Monday, June 24, 2013

Ohiopyle State Park: Ferncliff Natural Area (Blog Hike #326)

Trail: Ferncliff Trail
Hike Location: Ohiopyle State Park
Geographic Location: east of Uniontown, PA (39.87213, -79.49451)
Length: 1.6 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2010
Overview: A mostly flat hike with a few rocky areas along the scenic Youghiogheny River.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: Take the Pennsylvania Turnpike to the Donegal exit (exit 91).  Exit and turn left on SR 31.  Take SR 31 east for 2 miles to SR 381 and turn right on SR 381.  Take SR 381 south 21 miles to the unsigned Ferncliff Natural Area parking lot.  This parking lot is located in the Youghiogheny River gorge 2 miles past Fallingwater (a worthy site in its own right), just after crossing a railroad track, and just before crossing the river.  Park in this large gravel parking lot; the hike starts at a signboard located at the rear of the parking lot.

The hike: The Youghiogheny River valley (known to locals simply as “The Yahk”) has been a major route between Maryland and western Pennsylvania for centuries.  The first known inhabitants of the area were the Monongahela Indians, close relatives of the Mound Builder cultures famous for their earthworks in central and western Ohio.  About the only remnants of the Monongahelan civilization lie in the area’s nomenclature.  In addition to the Monongahela River, the name “Ohiopyle” comes from an American Indian word meaning “white frothy water.”
In the mid-1750’s, a young George Washington built a road near the river which would later be known as the National Road and later still as US 40.  In fact, in 1754 future President Washington would fight and lose one of his first battles at Fort Necessity (described elsewhere in this blog) just a few miles south of here.  Exactly 40 years later, President Washington would lead another group of militiamen through this area.  That group successfully crushed the Whiskey Rebellion, a peasant revolt in Washington, PA sparked by the newly-enacted federal excise tax on whiskey.
In the 1800’s, militiamen were replaced by farmers, trappers, and hunters as the construction of the National Road in 1811 facilitated settlement of the area.  The railroad came shortly thereafter, and with the railroad came the lumber industry and tourists.  People from Pittsburgh would pay $1 for a round-trip ticket to the resorts that sprang up along the river in Ohiopyle.
By the 1900’s, the main automobile routes bypassed Ohiopyle, and the area fell into decline.  The resorts were eventually abandoned and demolished to allow nature to reclaim the banks of The Yahk.  The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy purchased the land and, in 1964, sold the land to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  The state park officially opened in 1965.
The rapids on The Yahk make Ohiopyle State Park a major destination for kayakers.  For hikers, the park is a major destination as well.  Many of the park’s trails make for excellent hiking, but the most popular trail is the Ferncliff Trail described here.  In addition to being one of the easiest trails in the park, the Ferncliff Trail provides great views of the white, frothy water in The Yahk that gave this area the name Ohiopyle.
Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area dedication marker
            Start at the information board for Ferncliff Natural Area located at the rear of the large gravel parking lot.  Cross the Great Allegheny Passage Bike Trail, which is paved with firmly packed gravel, and arrive at the beginning of the  Ferncliff Trail.  This intersection is marked by a stone Ferncliff Peninsula Natural Area dedication marker and a black wooden post with arrows indicating that the Ferncliff Trail goes left and right.  This description will hike the loop clockwise by turning left and using the right trail as a return route.  The Ferncliff Trail traces the perimeter of the peninsula, while the Oakwood Trail (not used in this hike) leaves straight ahead and heads down the middle of the peninsula.
            The well-maintained Ferncliff Trail heads gently downhill through young broadleaf forest to arrive at the river bank.  The trail is blazed with single black rectangular paint blazes, but you should have no trouble following this trail due to its wide and clear pathway.  Very soon you arrive at the rocky banks of The Yahk, and you get your first of many views of rapids in the river.  Islands of grey bedrock can be seen out in the river during normal water levels. 
The Yahk
              For the next 0.3 miles the trail stays right along the river bank, sometimes treading on bare rock.  Rock such as this can be slippery, so watch your step especially during wet conditions.  Cliffs and a thick stand of rhododendron prevent any escape uphill to your right.  An interpretive sign tells you about tropical fossils embedded in the rocks you tread on.  Were it not for this sign, these fossils could easily be mistaken for drill marks!  Keep your eyes down and see what you can see in the rock.
Tropical fossils in rocks
            0.4 miles into the hike, you climb over some rocks with Ohiopyle Falls tumbling to your left.  A couple hundred feet later, you reach a side trail leading left to an overlook and a postcard view of Ohiopyle Falls.  The waterfall is in The Yahk itself, so there is plenty of water to fall. At less than 10 feet, Ohiopyle Falls does not impress in height, but the waterfall is frothy enough to force today’s kayakers or yesterday’s pioneers to portage the area.  The waterfall and its flat, rocky surroundings is the highlight of the hike, so take some time to observe its power.
Ohiopyle Falls
            Past the waterfall, the trail climbs moderately but only for a short distance to assume an elevation some 50 feet above the river.  For the rest of the hike, the river will be obscured by thick mountain laurel, rhododendron, and hemlocks.  The yells you hear coming from your left are produced by kayakers trying to navigate The Yahk’s tricky rapids.  A dam about 10 miles upstream ensures a steady and predictable stream of water that is perfect for kayaking.
At 0.7 miles, the Oakwood Trail exits to the right.  0.9 mile into the hike, a double black blaze indicates that the trail turns sharply to the right.  Along this stretch of trail, some side trails lead left down to the river to give a less obstructed view of the river’s rapids. Take care if you follow one of these side trails, for a fall into the river’s whitewater would very likely be fatal.
Hiking along the Ferncliff Trail
            At 1.1 miles, the Fernwood Trail exits to the right, providing a shorter route back to the trailhead.  Our hike angles left and descends moderately to approach but never reach the river.  This section of trail is cut right into the steep hillside, which rises to the right.
1.4 miles into the hike, another double black blaze marks a sharp turn to the right as the trail climbs the hillside, leaving the river at your back for good.  0.2 miles later, you arrive back at the black post and stone dedication marker to close the loop.  A left turn and short walk across the bike path will return you to the parking lot and complete the hike.

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