On the trail: ‘Museum of Monoliths’

Rock formations on the Tanbark Trail in northwest Pennsylvania.
Rock formations on the Tanbark Trail in northwest Pennsylvania. For the CDT

Large rocks, “museum of monoliths,” “threading the needle” — mention of any of those in a book, article or conversation is enough to move me into the forest in search of the promise of a special place.

After speaking with Robert Fish, Allegheny National Forest forestry technician, I found myself hiking 6.25 miles on the Tanbark Trail in the Allegheny National Forest, southwest of Warren in northwest Pennsylvania, twice in the past couple of weeks.

Explore the Allegheny Plateau and you will find it is not always flat. The Tanbark Trail gains more than 700 feet in elevation in the first mile as you climb away from the Allegheny River. Water has carved the plateau. Draft, glen, hollow, ravine — by whatever name it means uphill and downhill hiking.

Beginning at the trailhead along the Allegheny River, enjoy the climb away from the river and road. Enter the silence of the forest, with its towering trees, moss-covered boulders and cascading stream in the hollow. There is plenty to see and hear. Towering hemlocks dominate the forest. There are also many deciduous trees including black cherry, red oak, beech, black birch and maple.

Many of these venerable giants provide habitat for wildlife. Cavity-dwelling birds and mammals have plenty of options in this forest. Farther along the trail, hemlock thickets too dense to walk through take advantage of the sunlight wherever dead and fallen trees have released them to thrive in the sun.

Water is running in the hollow, down the slopes and across the trail. Rocks and boulders are covered with moss. Fallen moss-covered boles lay spread across the forest floor.

The landscape in and along Boardinghouse Run is beautiful, but do not stop there or you will miss an even more scenic and serene setting. As the terrain flatten the trail stretches southeast for a gentle mile before turning southwest and dropping to Slater Run.

Slater Run is a beautiful little stream running over sand and stones. There is a nice campsite near the stream. We briefly searched without success for an old trail that went up and along the ridge to the west and included an area marked “rocks” on one of my maps. “Rocks” will be a bushwhack adventure for another day.

The grade remains gentle as the trail approaches, and then crosses, state Route 3005. Here, the forest is much younger. At this point you will have hiked 3.1 miles. There is an informational sign on the far side of the road that briefly explains how the forest service is managing this area in response to the devastation caused by gypsy moths, which are one of numerous pests that have been introduced to this continent.

After an additional two miles of flat terrain with thick patches of mountain laurel, you will begin to see some large rocks, and then some crevasses back in the laurel. The trail passes a twisted mass of rock sandwiched between horizontal layers. A black birch has grown next to the rock, briefly flattened and spread itself over the side of the rock. This is the beginning.

Moss-covered rocks poke up out of the ground as you descend to a magical place in the forest. Rocks give way to boulders, huge boulders –– monoliths left lying a long time ago. Seeps and springs flow over the forest floor. But as you enter that place, the boulders are what take your breath away.

After settling in and contemplating the setting, most people will want to explore it. The boulders are intricate with layering and weathering. Pathways go around, over and through the boulders. There are crevices to crawl through. Small fern gardens await your discovery. Tree roots, from saplings, old trees and dead trees, flow from the top surface of the boulders and down the sides.

On a cool, early spring day, icicles extended from rough edges where water seeps out of and over the rock. Rock, water, moss and time — lots of time — went into what is present today. You will want to stop here. Overhanging rocks offer shelter from inclement weather. Meditate, explore, have lunch, hang out — but take the time to enjoy this place.

As you continue on the Tanbark Trail look back at the rocks, etch the image into your memory, savor the moment, and look forward to returning. As we departed we walked along a rock wall covered in moss that glowed emerald green in the late afternoon light.

Soon you are on a small bridge that crosses East Hickory Creek. The trail continues past the stream and approaches more rocks.

As you work your way toward the rocks, you are again encountering rocks and moss. You will “thread the needle” as you climb up and through this section of rock. Emerging from the final corridor of rock there is a nice view, particularly before the trees have leafed out, that looks over the mountain valley that drops into the Hickory Creek Wilderness, which is another great destination.

You are almost to the trailhead along state Route 2002, where, if you are hiking this as a through hike, you will have left a shuttle vehicle. If you want some additional time on the trail, check out some of the interpretive trails just down the road in the Hearts Content area.

There are special places, scenic and historical, throughout Pennsylvania’s Public Lands. It is worth the effort to take the time to discover and visit these places. Some are nooks and crannies known primarily to local people. Some are more widely known. All of them are there for you to enjoy and to explore. The Tanbark Trail includes one of these special places.

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


Directions: From Centre County, follow Interstate 80 west and U.S. Route 219 north to Ridgway. Follow state Route 948 north, and continue as the road becomes SR666 into Sheffield. Turn left by Uni-Mart onto Austin Hill Road (SR2002). Continue on SR2002 to just past the Hearts Content Recreation Site and leave a shuttle vehicle on the left in the parking area for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Trail. This is the end point for this hike.

Now the tricky part: Continue with a second vehicle north on SR2002 for 3.7 miles; turn left onto SR2005 (also called Sandstone Springs and Route 337); continue 1.9 miles and turn right onto Cobham Hill Road for 2.5 miles; turn right onto U.S. Route 62. Continue about 2.5 miles; parking for the Tanbark Trailhead is on the left; the sign for the trailhead is on the right, parallel to the highway and very easy to miss.

Difficulty: After the climb up from the Allegheny River this is a fairly easy hike. Take the climb at a comfortable pace, and the climb is also easy.

Resources: The book “Allegheny National Forest Hiking Guide” includes a description of the Tanbark Trail as well as a map and it is available at Appalachian Outdoors in downtown State College.

The best map I have found is a topographical map by National Geographic: Allegheny North ANF. That map, books, and information are available at ANF Marienville Ranger Station and Visitor Center.