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Hiking the Bells Gap Rail Trail

Bell's Gap Rail Trail hikers

On the last day of October, twenty friends and members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society hiked down the Allegheny Front beginning in State Gamelands 158, following the remains of the Bells Gap Narrow-Gauge Railroad. Back in 1872, it was built from the railroad station in the Logan Valley town of Bellwood to Lloydsville, nine miles uphill, to haul coal from the mines on the mountain summit down to the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

It also served as an excursion train for summer tourists, “on account of the grand and romantic scenery along its course, its mountain peaks, deep gorges, cuts and windings,” according to an Altoona journalist writing for a Pittsburgh journal, as quoted by J. Simpson Africa in his 1883 History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania. He had seen the “wilder gorges in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but nothing to compare with this in softness of beauty, graceful outlines, and richness of foliage.”

The cars, he wrote, were pushed up the mountain by a locomotive but descended using gravity and brakes. For a round-trip ticket, tourists paid the train company a mere 65 cents.

Winter on the Bell's Gap R.R.

ca. 1875, from a series of stereoscopic "Views among the Alleghenies: Penna. Railroad" by R. A. Bonine

Near the top they alighted from the train at extensive picnic grounds containing walks, rustic seats, and a large covered pavilion called Rhododendron Hall “on account of the abundance of this flowering shrub on the mountain. There is a large bubbling spring of living water on the grounds, which is pure and cold,” as well as a pond and fountain. “These beautiful grounds are situated in the heart of a primeval forest, and beneath the umbrageous shade of widespreading hemlocks, oak, beech… Ferns and laurel abound…”

Over the years, the forest primeval was logged and the lumber hauled down to the valley railroad. The pure, cold, living water was heavily polluted by the mining operation.

Today it doesn’t cost anyone to hike, bike, or ride a horse up or down this railroad bed, now known as the Bells Gap Rail Trail. And while the forest primeval is gone, an extensive secondary forest covers the slopes as it did back in 1872. Rhododendrons still abound and so do oaks, beeches, and hemlocks along with many other tree species including mountain maple.

view of Bellwood reservoir and Brush Mountain

view of Bellwood reservoir and Brush Mountain

Indeed, even the view at Point Lookout, which the journalist described, hasn’t changed much — “bounded on either side by graceful mountains, clothed from base to summit with dark-green foliage, and away beyond for six miles the view is exceedingly fine, until it is shut out by Brush Mountain [the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province where I live], which rises like an immense green curtain to form the background of the picture.” With most of the leaves off the trees during our hike, the lookout also included a view of the Bellwood Reservoir, which is like a blue eye in the extensive forest.

The four mile portion through the gamelands is a wide, grassy trail, and the descent is barely perceptible because the engineers who designed the railroad kept the grade at less than four percent.

Almost immediately, on the left of the trail, we reached a series of four ponds called the Lloydsville Run Site A/B Passive Treatment System designed to neutralize acid mine drainage in Lloydsville Run, which had been affected by both strip mining and deep mining coal extraction. Altogether, it covers seven acres and includes an anoxic limestone drain, a limestone vertical flow pond, sediment ponds, and aerobic and anaerobic wetlands. Finished in 2001 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, its partners in restoration included the Altoona Water Authority and the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EAST). Although the EAST is now disbanded locally, many of the same volunteers continue to monitor the watershed.

staghorn sumac at the AMD remediation ponds

staghorn sumac at the AMD remediation ponds

A Growing Greener grant of $337,515 and a further $166,455 from the United States Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining’s Clean Streams Initiative paid for its construction. I find it ironic that industry made the mess and took the profits over a century ago and that citizens today not only had to pay to clean it up through their taxes, but volunteered to monitor it. However, the investment was worth it because in 2000 its pH level was an acidic 4.1. By 2007 it had risen to 6.92. In addition, its concentrations of heavy metals had dropped significantly.

Our fellow hikers poked about at the edges of the ponds and found newts and tadpoles in them. Last spring, on a Mother’s Day hike with my husband Bruce, the wetland area was alive with singing red-winged blackbirds.

Soon we reached a series of calcareous sandstone outcrops probably formed when the workers cut into the mountain to build the railroad. While the bed itself is wide, we could always peer down the steep slopes to the right at forest below. On the left, the mountain also rises, and it is there that the outcrops overhang the trail, some more dramatically than others.

columbine on the cliffs next to the trail

columbine on the cliffs next to the trail

Blossoming witch hazel, wild hydrangea shrubs, Hercules’ club, and common nightshade covered with red berries hung from the outcrops, and we wondered what other treasures we might find there in spring. On Mother’s day columbine, early saxifrage, Canada violets and Solomon’s seal bloomed on the outcrops, and we also saw doll’s eyes or white baneberry plants. Red-berried elder shrubs grew on and next to the outcrops.

Banks and banks of rhododendron often lined the trail and grew in thickets below the trail too. Large and small hemlocks looked healthy, because the hemlock woolly adelgids haven’t reached them. Clumps of paper birch signaled the colder climate atop the Allegheny Front.

Probably the most exciting find on our October hike was a porcupine in a tree. Many of the hikers had never seen one before, and it starred in several photos by the photographers in the group.

After four miles in the gamelands, we crossed on to the 2.1 miles managed by volunteers of the Bells Gap Rail Trail who keep it mowed under the direction of 87-year-old Bud Amrhein.

“He’s wonderful. I don’t know what we’d do without him,” Hazel Bilka told me.

porcupine along the Bells Gap Rail Trail

porcupine along the Bells Gap Rail Trail

It was due to Bilka and a group of concerned Bellwood citizens back in the mid-1990s that the rail trail was developed. That group called itself the Bellwood Antis Community Trust and, in an effort to promote the area, surveyed the citizens in Bellwood and the surrounding township and asked them what the area needed. Overwhelmingly, the citizens wanted more recreational opportunities.

After raising money for a feasibility study to develop a Bells Gap Rail Trail, they were able to persuade major landowners, including the Altoona Water Authority and township supervisors, to turn over their property along the railroad. They then received funding for the work on their 2.1 miles from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. On July 8, 2007 the trail, beginning at Root’s Crossing outside Bellwood was officially opened to the public, and later was connected to the gamelands. A further spur of it down into Bellwood is shared with cars and trucks.

“I think it makes the area accessible to those who otherwise wouldn’t go up there,” Bilka says. “I hear from people all the time who tell me how much they like it.”

In addition to biking, hiking, and horseback riding, Bilka says that cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular winter activities on the trail.

cinnamon ferns in a wetland below the trail

cinnamon ferns in a wetland below the trail

But I was eager to do a spring hike with Bruce, who hadn’t been on the October hike, and Mother’s Day was ideal. We parked at the top of the mountain in a gamelands pull-off and were immediately welcomed by singing chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts, and ovenbirds. Eastern towhees, black-and-white warblers, dark-eyed-juncos, wood thrushes, common yellowthroats, black-throated green warblers, blue-headed vireos, scarlet tanagers, worm-eating warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-throated blue warblers and common ravens sang and called along the trail and below in the forest during our six mile hike.

At 2,160 feet in elevation and 1,107 feet above Bellwood at the start of the trail, the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers were at least a week behind our mountain at 1200 feet and even further behind the fully leafed-out trees in Bellwood. Shadbush and red-berried elder bloomed and golden catkins dangling from black birch trees lit up the forest.

On the trail itself we stepped carefully to avoid beds of purple, sweet white and Canada violets as well as wild strawberry flowers. Along its edges, mayapples, columbine, and long-spurred violets blossomed, and once we found a cluster of eight blooming jack-in-the-pulpits.

At the magnificent curve over Shaw Run, known as the Horseshoe Bend in the railroad days, where the train had crossed on a trestle 76 feet high, we walked down to the rushing stream and followed a deer path upstream to eat our trail lunch in a bed of foamflowers and cut-leaved toothworts beside the picturesque run.

dolls' eyes (white baneberry)

dolls' eyes (white baneberry) are common along the trail

Behind us loomed the Shaw Run outcrop, a calcareous opening/cliff natural community which, according to the Blair County Natural Heritage Inventory, hosts limestone cliff specialties such as walking fern, maidenhair spleenwort, fragile fern, purple cliff brake, wild ginger, and bishop’s cap, although we did not climb it to find out.

On our way back to our car, we watched common sulphurs and blue azure butterflies fluttering over the wildflowers on the trail.

During our five hours there we never encountered another person. And we scarcely noticed the gentle incline.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter — the Bells Gap Rail Trail is a trail for all seasons.

All photos (except for the historical one) are by Dave Bonta. See his complete set of Bells Gap Rail Trail photos on Flickr.

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