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.

Pennsylvania Hiking Week

By the time my husband Bruce and I learned that our 13-year-old granddaughter Eva was going to spend the summer with us, most of the state park cabins were booked up.  But we were able to snag a few days at Hills Creek State Park between Mansfield and Wellsboro in north central Tioga County.

Six-spotted tiger beetle at Hills Creek State Park by Eva Bonta

Six-spotted tiger beetle at Hills Creek State Park (all photos by Eva Bonta)

We had hoped to celebrate Pennsylvania Hiking Week the last nine days in May, when the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources teams up with the Keystone Trails Association and offers nearly 100 organized hikes and walks throughout Pennsylvania in state parks, forests, and other publicly-owned lands. But our cabin wasn’t available until May 31, and we spent most of that day en route, although we did stop at Little Pine State Park to picnic and hike their Lakeshore Trail on our own.

It turned out that no organized hikes had been offered at Hills Creek State Park anyway.  But the park proved to be a jewel of a place lightly occupied by a few campers who know a good park when they see it and aim to keep it that way. The 407-acre park has a 137-acre lake as its focal point, and it was around that lake that we hiked the following day on Lake Side Trail.

Once again we were in the Allegheny Plateaus area, and once again we saw wildflowers and birds that don’t blossom or nest on our Ridge-and-Valley mountaintop. Luckily for us, Eva was as interested in the plants and wildlife as we were so technically our hike was more of a ramble with frequent stops to admire the wildflowers and wild creatures we encountered both on the trail and in the lake.

Underneath the large hemlocks and white pines, we found what I always think of as “northern wildflowers” because they all grew in the conifer forest beside the central Maine lakeshore property we owned from 1966 until 1971 when we moved here — starflower, painted trillium, goldthread, clintonia, Canada mayflower and bunchberry.

Clintonia borealis

Clintonia borealis

Starflower (Trientalis borealis) with its terminal whorl of various sized, shiny, tapering leaves are topped by one to three small, six or seven pointed, white, star-shaped flowers on thin stalks.  Also called “chickweed” and “wintergreen,” starflowers thrive in moist woods and bogs.  Once, after a blowdown in our hollow, I found a starflower that was protected by fallen limbs, but after the limbs rotted, the starflower disappeared.  Every spring I walk the stream banks hunting for another, but so far, I’ve been unsuccessful.  Yet at Hills Creek State Park, we found dozens of them, many with three blossoms.

Goldthread has only one small, white, star-shaped flower.  As Joseph Harned writes in Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, “The beauty of this plant lies in its shining leaves, which partly hide among bog moss or grow in large numbers about the roots of old pine trees in moist woods.”  Those evergreen leaves are divided into three parts and resembles jagged-edged three leaf clovers.  Both its genus name Coptis, which is Greek for “to cut” and its species name trifolia or “three-leaved” describe the leaves.  But its common name refers to its threadlike, bright yellow rhizomes below ground.

I was probably the most thrilled to see clintonia in bloom — the Clintonia borealis, also known as “corn-lily,” “dogberry”, and “blue bead lily.”  This was not the clintonia that grows in our hollow — Clintonia umbellulata — with its umbel of white flowers, but the clintonia of the north woods sporting a cluster of yellowish, bell-shaped flowers.  It was this clintonia that was named for DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York from 1796 until 1828.  Nature writer, Henry David Thoreau, once complained in his journal “What is he to the lovers of flowers in Massachusetts”… Name your canals and railroads after Clinton, if you please, but his name is not associated with flowers.”  Thoreau was wrong.  Clinton may have been a politician, but he was also an enthusiastic naturalist who published books on natural history and science. Both clintonia species have the same two to three broad, shining, basal leaves and their flowers grow on a single, leafless stalk.  But Clintonia borealis produces in mid-August a unique shade of deep blue berries, “like polished lapis-lazuli,” one author says, “Persian blue mixed with a little white,” another maintains, hence, its alternate name “blue-bead lily.”

Bunchberry flowers by Eva Bonta

Bunchberry flowers

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) or “dwarf cornel” also produces berries in late August, but they are small, compact clusters of scarlet berries that Inuit supposedly relish. Closely related to flowering dogwood, it has four, showy, white bracts that surround a cluster of tiny, greenish flowers elevated on a short stem above a whorl of six yellowish-green leaves.

Beds of Canada mayflower (Maianthemem canadense) reminded me of the thick ground cover this wildflower formed in Maine and here in our small deer exclosure.  Also known as “false lily-of-the-valley,” it, like clintonia, is a member of the Lily family.  Its terminal cluster of small, four-pointed, white flowers blossom on a zigzag stem above two or three, heart-shaped leaves that clasp the stem. It grows from Labrador to Tennessee, and, in late autumn, birds eat its small, round, red or speckled berries.

One flower was new to me, which is always a thrill — herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum), also called “red-shanks” and “dragon’s blood,” because of its reddish stem. I was reminded of our four-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, who loves dragon stories, when I learned about “dragon’s blood.”  How much more child-pleasing that name would be instead of the rather dull “herb-Robert.” Closely related to the more common wild geranium, it has paired small, pink flowers and fernlike leaves.  In Pennsylvania, it likes to grow in moist, wooded, rocky slopes and ravines.

Jack-in-the-pulpit and Indian cucumber root, both common in our hollow, completed our flower list on land, and yellow bullhead-lilies floated on the lake.

Painted turtles

Painted turtles

As residents of a dry mountaintop, we were especially charmed by the lake residents. Eva stalked the large and small midland painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking on logs in a backwater near the water’s edge, but no matter how quietly she moved, they always tumbled into the water before she crept close enough for good photos.  It was a clear, cool day so the turtles were basking.  After spending the cold months hibernating in the mud at the bottom of the lake, midland turtles need a water temperature of 50 degrees to become active.  But feeding and most courting and mating don’t happen until the water temperature reaches 68 degrees.  No doubt, those bullhead lilies provided some of the vegetable food for the turtles.

We also looked at the birds attracted by the water. A pair of mallards accompanied by seven golden ducklings swam near the shore.  Farther out, posing on a snag in the middle of the lake, sat a double-crested cormorant.  An osprey fished overhead, and a great blue heron stood and hunted in the shallows.

We had picked up a brochure — Common Birds of Hills Creek State Park — at the park office and managed to check off 31 species in the fields, forest, and lake.  But we also saw or heard several species not on the list—blue-headed vireo, chestnut-sided warbler, golden-winged warbler, least flycatcher, blackburnian warbler, and veery.  Of those species, only the blue-headed vireo is a common breeder on our mountaintop, although it is far more common in the northern half of the state and prefers a mature deciduous forest with hemlocks mixed in.  So too does the fiery-throated blackburnian warbler.  But it is also partial to white pines.

Both the golden-winged warbler and chestnut-sided warbler prefer overgrown fields and are most abundant in the Allegheny Plateaus region as is the least flycatcher.  But the least flycatcher is a denizen of woodlands with an open understory. All those habitats can be found at Hills Creek State Park.

To finish our hike we followed a few connecting trails, including Tauscher’s Trail, which goes through moist woodlands with a dense understory.  That habitat is ideal for the veery.  It too is a breeder in the northern portion of the state.  And later, we sat outside our cabin and listened to a regular chorus of their spiraling song, another poignant remembrance of our Maine years.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Our butterfly list was not as impressive as the bird list.  Only tiger swallowtails and spring azures flew that cool day.  But Eva spotted a caterpillar on a beech leaf that looked like a bird dropping.  It was one of the first three instars of a spicebush swallowtail butterfly that feeds principally on sassafras and spicebush.  This amazing caterpillar actually changes into a snake mimic through the rest of its instars, and instead of sitting in plain view on top of a leaf as it does during its bird-dropping stages, it forms a leaf shelter by pulling the edges of a leaf over its green and brown body with only its large, black, yellow, and white eyespots and snake-like head showing.  Such a sight is usually enough to deter any hungry bird.

Altogether, that day we hiked five miles and spent the rest of our time exploring other, short trails until it was dark.

The next day, despite lowering skies, we drove to Leonard Harrison State Park.  We were determined to show Eva the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, even though we knew it was no match for Arizona’s Grand Canyon where we had taken her when she was eleven.  Still, she was impressed by its green beauty and enjoyed the views of the gorge from Overlook Trail.  But suddenly clouds and fog enveloped the gorge, which obscured the view, and a light mist fell.  Still, she desperately wanted to walk the winding Turkey Path down into the gorge.

Pine Creek Gorge from Leonard Harrison State Park

Pine Creek Gorge from Leonard Harrison State Park

“Just a little way,” we said, worried not only by the worsening weather and the park brochure warnings that this was a difficult trail, but also by our own ability to climb back up.  We had remembered the trail as rough and steep from our visit years before.  But it had been improved, and when I saw two waterfalls marked on the park map, I couldn’t resist hiking that far, a descent of 550 feet and only 100 feet from the bottom of the gorge.  The waterfalls on Four Mile Run were worth the climb and the real rain held off until we reached the rim of the gorge.

That hike and torrential rains the next couple of days truncated our Hiking Week, but even so, we felt as if we had honored the occasion despite missing the exact dates.  After all, the point of Hiking Week is to get out and hike on a few of Pennsylvania’s many long and short distance trails, and we had certainly done that.

For information about Hiking Week 2010 (Saturday, May 29 – Sunday, June 6), check the DCNR website. They have several guided hikes scheduled in every region of the state.