Sunday, July 3, 2022

PA Chrome Barrens Preserve

The Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy and Elk Township of Chester County, PA, work as management/ownership partners to protect this patch of several hundred acres of rare chrome serpentine barrens but on today's hike rather than grasslands and unique ecosystems, there was mostly greenbrier. I shed about a tablespoon of blood hacking a trail for me and Amos. Poor Amos. Without boots, his paw pads were pretty sore from stepping on thorns. 

American Toad Bufo Americanus

But...we persevered and limping and bleeding emerged into some excellent but muddy habitat where there wasn't any sense in trying to stay dry so we just plopped on through. Last evening brought some heavy storms and flash floods to the Chester County area and most of the Chrome Trail (yellow blazed) was still flowing with water. The rain, however, brought out the toads who were gobbling up worms that lay on the saturated surface of the trail. I stopped counting at 50 - all American Toads. 

This is the trail - four-foot high wall of Greenbrier. Just. Ouch. 

A yellow blaze and a faint path

The problem with Greenbrier is that it is incredibly invasive and without a rigorous management plan to include periodic burning, an important aspect of serpentine barrens ecology, it will take over within a few years. This preserve needs a burn so badly, it hurt worse than the thorns to consider all that is lost beneath the shade and tangle of thick thorny vine. I had a hard time reconciling the conservation value of this property without consistent management but I completely get that funding for these efforts is almost as rare as the ecosystem. I heard from another hiker that Pal's Trail on the other side of the road, also Nature Conservancy, is better managed, so I made a note to come back and try that short out-and-back another day. Still bleeding and limping, we crossed a series of small streams that had overflowed their banks the night before. Now we were bleeding, limping, and making slurping-sucking sounds. 

Serpentine rock with its unique weathering 

Stopping by the streams gave me the opportunity to observe how the serpentine rock weathers at the surface into blade-like shards. The ancient rock is high in toxic minerals like chromium. When combined with nutrient poor, thin top soils, a serpentine barrens is not a very hospitable home! But these unique ecosystems are celebrated for the rare plant communities that tough it out from grasslands to open glade forests. But here, everywhere, today was the ubiquitous Greenbrier. 

Flooded trail and Amos' bubbly paw print

According to my map and the AllTrails app, the Chrome Trail is only 1.7 miles in length. After an hour of hacking and slurping we had only traveled three-quarters of a mile.  I decided to stop worrying about time and trying to follow the nearly invisible and neglected yellow blazes and just follow Amos as he expertly found the trail at every overgrown turn. Eventually we turned through some open forest and I was glad of it. My legs were now streaked with blood. And there, a single new blaze hung trophy-like on a Black Oak. We finally made a solid mile. 

Suddenly a new blaze - the only one of the hike. 

The trail followed old roads that may have been associated with the many mines that were operating in the area. This is part of the historic State Line Mining District where local companies extracted feldspar, chromium, arsenides, and nickle from open pits and deep shafts. A quick look at Google Maps will show at least four flooded quarry pits as ponds or lakes near the preserve. It was a very busy industrial landscape during both World Wars and again during the Cold War as rare metals and minerals were needed for weapons manufacture. 

Note at least four quarry "lakes" around the preserve. 

Red Cedar branch wound

As we progressed through open woods it was easy to imagine the fields of grass pasture that followed the closing of the mines. Red Cedars stood dead or nearly so among Black Oak and a few dying Pitch Pine, signs that the open land was shading in. Amos tracked a beautiful male Box Turtle off trail for a few yards. I know that he he's found another when his tail begins to whip back and forth then stands straight on the point when he noses his hissing target. Number 12 for the year. 

Happy tail and a hiss!

Eastern Box Turtle, Terrapene carolina

We climbed through another patch of greenbrier into a small grassland that sadly is also at risk of being smothered by the stuff. Minus the thorny vine and with good management, this could be a few acres of serpentine prairie but for now these plants seem only to  survive only on trail edges and in wet seeps. 

Narrow-leafed Sundrops, Oenothera fruticosa

Pale-spiked Lobelia, Lobelia spicata

I found two small stands of the short-lived prairie flower Pale-Spiked Lobelia and wondered how much longer these little communities will endure.  With its blooming period so quick to come and go and a wall of greenbrier not too far away reaching towards this open patch, I know I won't see it here if I return next summer.  We turned back into an open woods, sloshing through mud and scaring  up a whole lot of frogs kerplunking into the bigger pools. 

Walls of greenbrier are closing in on this little grassland

Greenbrier is a native species that, given the right circumstances - like lack of a fire regime - can consume hundreds of acres of ground in just a few years. Serpentine barrens are unique habitats for grassland and glade forests that have long been associated with managed burns by pre-contact indigenous people. When settlement pressed into the region, farmers found these landscapes quite suitable for livestock which acted as consumers of both native and introduced species of grass and forbs and kept trees and other other invasives at bay.  The mining industries moved in and stripped much of the old pastureland to access to the rich minerals just at the surface. When these industries closed there was little to control the invasive take-over of the open land ecosystem. We turned again into deeper woods, Maple and Oak and a few American Hollies. Approaching the end of our hike, I began to hear the nearby gun range and a few cars on the road. 

Greenbrier slips behind Maple to capture the trail

These areas, if we want to maintain them for their unique flora and fauna, must have fire to reduce competition with aggressive invasive plants. For the Chrome Preserve serpentine barrens the most ecologically devastating consequence of the spread of greenbrier is the rapid modification of its entire matrix of habitats.  Eradication of an invasive plant requires an all-or-nothing approach ( I know this from personal and professional experience) and keeping an invasive plant at bay requires careful monitoring year-to-year. For indigenous land managers fire was an essential tool for creating habitat for elk, deer, rabbit, bear, turkey, and quail. For modern conservation purposes, fire is essential for the survival of rare and endangered plant and insect communities. I'm hoping management plans through the local township and PA Nature Conservancy can come quickly into play for the preservation of this site.  

A tiny trailside stand of Pale-Spiked Lobelia soon to be overtaken the Green Monster

We arrived back at the car muddy, bloody, and sore. As I was loading Amos, another car with prospective hikers aboard pulled into the small lot. The driver rolled down the window and looking slightly alarmed asked "How was the trail?" I told him about the trail conditions and that they may want to be prepared for mud and blood. Without taking his eyes off my bloodied legs he said "Oh, okay then. We'll try someplace else."  Therefore, I'm counting this short-in-distance but not in time trail towards my 2022 52-Hike Challenge #16  because we earned it. 

Notes: is an excellent resource for finding mines and quarries and explore the historical data contained on various companies and what they were extracting. For this hike I consulted Mindat for the State Line Mining District details that includes a broad swath of Mason-Dixon Line landscape in Lancaster, Chester, and Cecil County on the PA/Maryland border. See

Chrome Barrens brochure

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

VA Shenandoah National Park: Shen2022 Sisters Camp & Hike

 Fox Hollow Trail (2022 52-Hike Challenge #11)

For our annual Sister's Camping Trip to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, we did a series of day hikes while base camping at Mathews Arm Campground in the Northern District of the park. As I counted each of these day hikes towards my 2022 52-Hike Challenge, I've numbered them here to add to my tally. Our first hike was the Fox Hollow Trail about two miles when we added some extra wandering we did at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center. This is a good hike to orient yourself to the history of Shenandoah National Park - a remembrance really, for all the mountain families who gave up their homes for the national park in the 1930s. Many did so willingly. Others resisted fiercely. All are gone. Gone are generations of resilient people and their ways of managing the land, medicinal knowledge, and foodways that made these mountains their home. For us, this is an ancestral home as well with many Scots-Irish and German branches of our family tree having settled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every time we come back, it feels like coming home.

Fox Hollow Trail - carefully stacked field stone piles (1800s) 

Fox Family Cemetery - late 1700s onward

American Cancer Root, Conopholis americana

Much of the trail follows old wagon and foot paths that settlers established to connect families, towns, and markets in the valleys. Over hundreds of years these paths became lines with stacked rocks, oaks, red cedar, and fencing which is still visible in many places. We heard Barred Owls in the hollow and plenty of Towhees and Wood Thrushes. Amos fell into a springhead tank, much to his surprise! 

A Virginia Black-and-Tan Coonhound, Amos attracted a lot of attention!

Windham Rocks Trail (Hike #12) 

Though I've hiked this great little geology trail before, this time it came complete with a Black Bear popping his jaws at us, hidden behind a great hardened pillow of basalt lava. We retreated for a few minutes until we were sure the noise we were making (HEY BEAR! GO BEAR!) had sent him packing down the hill. We saw several other bears in our travels on the Skyline Drive during the week.  Shenandoah has a very high concentration of this beautiful bruin. 

We sure did make a lot of noise! GO BEAR! 

We enjoyed a great look at a Hooded Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Whorled Loosestrife. Carrion Beetles were common, scurrying across the path to devour a half-eaten mouse, mate, or scouting for more dead things.  The main rock formation was impressive, which, like the bear boulder, is an exposed pillow of hardened lava that was squeezed up from below as colliding continental plates 400-million-years ago ground together pushing up this mountain range. Along with greenstone, another common volcanic found in the park, it displays unique structure, most famous for it columnar jointing. 

Windham Rocks are volcanic formations of basalt

Whorled  Loosestrife, Lysimacha quadrifolia

Traces Trail, Mathews Arm (Hike #13) 

This was one of my favorite loops of the week. The Traces Trail encircles Mathews Arm Campground for about two miles and has a great blend of natural history and human history. Of course, I cannot pass a mountain seep without flipping rocks and we weren't disappointed to find a bunch of juvenile Dusky Salamanders. (

Northern Dusky Salamander

Old roads and farm paths are lined walls for livestock, field stone piles, and boundary features. One proper four-foot-wide wall demonstrates that some builders were highly skilled wallers who used techniques and traditions brought with them from England. Oaks that once shaded a wagon road lined the trail in their old age, now hundreds of years old.  Habitats included a mineral-poor lichen and moss barren where we found a rare Large Twayblade Orchid, Rattlesnake Weed, and toxic Fly Poison for which there is no cure.  

Mule and oxen path

A proper stone fence in the English tradition in a "dog hair wood." 

Fly Poison, Amianthium muscitoxicum

Rattlesnake Weed

The woodland scene was constantly shifting as slopes full of old pasture "dog hair woods" transformed into mature woodlots that have grown in since the 1940s.  This trail was a birder's paradise full of Red and White-Eyed Vireos, Veery and Wood Thrushes, Phoebes and Catbirds. There were plenty of Dark-Eyed Juncos which I loved seeing because I only have them in winter down in the Susquehanna Valley.  Even a Willow Flycatcher put in an appearance. Throughout our hike, an ever-present family of Northern Ravens croaked, quorked, and yelped from the canopy. We figured at least two young of the year were pestering their parents as they scouted the forest for food. At camp, Amy witnessed a Raven raid a Robin's nest to kill and eat a plump nestling. We're sure these squalling trail Ravens were the same ones since we were hiking around the campground.  

Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora

Large Twayblade Orchid, Liparis lilifolia

Maidenhair Fern, 

Old oaks mark the roadway (now trail)

Bluebell Trail, Shenandoah River State Park  (Hike #14) 

After heavy storms - it's town day!

After a night of wicked heavy storms we headed into the valley for town day in Front Royal. Such a great little town. Amos was a star. We took afternoon hike along the Southern Fork of the Shenandoah River in Shenandoah River State Park. The river was running high and muddy after the rains (which caused local flash floods) but we took the Bluebell Trail along its banks for about two miles until the mud turned us around. 

Tulip Poplar and Paw Paw dominated the flood plain

Paw Paw fruit

This was Paw Paw Nation. The fruits were setting on almost every branch of hundreds of the small trees which lined the trail so thickly we could barely see out of our green tunnel to the river.  A Great Blue Heron squawked from somewhere along the bank and there were a few mudslides to navigate around. But mud means fresh tracks and we observed White-tailed Deer, Raccoon, and Squirrel prints. 

From a spectacular overlook - Shenandoah River and Massanutten Mountain 

Jelly Ear, Auricularia auricularia

Hawksbill Trail (Hike #15) 

This is another one of my favorites in SNP and it leads to the highest summit in the park at '4050. It starts out tame enough but soon becomes a steep series of trail pitches that lead through three different ecological zones. We met up with some impressive Yellow Birch and stately Hemlock then, near the top, we inhaled the rich scent of Red Spruce needles. This is trail where it's good to agree to hike your own hike. Everyone does it at their own pace, takes as many or as few breaks as they need/want, and no worries about who's fast or who's slow. Just go up and up. Amos enjoyed drinking from all the cold springs that bursting from beneath boulders. We met so many wonderful people along the way. 

It starts out easy enough, but then climbs steeply to the summit.

Yellow Birch, Betula alleghaniensis

Summit of Hawksbill 

One of the best meet-ups was my niece meeting a fellow lifter and strong woman who recognized her competition shirt. There are many reasons I love hiking and backpacking so much (and now bike packing) but best of all is the comraderies and conversations. There were lots of woman putting down serious miles on the AT section of the Hawksbill Trail as well as women day hikers like us who were elevating each other to the top with smiles, laughs, and support. My best meet-up was a young man who was doing a section hike of the AT for his two week vacation from work. He admitted he had "Summit Obsession Disorder" and could never pass up the opportunity to bag a peak even if it was off his chosen path, so after a good laugh about "things people worry about" off he went, lanky and fast, striding up the mountain to add Hawksbill  to his summit list. 

Rose River Trail (Hike # 16)  

This walk has become a bit of a tradition for our camp-out weeks.  Dark Hollow Falls carves its ravine in a dike of volcanic greenstone and threads its way down Hogcamp Branch to become the Rose River. We did the trail as an out-and-back but its a great loop trail, too, that offers plenty of opportunity to dunk in the river when its hot and humid. We visited as old cemetery and found that a new burial has taken place there, while caretakers have kept it looking neat and beautiful. It is one of the few cemeteries within the park that is still used and maintained. 

Dark Hollow Falls

An old gravesite is marked with a simple granite slab

We were thrilled to see and hear our first Scarlet Tanagers of the trip as well as buzzed by a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. In fact we were thrilled with the whole week's wildlife sightings that included Black Bears, a Bobcat, Cotton-tailed Rabbits, a flock of Wild Turkey with poults ("goblets"), White-Tailed Deer, a baby Striped Skunk, Coyotes, a Brown Bat, and so much more. The birding was excellent as was the botany and geology. Next year we'll camp at SNP Loft Campground in the Southern District and we really look forward to it. Meanwhile I'll be coming back for day hikes and overnights before we can all be back together again for Shen2023. 


Though we arrived just as the new Visitor's Center was closing at Shenandoah River State Park, we were able to enjoy the Bluebell Trail along the river. We'd love to come back and hike the whole park, camp, and explore the valley some more.

Some areas of the park, thanks to Covid, became incredible crowded and though we didn't encounter the crowds (thank goodness) I was afraid of, some trails like Old Rag now require seasonal ticketing.

I am a salamander addict. The Appalachian Mountains in general and the Blue Ridge Range in particular are home to a large variety of sally-folk.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

PA Enola Low Grade Rail Trail and the Rail Trail Phenomenon

The new view from the high Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge over the Conestoga River!

After a decade of major highway building transformed the way America moved freight and people around the country, railroading began a steep decline. Large scale trucking became a more economical way to move goods and materials. More people owned cars and chose to drive instead of taking the train. Railroads were closing unprofitable routes at an alarming pace. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s and remember well last run of the Maryland and Pennsylvania RR, a line that people -especially farmers- had come to depend upon to move their products into Baltimore City. From our little hollow on the Mason Dixon Line, we witnessed the closing of several important local lines. This time marked a bittersweet end to an era but for us kids, it opened a new way to explore our home landscape.

Rail Trail and limited excursion line in New Freedom, PA

People began to use the old railbeds as trails of convenience and for recreation. We certainly did.  There were lots of overgrown miles to ride a bike, a pony, or ramble on foot.  After Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act in 1980 that allowed the abandonment of thousands of miles of railroad to ease some of the suffering of the nation's railroad industry, it also passed an amendment to the National Trails Systems Act in 1983 to "railbank" almost 9,000 miles of disused rail corridors, placing them into preservation-maintenance programs as pedestrian/bike trails. If rail corridors are ever needed again, they can be returned to railroad use. The New Freedom line in York County is a great example of a multi-purpose rail trail and revived (and popular!) limited excursion line. 

Laura and I walking the ELGRT in 2020 

We've been exploring the Enola Low Grade Rail Trail for many years and since it's only a few miles from home we walk or bike it frequently. It's been fun to watch all the progress along this famously engineered line that runs from Turkey Hill along the Susquehanna to Quarryville in Lancaster county for thirty miles. There are plans to run it from Quarryville all the way to Atglen and Christiana, PA. 

We recently celebrated - along with thousands of our near and distant rail trail friends - the completion of the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge that provides a much anticipated connection of the Turkey Hill section to the Shenk's Ferry/Coleman Church section and makes possible an almost solid run to Quarryville with one short road section. This fall (2022)  the Martic Forge Trestle Bridge will be completed - again - it was complete until arsonists destroyed it a few years ago, and then the trail will run entirely off road without obstructions or closures.  The Enola Low Grade Rail Trail adds over thirty existing miles to the more to the 25,000 miles of rail trails currently open for public use across the country. 

Opening of the restored Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge 

I arrived on the day after the official dedication and there may have been a tear shed. It was beautiful! The final cost of  $9,000,000 was worth every penny in my humble opinion. I returned on Saturday morning with a small biking group and we ventured down from Colemanville almost three and a half miles to be among the first to cross as the sun rose behind the cliffs. We rode all the way to the Turkey Hill terminus for a seventeen mile round trip. By the time we came back from Turkey Hill, the bridge was super crowded. It really felt like a celebration. So many people, some pushing strollers, one riding a unicycle, some drone pilots, birdwatchers, e-bikers and trikes, gravel bikes, touring bikes, recumbent bikes,  many Amish families, a parade of Scout groups, dog walkers, dogs in bike trailers, dogs riding in handlebar baskets,  all out to enjoy the walk or ride across the new bridge.

Manor Township raised and managed the funding to restore the trestle bridge.

The money needed for the trestle bridge project was raised by the local township using a combination of funding sources. There are many partners for projects like this and a lot of moving parts that include stakeholders who represent federal, state, and local governments.  Funding is secured by stakeholders, including the local townships, through various grant programs and direct giving campaigns. Since old rail corridors and their infrastructure all come under federal railroad regulatory jurisdiction and connects to the federal Recreational Trails Program, most of the funding is sourced at the federal level. Local sponsors and funding partners are critical, however, and the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge has dozens of placards and sponsorship recognitions along the wooden rails and on kiosks to thank local individuals, organizations, and businesses for helping to match federal funds. 

Pennsylvania Railroad active tracks below

One difficulty of this particular project, mentioned by a riding partner who knows a thing or two about railways, is the active Norfolk and Southern line that parallels the ELGRT downslope along the river's edge. As with many rail trails, active railways still use corridors near recreational trails. These can include passenger services like Amtrack or Metro lines or freight lines like this one. While some negotiations with active rail corridors require special legal and right-of-way expertise, my riding partner explained that the difficulty of such transactions and negotiations is outweighed by the potential economic benefit that alternative transportation projects bring to local communities. In some cases, the benefit can be transformative. He mentioned the fabulous success just upstream along the beautiful Northwest Lancaster Rail Trail that shares some of its corridor with the same active line. Local businesses thrive with traffic generated by walkers and bike riders while the railroad continues to transport heavy freight right alongside with safe access, right-of-way, and careful planning in place for the coexistence of both pedestrians and diesel trains. 

Oak Bottom Road overpass and underpass (further ahead)

Other negotiated spaces include overpass and underpass infrastructure for crossing above or below active vehicle roads. Industrial heartland lines through Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore include hundreds of such crossings where federal funds help design and engineer safe use. The industrial era of the active Enola Low Grade Line is long over and as a rail trail it flies over just a few busy and not-so-busy roads on wooden deck railed bridges. Sometimes I am the only person riding the stretch from Red Hill to Quarryville. I've hiked the rough gravel bed to Atglen and paid for it with sore hips, knees, and painful feet for days afterward. I'll be glad when the crush and run is finally laid there!

Brad & Pam at the new Game Commission peregrine nesting sign with a fantastic river view

For now we celebrate the opening of the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge, then and now a real engineering feat. Manor Township and other ELGRT communities expect to see upwards of 125,000 visitors a year. The new bridge is considered a new national rail trail treasure and the township, partners, and donors have every reason to be right proud of that. 

Safe Harbor Dam view from the new bridge deck

I guess when we were roaming the abandoned rail beds of the Enola Low Grade, Ma & Pa, and North Central railbeds when we were kids, we were part of the beginning of rails-to-trails phenomenon. I'd like to think we - and a few thousands other kids roaming up and down old weedy grades - helped set in motion a national movement. 


Rails-to-Trails Conservancy funding resources

Opening announcement for the Safe Harbor Trestle Bridge (!!) Safe Harbor Trestle Dedication and Opening June 2022

Uncharted Lancaster history of the Enola Low Grade An Ambitious and Costly History

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy