Taking a midwinter walk on the North County Trail
January isn’t the high season for hiking. But consider the advantages.
The days are cold, and if I dress in layers, and especially keep my feet warm, the brisk air is invigorating. If I really don’t want to go out when it is below freezing, often between the frigid days there are spells when the thermometer reads above 50 degrees. In contrast, those 50-degree days are downright balmy. But, even though I enjoy the relative warmth, it’s still not balmy enough for my winged cold-blooded friends to get their motors going. On a winter hike I don’t have to worry about insects.
I have always enjoyed the winter woods for another reason – the expansive views. With the leaves off the trees the whole landscape seems bigger. I can see farther into the woods than in the middle of July. I can find more interesting little nooks than at other times of the year. Seeing more is an illusion of course, it’s simply being able to see past the cacophony of leaves of summer and into the deeper woods. Hiking a trail familiar in summer becomes a whole new experience in winter.
If you’ve never taken a winter hike, let me make a suggestion of a relatively new trail that a friend introduced me to this past fall.
The North Country Trail is designed as a long-distance path in the tradition of the Appalachian Trail. Since it passes through a number of public lands here in western Pennsylvania that have good access, it is ideal for short day hikes.
First some background about the North County Trail. This is no “couple of days with a pack” trail. When completed, it will be the longest continuous trail in the United States – longer than the fabled Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, the Continental Divide Trail along the crest of the Rocky Mountains from the Canadian border to Mexico, and longer that the Pacific Crest Trail from the Canadian border in Oregon to Mexico at the southern end of California. The final length will approach 4,200 miles – that equals a round-trip, Georgia to Maine and back, jaunt on the Appalachian Trail. Right now, almost half of the North Country Trail is open to the public.
Unlike the other trails mentioned above, that generally follow mountain ranges, the North Country Trail will meander through a variety of environments in seven states. It begins in northern New York and wends its way through the Adirondack Mountains generally headed southwest. It finds its way into Pennsylvania’s northern hardwood forests of the Allegheny National Forest and passes through the grandeur of the old-growth white pines in Cook Forest State Park. Closer to Pittsburgh, it traverses Moraine and McConnell’s Mill State parks before crossing into Ohio, still heading generally southwest.
From there, the North County Trail winds through southern Ohio then turns north on the western side of the state and heads for the Great Lakes states of Michigan and Wisconsin. It crosses Minnesota, now heads west, and finally ends in central North Dakota.
When all the pieces are linked, this trail will have an astonishing amount of diversity. It will pass old forts, restored fur trading posts, covered bridges, Revolutionary War sites and historic canals. For natural history interest, add Adirondack peaks, Great Lakes shorelines, old-growth forests, wetlands, waterfalls, glacial features and the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
However, I’m not suggesting you try the whole thing right off the bat. What I am suggesting is that since there are several hundred miles of the North Country Trail already completed in Pennsylvania, there are a couple of stretches in Butler County that are great for a winter hike.
In northeastern Butler County, the trail passes through Game Lands No. 95. Beginning just outside of Parker, along the Allegheny River, the footpath follows the main valley of Bear Creek and then up a tributary valley, the North Branch of Bear Creek. This stream is in one of those deep secluded valleys common in western Pennsylvania. The steep slopes and steep narrow bottomland are dark with hemlocks draped over a noisily cascading stream. In the winter, with ample water and cold air, the North Branch flows full and is crystal clear. Along the edges, layers of ice are draped over dark rocks where ground water seeps are trapped by the freezing air.
On snowy days, places like the North Branch of Bear Creek are fairylands of snow white, hemlock green and ice silver.
From that steep stream valley, the trail crosses a watershed divide and touches the upper reaches of the Slippery Rock Creek. There the footpath starts an 11-mile trek through another portion of Game Lands No. 95 known as The Glades. Access is near the village of Argentine, where the path goes west for a while on boardwalks through some interesting wetlands, and then heads south toward Glade Lake. The trail crosses several small roads, so setting up short trips is easy.
If you do hike The Glades section of the North Country Trail keep an eagle eye open for eagle eyes. In the area around Glade Lake, bald eagles have nested for several years, and it is common to see both the young and adults perched in tall trees or feeding along the shore of the lake. This is probably one of the places closest to Pittsburgh to see bald eagles on a regular basis.
The initial phases of developing the North Country Trail focused on public lands. However, last September a 1.3-mile section that winds over private land owned by Waste Management Corp. was dedicated. This link connects the southwestern edge of Game Lands No. 95 to a convenient access along Route 308 near Pry Road. Along other sections, where there is no public land, the North Country Trail temporarily follows back roads until other arrangements can be made.
Farther west and south in Butler County the trail re-enters state lands. At the Old Stone House along Route 8, there is access for a section of trail that crosses into Jennings Environmental Education Center and then rambles up and down the glacial terrain into Moraine State Park. From Stone House to the west side of Moraine Park is more than 15 miles of well-developed and interesting hiking. In Moraine Park, the North Country Trail shares the name Glacier Ridge Trail and spans the northern sections of the park. There are a couple of great day hikes in Moraine, and using the bike trail that follows the northern edge of the lake, I like to combine several activities into one outing.
Near the Davis Hollow Marina is the Pennsylvania headquarters for the multistate North Country Trail. The Davis Hollow Outdoor Center is a historic log and stone structure that serves as the focal point for the volunteers that have built the trail in this region. People from all over the area have constructed over 15 bridges; cleared miles of trail, scouted and marked new routes, and assisted in maintaining the outdoor center.
One of the many impressive works of the volunteers is on the western end of Moraine State Park. The Hidden River Bridge over a small arm of Lake Arthur is worthy of the pride of its designers and builders. Take the time to give a good look at the structure with its carved details and wooden peg construction. It is worth the walk just to sit and admire the all-wood bridge. This is true for many of the structures along the North Country Trail. When I’ve walked the winding path, I have always been amazed at the volunteer work that demonstrates an obvious dedication to hiking, but also has a strikingly evident light touch on the land. There is no bulldozed roadway here, but a gentle footpath that blends with the natural terrain and takes advantage of the most interesting places on the land.
The connection between Moraine and McConnell’s Mill State parks is by roads, but once in the gorge of Slippery Rock Creek, the North Country Trail winds through some of the wildest landscapes in western Pennsylvania.
The trail drops into the rocky gorge at a place called Alpha Pass in the northern part of the park. From there it follows existing trails all the way downstream to Hell’s Hollow. Along the way, it touches the roiling waters of Slippery Rock Creek and glides through mature bottomland forests at Walnut Flats. From Eckert Bridge to the Hell’s Hollow parking area is a difficult section of trail of about eight miles. The steep climbs are always a good reason to stop and sit for a long time and just enjoy the beauty. I’m always rewarded for my exertion by getting a chance to savor the raw beauty of the gorge.
In winter, this portion of the trail has abundant and massive ice cascades germinating from ground water seeps. The abstract crystalline sculptures of frozen water are giant ghostlike forms burrowing out of the inner earth. Imagining mystical animals among the amorphous icy forms is winter’s equivalent to discovering dinosaurs in the clouds of July.
From McConnell’s Mill, the North County Trail mostly follows country roads to the Ohio line. Someday that will change, and the path will wander woodlands and fields on its long trek to North Dakota. However, for now, the sections that have been completed are a monument to the labor of volunteers dedicated to building footpaths – trails that allow us to experience the variety of western Pennsylvania. If you want to honor that dedication, I can’t think of a better way than to simply put the North Country Trail to good use with a midwinter walk.
Paul g. Wiegman is a freelance writer, photographer and naturalist born and raised in western Pennsylvania. Write to him c/o Tribune-Review, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601; or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .