Tour #10 – Optimist or Pessimist, Halfway Mark

Forty-eight parks checked off is close to sixty which is half the parks in the Pennsylvania State Park system.  2013 has been a good year!  Matt’s birthday fell on a weekend and he was fortunate to be working a day job, with weekends off for the first time in ages.  We both scheduled Friday and Monday off and planned a trip to southern Pennsylvania.  As we got closer to our departure I added more stops along the way and suggested stops on the way home, hoping to reach a dozen parks on this tour.  We rented a room in an inexpensive national chain hotel that we used as home base.   The Quality Inn in Chambersburg was a clean hotel with nice bed linens, free wifi and a free hot breakfast buffet every morning.  I am getting ahead of myself…

We left home Friday morning around 9:30 on September 27, 2013 and headed south.  As we drove over Bloss Mountain on Route 15 (future I99) we were in awe at the brilliant fall colors. The day’s weather was very nice making it a good traveling day.  Our first park was Little Buffalo State Park, another historic park. After checking out the camp ground and park office we walked to the top of the dam and enjoyed the view for a while before walking around the rest of the park.  The covered bridge took us to the historic mill which fascinated us both as did the (privately owned) stately old brick mansion across the road from the mill.

The next leg of our drive took us over some very mountainous regions and into an area known as Doubling Gap to Colonel Denning State Park.  We also walked up to the top of the dam here and were taken with the calmness of the water and the stunning reflection.  We both took a lot of pictures around the end of this lake.  Fowlers Hollow State Park is a short drive from Colonel Denning and our third stop.  This large cooking oven reminds me of one I found when I was in the Tioga State Forest in April.  We finally found a Tuscarora Forest sign so snapped this picture to add to my state forest collection.  Big Spring State Park is a day use park in the Tuscarora Forest.  There is a spring with signage not to drink the water.  The beautiful stone and log picnic pavilion is one of the nicest and largest I have seen in the parks. At one of these parks as I exited the car I heard katydids in the trees and was delighted with the reminder of summer I am no longer hearing at home.  This was the last park on the list for the day so we drove up and over mountains, through valleys with rich fertile farmland, past the enormous Letterkenny Army Depot to our hotel.    We had dinner at an Applebee’s near the hotel and had a nice conversation with our server Michelle who told us about a couple of cool places we checked out later in the weekend.

Saturday morning, Matt’s birthday:  After breakfast at the hotel we left for another four-park day, first stop Kings Gap Environmental Education Center.  Before driving up the long driveway to the mansion on top of the hill, we stopped at the smaller pines area below to use the bathrooms and agreed they were the nicest damn outhouses we had ever used, seriously!  We found a parking place near the mansion caretaker’s house and walked the grounds of this magnificent place.  We did not go inside the mansion but roamed the patio and garden with our cameras for much longer than I had expected.  The view from the mansion’s patio/porch was extraordinary even though it was not a warm day.  All our parks this day are in the Michaux State Forest and although we never drove past the actual forestry office we did pass a sign and took a photo to add to my collection.  Our second park was the one I was looking forward to the most, Pine Grove Furnace State Park.  Another park built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that used to be an iron town, this one celebrating their 100th anniversary in 2013.  Pine Grove is also the mid-point on the Appalachian Trail and has THE very cool AT Museum.  There are a number of original buildings still here including the AT Museum, Park Office,  Ironmasters Mansion (all decked out for an afternoon wedding), and Paymasters Cabin (you can rent this.)  The furnace stack is similar to Greenwood Furnace but you cannot stand inside this one.  We liked the old stone foundations evident in the hillside behind the stack.  Pine Grove Furnace hosts two lakes.  The third park of the day was a nice drive and along the way an historical marker caught our eyes and caused me to turn around.  A WWII POW Interrogation Camp piqued my curiosity and occupied my Google searches that evening back at the hotel.  Our third park, Caledonia State Park has the oldest state park office in the system, now used as a Forestry Museum.  The Park manager, Dwight was volunteering in the museum when we were there and was a pleasure to talk with.  Caledonia has an eighteen-hole golf course in addition to camping, picnic areas & theater for performing arts.  We ended up driving through Caledonia two more times on this trip and found more to the park each time.  There is a scale model of the Caledonia Furnace at the park’s entrance on the Lincoln Highway (Route 30) that we never noticed until our third time through.  South of Caledonia is the first Pennsylvania State Forest Park, now called Mont Alto State Park adjacent to Penn State University’s Forestry School.  This is day use only park famous for its carousel style picnic pavilion.  The man in the photo made us feel too uncomfortable to linger.  He was all alone, had two large grills going with food cooking on each one and was singing at the top of his lungs “Take Me Home Country Road” in the most awful, off-pitch, out of tune voice. This night we walked to dinner, stopping in a camera store first (yes, really… a camera store!) and finding new bags for each of us before walking to Red Lobster for a wonderful dinner & drinks.

On morning two we had a leisurely breakfast and entertained ourselves by people watching in the hotel dining room.  There were only two parks on my list for the day and the forecast was for clear skies and sunshine.  The first stop was Cowans Gap State Park which proved to be much nicer than I expected and a beautiful day.  We enjoyed a hike around the lake and saw a number of people picnicking, boating and hiking.  Not far from Cowans Gap was our second park, Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park where President James Buchanan was born.  The cottage his father built is gone but the location is marked with this cool stone pyramid.  This day use only park is a tranquil place.  I had hoped to get a photo with the Buchanan State Forest sign but never passed one where it was safe to pullover.  Had we driven not much further we would have found the forest office so I will leave this state forest on my list for another trip.

We did a lot of driving along Route 30, The Lincoln Highway, a very historic roadway.  When roads were first bring built they had names rather than numbers and this road was an integral part of the national Good Roads movement.  Outside of Caledonia SP is a sign detailing the grand celebration held for the opening of the newly paved section from Gettysburg to Chambersburg in 1921.

I knew the GPS wasn’t going to help me so I had researched online the two locations our server Michelle had told us about and had a fair idea of how to reach each place.  I first took Matt to where I thought to find a water tower and a trail to some locally famous climbing rocks called White Rocks.  He was skeptical of my directions and instincts, I listened to him, he was wrong and we ended up back on the same road (White Rocks Rd) to find a water tower about two tenths of a mile from where I had turned around initially.  Now you know why I am the driver.  The trail is pretty clear as it leads up through small boulders littering the forest floor up to large white rock outcroppings.  Although there were other cars where we parked, we could hear voices. It was not until we got right up to the rock face did we realize there was a couple rappelling. We stopped and spoke to them for some time, getting advice on the best way to reach the top and opinions on other places I had researched online.  Coincidentally the woman was planning on running in the Wineglass Marathon Half Marathon the following weekend in our home town.  We hope she was happy with her time that day.  We chose to scramble up the almost vertical hill, goat-style, and kept climbing higher and higher but never did reach the top of the rocks we had stood below.  When we did have a clear view it was outstanding.  This was some of the toughest hiking either of us has ever done and we were not equipped properly.  Near the point we decided to stop and figure out how to get back down, with Matt ahead of me I noticed a movement close to my feet. A rather fat rattle snake was slithering into a crack between the rocks.  This made me move faster for the moment but made the both of us far more aware and cautious for the rest of the trip.  We have had some very cold nights at home so snakes were not on our radar until this encounter.  We never did reach what we could call the top of this ridge and finding our way back down was difficult and near impossible at a few points but we made it down, safely.  The climbers were gone but we did see a young Mennonite couple with cameras in hand in the parking area, preparing to hike to the base for photos.  The second location Michelle told us about she called Tumbling Run and I had found some information that made it easy to find a trailhead of sorts.  We walked down the stream, which turned out to be the wrong direction on a clear but unblazed trail.  It was peaceful and a nice walk in the woods.  When we reached the car, all of the other cars that had been in the parking lot were gone and nightfall was an hour away.

What better time to visit the former WWI POW Interrogation Camp than nightfall?  At the top of Michaux Road we found the AT crossing the road and Matt got out to make it look as though he was hiking it.  Back down the road from the AT, Camp Michaux is another of those places that has filled my mind with history and nostalgia and become the subject of hours of Internet time.  The site was a farm, then a CCC camp, then the army moved in with their secret interrogation camp, then a church group used it as a summer camp until 1972 when the only winterized building burned down. No one wanted to rebuild, the lease was not renewed and the land reverted to the forestry district.   This night we walked around near the old stone barn wall and a little bit into the camp on what was the main road.  We noticed numbered posts and were intrigued by the idea of exploring it with a guide so planned a return trip on Monday on our way home.  The GPS refused to turn on when we left the camp and I had trouble getting to the hotel from Route 30 so we drove around aimlessly until we got to where we needed to be.  We were so exhausted we went directly to Applebee’s where Michelle was again our server and we shared our day’s stories with her.

Morning three began with breakfast again in the hotel dining room, packed up the car and headed out – Camp Michaux was waiting and we had the guided walking tour downloaded to Matt’s Nook tablet.  We did the walking tour out of order, which I would not recommend, and found we were missing the updated version when we got home so missed three markers.  We both found the guide well written and enjoyed walking around the place.  We saw no snakes but a lot of poison ivy as warned in the guide.   My favorite spot is the swimming pool that was built by the church group.  It is obviously the bullfrog’s favorite spot too.  I could not help but think about the campers, some probably around my own age now, and what they would feel too see how the forest is reclaiming this once thriving summer camp.  As we were leaving we encountered a large group of Road Scholar hikers who were headed to Pine Grove Furnace State Park four miles away.

Somewhere north of Harrisburg, with my GPS working again, I allowed her voice to guide me to a fairly new state park called Boyd Big Tree Preserve Conservation Area.  The land was donated to the state to be preserved and made into this day use only park.  I was happy to find an experimental chestnut forest growing here.  Over the next hill is the next park and a treacherous drive I would prefer to never do again.  My GPS took me over Peters Mountain Road, a narrow winding road leading far up a mountain, through one (or maybe more) precarious switchback and apparently an appropriate road for people to drive 55-60 miles per hour.  By the time I reached the turn off for the next park I knew I could not go back the same way I came.  Joseph E Ibberson Conservation Area is another tract of land that was donated to the state.  The AT passes through this park that has a lot of hiking trails.  Leaving here I made sure my GPS was set to “most use of freeways” in order to avoid that awful road and we were guided back to Route 15.  Just north of Lewisburg I honored the GPS by listening to her (or trying to, as her volume was set too low) and taking a different route that made me feel lost and disoriented even though I knew why/where.  If you have ever travelled Route 15 from Williamsport to Lewisburg then you know how it snakes through South Williamsport and other towns and it’s not what your GPS would call “freeway.”  It took me to I180 and up toward Muncy then westward to Williamsport where I met up with Route 15.  It seemed as though it took me twenty miles out of the way but it was probably just my irritation with it all!

Another trip ending at Yorkholo in Mansfield for dinner before coming home with half of the Pennsylvania State Parks seen/visited.  Yes, 2013 has been a good year for my travels!

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