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Quehanna area offers wild array of autumn colors

By Michael Hermann
Lizard Tracks

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The Quehanna Wild Area is a 50,000-acre parcel spanning both the Elk and Moshannon state forests. Being a designated wild area means the state "maintains the undeveloped character of the forest environment." They simply let the forest do what forests do best: grow.

Located an hour north of State College, this area offers spectacular fall foliage.

The drive itself is wonderful. I prefer to follow back roads, especially on a crisp fall day. From Bellefonte, follow state Route 144 through Snow Shoe to the village of Moshannon. From there, take state Route 879 through Karthaus and turn right onto the Quehanna Highway (state Route 1011). Continue through Piper into the wild area. The Quehanna Highway traverses the entire wild area.

Two natural areas border the highway: Wykoff Run and Marion Brooks average 1,000 acres each and are an environmentalist's dream -- designated natural areas within designated wild areas.

My favorite is Marion Brooks Natural Area. A parking lot and stone monument mark this unique forest which contains 975 acres of white birch and little else. To wander through a pure stand of white birch at the peak of fall colors is truly amazing.

From the parking area, there is no defined trail through the birch; one simply meanders through the forest. It's a very unique experience because all you can see is a solid forest of white bark. There is very little undergrowth among the birch trees. It's easy to become disoriented here. I advise taking a compass and not going too deep unless you are experienced at orienteering.

There is a trail head at the parking lot which skirts the natural area. It is called the Marion Brooks Loop and leads to a small lake called Beaver Run. The loop is less than three miles. You can also drive closer to the lake. The Beaver Run parking area is along the Quehanna Highway within a mile of Marion Brooks. You'll have to backtrack to find it. From there, the lake is only a quarter-mile hike.

The forest service offers an excellent free map at the ranger station, located one mile past Marion Brooks Natural Area. The maps are self service from a black mailbox. While this isn't a guarantee of availability, I have never seen the box empty.

There is an extensive trail system throughout the Quehanna Wild Area. The Quehanna Trail traverses both Elk and Moshannon state forests with more than 65 miles of interconnected loops. Sections of this trail make outstanding weekend backpacking adventures.

If you want true adventure, the wild area offers it. I have backpacked off trail, navigating by ridgetop and creekbed, to discover the depths of the forest. The rewards of bushwhacking are many; most intangible but all fulfilling. The scraped legs and difficult stream crossings aren't for everyone but the challenge of traversing uncharted territory is exhilarating. It's the closest I've found to a Lewis and Clark experience.

You'll need some serious preparation before you tackle any off trail pursuits. Study the maps and guidebooks and safely plan a trip if it interests you.

Detailed trail information is available in Jean Aron's excellent book, "The Short Hiker."

Quehanna has so much acreage and so many trails that even experienced hikers get lost. It has lakes, dams, creeks, ridges and hollows. It even has tornado zones.

Until I went to Quehanna, I had never encountered the words "Tornado Zone" on a map before. In 1985 a tornado ripped through the wild area and left a narrow, but 50-mile long, path of destruction. Today the forest has reclaimed most of it. The regrowth is obviously younger and differs from the older forest around it. A keen eye may notice the zone around the Clearfield and Cameron County line along the Quehanna Highway.

The best way to introduce yourself to this area is by driving the Quehanna Highway. Even if you never leave the car, this memorable piece of landscape will stay with you for years.

The Quehanna Highway remains above 2,000 feet elevation and runs across the top of a large plateau. This is called the Allegheny Plateau. There are no ridgetops to view; you are on the highest point. Over time the streams have down cut steep corridors into the earth. It is a very different piece of forest than the ridge and valley topography found south and east of State College.

The Allegheny Plateau extends from Snow Shoe west to Pittsburgh. State College sits close to the dividing line between the two topographies.

Some interesting trivia: In the middle of the wild area is a nuclear reactor. In 1955 a private company leased this remote land from the commonwealth to pursue jet engine and nuclear aeronautical research. The land was returned to the state in 1966. There are still traces of radioactivity in the wild area although the state assures us it is minimal. They did, however, remove all hunting camps from the immediate area. The boundary of the wild area is a symmetrical 16-sided polygon. I have no idea why, and I've never seen another boundary like it.


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Michael Hermann is the founder of Purple Lizard Maps and has been exploring Centre County since 1979. He can be reached at (814) 861-1429 or purplizard@aol.com.