Monday, June 24, 2013

Raccoon Creek State Park: Wildflower Reserve (Blog Hike #325)

Trails: Jennings, Old Field, and Henrici Trails
Hike Location: Raccoon Creek State Park: Wildflower Reserve
Geographic Location: northwest of Imperial, PA (40.50719, -80.36399)
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2010
Overview: A mostly flat hike exploring the west bank of Raccoon Creek.
Hike Route Map:
Photo Highlight:

Directions to the trailhead: The entrance to the Wildflower Reserve is located on US 30 about 25 miles west of Pittsburgh and about 2000 feet after crossing Raccoon Creek. If you reach the main park entrance, you have driven about 800 feet too far.  Turn right to enter the reserve, taking care as you drive up the short, rough, narrow, but paved entrance road.  Park in the only parking lot.

The hike: Like many major parks in the eastern United States, Raccoon Creek State Park has its roots in the Great Depression, but visitors have been coming here for recreation long before any state park was formed.  In the mid 1800’s, Edward McGinnis built a very successful health resort here.  The resort was located on a hill overlooking Frankfort Mineral Springs, which McGinnis claimed had curative powers.
By the early 1900’s the resort was in decline, and it was soon forced to close.  In 1935, the depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) worked to turn this land into a Recreational Demonstration Area.  This park would be one of many that would come out of the recreational demonstration program; Norris Dam State Park in Tennessee is another one described elsewhere in this blog.
Today Raccoon Creek State Park stands as one of the largest state parks in Pennsylvania.  While many of Pennsylvania’s state parks are located in rugged, remote regions of the central Pennsylvania mountains, this park is located only 25 miles from the major city of Pittsburgh.  Thus, you likely will not be alone on the trails here.  The park’s main area is located south/west of US 30 and is focused around Traverse Creek and its dam-created Raccoon Lake.  There are many fine hikes to be had in the park’s main area, but this hike takes you through the Wildflower Reserve located north/east of US 30.  The Wildflower Reserve was originally purchased by the Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy; it was transferred to the state park only in 1971.  The best month to come for wildflowers is April, but as I found when I hiked this trail in mid-September, there is much to see here all year long.
Wildflower Reserve Interpretive Center
              Before you hit the trail, stop in the Interpretive Center, a nice wooden building with stone chimney and metal roof.  Over 700 species of plants can be found in the reserve, and exhibits in the center tell you what to look for.  The hike itself begins at the end of the parking lot near the Interpretive Center.  Pick up the wide Jennings Trail as it heads into the young broadleaf forest.  After topping a small hill, you will pass the historic Hungerford Cabin, the former second home of a cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Press and Post Gazette.
Trailhead for Jennings Trail
            For the first 0.5 mile the blue-blazed Jennings Trail stays in the high land near US 30 uphill to your right.  Traffic along US 30 and an occasional low-flying airplane overhead (entering or leaving nearby Pittsburgh International Airport) remind you that you are near an urban area.  The trail crosses several small tributaries on wooden bridges as it heads southbound.
At 0.5 miles, the trail curves left as the Raccoon Creek floodplain comes into view downhill and to the right.  After a gradual descent to enter the floodplain, ignore a side trail which exits to the right and angle left to continue on the Jennings Trail.  You have now completed a sweeping left turn and are heading north on the edge of the creek’s floodplain.
Hiking the Jennings Trail
            At 0.75 miles, the Meadow Trail exits right.  The Meadow and Jennings Trails come back together in 0.4 miles, so you could go either way here.  I chose to continue straight and stay on the wider Jennings Trail, which soon joins an old road.  In another 800 feet, the Old Wagon Road Trail exits left and heads gradually uphill to the Interpretive Center.  If you wanted an easy hike of only 1.1 miles, you could angle left here, but our hike will continue straight on the Jennings Trail.
Shortly past this intersection, a long sandstone cliff comes into view uphill and to the left.  The cliff is only about 20 feet tall, but its length of several thousand feet makes the area noteworthy.  At 1.2 miles, the Meadow Trail reenters from the right as the cliff line closes in on the creek.
Sandstone cliff along Raccoon Creek
            The next 0.3 miles are my favorite part of the hike, as the trail squeezes between the cliff on the left and placid Raccoon Creek on the right.  Several deer were drinking in the creek as I passed by.  Some trees showed signs of beaver activity, though I did not spot any beavers on my visit.  Some large poplar trees and some smaller maple trees dominate the broadleaf forest.
1.5 miles into the hike, the trail crosses a short boardwalk and passes both ends of the short Beaver Trail before coming to a major trail intersection.  The Audubon Trail heads uphill to the left and climbs atop the cliff line to reach Shafer’s Overlook, which is often enshrouded by trees.  The red-blazed Henrici Trail continues straight to follow the edge of Raccoon Creek’s floodplain.  To get a taste of the creekside environment, this hike will turn right to begin the Old Field Trail, which is blazed with orange-red rectangular paint blazes.  The Old Field Trail is narrow, and if it looks too overgrown for comfortable passage, you could use the Henrici Trail as an alternate: the two trails come back together in 0.65 miles.
Hiking the Old Field Trail
              Void of any large trees, the Old Field Trail explores the moist, brushy environment right along the bank of Raccoon Creek.  On my September visit, this was the best area for wildflower viewing in the reserve: yellow and white flowers lace the otherwise green curtain.  Unfortunately, I did not bring a wildflower guide to help me identify the flowers; I would encourage you to not make the same mistake.
Wildflowers along Old Field Trail
            As I mentioned before, the Old Field Trail is narrow, but it would be hard to lose your way.  In fact, the greenery surrounding the trail is so thick that it would be hard to press through it even if you had to.  At 2.15 miles, the Old Field Trail ends at the Henrici Trail.  To continue our hike, turn right on the Henrici Trail. 
Climbing out of floodplain on Henrici Trail
            The trail soon curves left to leave the floodplain via a moderate but short ascent.  At the top of the hill, you pass through a small pine planting, yet another different habitat on this hike (one that is inhospitable to wildflowers, though).  At the opposite side of the pines, the Henrici Trail ends at an intersection with the reserve entrance road.  Turn left and walk up the road, walking the route you drove an hour or so ago, to reach the parking lot and complete the hike.

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