silent. The railroad followed a canal towpath that was part of the Pennsylvania Canal System. It was used from 1832 until the mid-1800s.

There were numerous other ruins and remnants from the past. We looked at locks and channels from the canal system, the fascinating Americas Lehmann House near the company town of Carlim, towering concrete quarry structures and bridge abutments. As the forest canopy has matured in the past 25 years, Stan also noticed an increased number of wildflowers. I had seen photos from the Juniata Valley Audubon Society hike 10 days earlier and was disappointed to see that the beautiful patches of trillium were mostly faded. However, we soon saw blue, white and purple carpets of violets along the trail.

Turtles brought us to a halt several times. Two painted turtles were on a log, sunning on a well-preserved section of the canal. We stopped on one of the two railroad bridges that cross the river, where we enjoyed not only the view of the stream but also a snapping turtle sunning itself on a pile of woody debris.

While we were at the covered bridge we could see a mass of eggs as well as many small critters swimming in the still water. I saw tadpoles and frog eggs. Stan saw wood frog tadpoles, eastern American toad tadpoles, spotted salamander larvae and spotted salamander eggs, and I observed fairy shrimp. It is rewarding to explore nature with folks who know what they are looking at.

Continuing on the trail, we soon stopped at the well-preserved Canal Lock No. 61. An interpretive sign gives some idea of the effort and cost that went into building a canal that was used only for several decades.

As we turned back we decided to take a side trip, exiting the trail at Mt. Etna Station, viewed the iron master’s home, pedaled past the three forgemen log cabins and turned left on the Etna Furnace Road. We pushed uphill and stopped at the imposing ruins of the Mt. Etna Furnace, once the heart of a thriving community of workers and their families.

This side trip included the bonus of a hillside largely free of the impacts from invasive species. Wild ginger, Dutchman’s breeches, long-spurred violet, mitrewort, sharp-lobed hepatica and dog violets were all thriving.

Returning to the section near U.S. Route 22, back in the sun with no forest canopy, back to the noise of a busy highway, the transition was jarring. It felt like emerging from a pleasant dream, a dream that had stretched through the afternoon.

We had enjoyed a gentle bike ride that touched the human history and its impact along a short section of the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River, a bike ride that let us lose ourselves in wild flowers, wildlife and wonder at the natural world.

We had enjoyed the day, enjoyed each other’s company and explored the natural world. A spring day could not hold much more.

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: From State College: Take State Route 26 south to State Route 45. Turn right on State Route 45 to State Route 453. Turn left on 453 toward Water Street and U.S. Route 22. Turn left onto U.S. Route 22 and drive 0.7 mile. Turn left onto Logging Road 31101, continue on State Route 4014 (the trail brochure refers to this as “Main Street”). The trailhead is on the right.

Resources: At the trailhead look for a brochure with a map and additional information about the trail.