Sunday, March 14, 2021

PA Appalachian Trail Hike: #6 Milesburn Cabin Out-and-Back

8 mi. out-and-back from Shippensburg Road parking area on the AT to Milesburn Cabin.

Milesburn Cabin

This next section was a simple, if not leisurely, out-and-back to the Milesburn Cabin within a mile of where I looped back on my previous hike from Quarry Gap. So while my goal was to connect the last hike to this one, I wasn't worried about the half a mile of road walking to make ends meet. The cabin was rented for the weekend so I couldn't go poking around but Amos did meet up with a bunch of Scouts having trail lunch nearby and he promptly stole a bag of Cheetos from a kid as I was talking to the trip leader. 

Entering from the parking area on Shippensburg Road.

This section of the AT is well within the 60 square miles of land owned by the South Mountain Mining Company that operated several iron furnaces in the area, including Pine Grove Furnace (preserved) and the Big Pond Furnace (ruin) in Michaux State Forest. The Big Pond Furnace was destroyed by a catastrophic fire in 1880 but the environmental effects of a century of having two large furnaces within miles of each other is still evident today.  By the time the CCC was active in this area, with two camps - one near Big Pond Furnace and the other north at Pine Grove Furnace - thousand of pines had been planted by reforestation crews to stabilize the soil. Many of these replanted pine woods survive today and the AT is shaded for a good mile where snow still lays through such a woods on the way to and from the cabin.

AT follows a section of CCC road.

Keeping in mind that none of this forest existed by 1900 having been cut clean off the mountains to make charcoal for the furnaces - makes walking this section of the AT all the more intriguing. I took my time to note the wagon roads and water features. While most hikers simply stick to the trail to get from point A to point B, I spent a good two hours jumping off the path to investigate traces of roads, heaps of rock, and pits that were definite clues to this area's industrial and restorative past.  Some of the roads were purpose-built CCC work roads made to reach areas for tree planting and others retain their 19th century wheel-rutted haul road profile.  

Pileated Woodpecker's square hole. 

The old topo maps for this flat ridge ramble describe the terrain as "watery" and it was true today as snow melt and natural seeps and springs made some of the trail very wet. Trail crews are kept busy building and repairing stone water bars to direct water off the trail through this section but a quick bushwack off trail near these areas revealed wetlands full of calling frogs and skunk cabbage. I found a small hand-dug pond along a flat CCC road (off trail) that simply hollered with wood frogs. Many vernal ponds are found throughout the watery flat ridge and it wasn't hard finding them by the tremendous sound of wood frogs. 

Birch Run Shelter

American Wintergreen

Loop and return.

With the most of the snow now gone it won't be long before spring wildflowers begin to appear along with unfurling skunk cabbage leaves at the seeps and ponds. Most will dry up as spring warms to summer so frog and salamander mating is frantic right now.  I looked - hopefully - for signs of early spring flowers but didn't find any except for the American Wintergreen which still holds some bright red berries and whose winter red leaves are beginning to show signs of chlorophyll returning. 

Stump sprouting!

Some parts of this stretch have been recently logged but the techniques and practices of managed lumber harvest are so much improved for wildlife and biodiversity compared to the stripping of forests by iron furnace companies and "high grading" of the 20th century. Most Pennsylvania forests are not replanted as they did in the CCC era. Instead, great care is given to identifying parent trees that will naturally regenerate an area and to leaving living stumps intact for quick re-sprouting. Using forest management planning today, Pennsylvania forests are regenerating twice as fast as at any time in our history.

Resting by the hand-dug pond along an old CCC road (off the AT). 

Wood Frog


Forest Management in Pennsylvania (PennState)

A comprehensive master plan for the preservation of the South Mountain complex, its history, and future plans of the South Mountain Partnership