Mount Nittany: special, iconic place that needs protection

Eric Loop, a member of the Mount Nittany Conservancy Board of Directors and works on the mountain committee, stands at the Tom Smyth Overlook on top of Mount Nittany in December.
Eric Loop, a member of the Mount Nittany Conservancy Board of Directors and works on the mountain committee, stands at the Tom Smyth Overlook on top of Mount Nittany in December. For the CDT

Mount Nittany stands out in the local landscape.

It is the natural icon for those who have grown up in Happy Valley, as well as for those who have grown to love the area. It is likely that most people see it, admire it, and can identify it. Many people also climb it.

Protecting Mount Nittany began in 1945 when the Lion’s Paw Alumni Association acquired 525 acres. In 1981 the Mount Nittany Conservancy (MNC) was formed to protect additional acreage from development. MNC continues to add land, maintain trails and protect Mount Nittany. The resources MNC makes available online — www.mtnittany.org —as well as the informational kiosk and maps at the trailhead provide information that will help you to enjoy the mountain.

Eric Loop, a member of the MNC Board of Directors who also works on the Mountain Committee to maintain trails, recently agreed to hike those trails with me. The trailhead is on the eastern edge of Lemont at the end of Mount Nittany Road. Most hikers take the short, steep 0.7-mile trail to the Mike Lynch Overlook, enjoy the view and head back down the same trail (1.4 miles total).

Loop gave me the choice of hiking the short, sweet, steep hike, or the longer hike (4.8 miles) and was pleased that I opted for the longer hike.

After a short climb from the trailhead we followed the Blue Trail along, and then gradually up, the contours of Mount Nittany. The gentle grade gave us time for conversation before the grade and rocks increased.

Each season on Mount Nittany offers a different experience. The mountain blooms in spring: early — serviceberry; mid — azaleas, orchids, trailing arbutus; late — mountain laurel. Summer continues with a few wildflowers, mushrooms and berries: raspberry bushes; teaberry at ground level. Mount Nittany is mostly covered by a deciduous forest with a wide mix of tree species and is colored with various shades of yellow, red and bronze each fall. Late fall includes the surprise of witch hazel flowers, small, yellow and wiry.

Winter hikes on Mount Nittany are filled with great views.

At the top we continued left on the Blue Trail. Hiking the Blue Trail loop rewards you with six overlooks that add up to multiple views of Nittany and Penns Valleys. No leaves on the trees results in even more views as you walk along the trail.

The first overlook we came to is the Nittany Mall Overlook. From here you can see how the growth of State College has spread up the valley. Farm fields are visible as you look northwest toward the long line of the Allegheny Front.

Loop’s favorite is the Tom Smyth Overlook which is 0.4 mile farther along the trail. A plaque honors the work and leadership of the friend of the mountain. The view is across the Nittany Valley in the Rockview area. Fields give way to buildings in the approach to Bellefonte, which is nestled against Bald Eagle Mountain. As with all the northwest/north views, forestland of the Allegheny Front continues along the horizon.

The Blue Trail crosses the top of Mount Nittany. Hiking across the top of Mount Nittany is gentle, but you earn that with the climb up and the climb down. Penns Valley Overlook is next and in contrast with Nittany Valley is a pastoral patchwork of fields and woodlots. Rothrock State Forest, including Tussey Mountain, borders the far side of the valley.

Little Flat Overlook is 0.3 mile farther along the trail. Tussey Mountain Ski Area is an obvious landmark with which to orient yourself as you look up, down and across Penns Valley.

The trail moves away from the edge and into a section where white pine saplings are reclaiming ownership of the forest. At a trail junction with the White Trail we continued to the left, and soon came to the Deeded Square Inches part of the MNC.

Deeded Square Inches is an opportunity for everyone who treasures Mount Nittany to own one square-inch of the mountain. It is a charming way to do your part to support MNC’s mission of protecting Mount Nittany, and details are available on its website.

Back on the trail, bear to the left at the next White and Blue trail junction. The Boalsburg and Mount Nittany Middle School Overlook features those two landmarks. With an awareness of local landmarks — both natural such as mountains and water gaps, as well as manmade such as highways, water towers, churches, and large buildings — this hike can greatly contribute to your sense of place, and of how we fit into the landscape we live in.

Continue along the edge of the mountain until you reach the Mike Lynch Overlook. This is what many visitors limit themselves to. The view is west overlooking the Penn State campus. Beaver Stadium and Bryce Jordan Center stand out from other buildings. The extensive environmental remediation scar that marks where I-99 crosses over Bald Eagle Ridge is also very visible. The Allegheny Front is again the most distant natural feature.

The view from the Mike Lynch Overlook is impressive, but even a casual observer will see that the setting you are standing in is an example of loving a place to death. Too many people are drawn to a small, special place with a great view. Despite the obvious ongoing efforts to address the erosion, it remains a problem that is worsening.

With the initial and subsequent land purchases, as well as dealing with forest insect infestations, and the continual need for trail maintenance, the Conservancy has risen to the occasion many times in the past. Erosion at the Mike Lynch Overlook is a challenge that the Mount Nittany Conservancy will be focusing on, and they will be looking for help from the community to solve this problem.

As Eric Loop and I finished the final trek down the mountain on the White Trail, we talked about his work on the Mountain Committee.

“We (the Mount Nittany Conservancy) are fortunate to have a number of student groups from Penn State and other community members who have a genuine interest in regularly helping out on the mountain,” Loop said. “We look at this as an opportunity to expose volunteers to parts of the mountain and its trail system which many visitors might not otherwise experience. If that gets more people to more parts of the mountain more frequently, it’s good for them and good for the mountain. And what is good for the mountain is that people not only love the place, but that they also act in ways that protect and preserve Mount Nittany.”

Mount Nittany is nearby and accessible. The Mount Nittany Conservancy has made it easy to experience the mountain in every season. The hike is invigorating. The views are great. Enjoy Mount Nittany and do your part to conserve Mount Nittany, our local, most recognizable, natural icon.

Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chairman of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club. He can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net