Monday, May 7, 2012

Cowans Gap State Park and the Tuscarora Trail

One of my goals this year is to hike more in Pennsylvania.  I regularly see great pictures of hiking attractions in the Keystone State on hiking boards and some of the trails aren't any further away than those that we hike regularly in Virginia.  Yesterday, I took a step toward meeting that goal.  A friend and I drove up to Cowans Gap State Park, near Chambersburg to hike a loop including the Tuscarora Trail that is supposed to have spectacular views.  We wouldn't know, we never actually got to see them.  In spite of that, we had a fantastic hike.

The first quarter of a mile of the Tuscarora Trail is flat, followed by a long, winding climb to the top of the ridge.  Blueberry bushes, wet from the misty fog, lined the trail on both sides.  As we climbed, the trail got narrower, hemmed in by blueberries, mountain laurel, and various other members of the forest's undergrowth.  Everything was soaking wet from the misty fog, which left us soaked from the hips down.  There just wasn't any avoiding the wet leaves.  Fortunately, the temperature was relatively warm, so being soaked wasn't a big deal.  Pink Azaleas (Rhododendron roseum) blooming in the mist stood out in bright contrast to the gray fog and green leaves.  Birds sang as we walked.  I really enjoyed this part of the trail.

Once we reached the top of the ridge, the trail became easier in terms of effort required to walk it.  It became quite a bit harder to find, however.  At one point, it appeared to dead end in a mass of young saplings.  We looked up on the rocks nearby to see if we could see a footpath, before finally determining that we had to push through the saplings.  It continued that way for about 100 yards before slowly getting better.  Then, we reached a trail junction in a clearing and the fog was so thick that we couldn't see the opposite side of it and, thus the continuation of the trail.  Fortunately, it wasn't a very wide clearing and once we ventured a little ways out into it, we were able to see the path ahead.

From there, we hiked along an old road to an overlook that is probably pretty cool (although graffiti strewn).  The fog was so thick that we couldn't see a thing, but it made a nice place for lunch.  Strangely, there were pigeons there.  I don't think I've ever seen pigeons outside of a city before.  After lunch, we returned partway down the Tuscarora Trail and then took the Geyer Trail down off the ridge, leaving the fog above us.  The Geyer Trail seemed steep at the time, but a later trail would make us think otherwise.  When we reached the creek, we turned north on the Plessinger Trail, which turned out to be a very pleasant walk along the stream.  At the end of that trail, we turned uphill again on the Knobsville Road Trail, which was another road walk.  We passed the site of a 1996 landslide that resulted from heavy snowfall followed by rain.

At the top of the hill, we continued down the road a short ways before turning uphill on the Horse Shoe Trail.  There is actually a sign at the beginning of the Horseshoe Trail warning of its steepness.  They weren't kidding.  It was a really steep climb, made more challenging by leaves and loose gravel.  We decided it was steeper than Hannah Run, which has a reputation in Shenandoah National Park as a thighbuster.  Fortunately, the climb up the Horseshoe Trail was short.  Unfortunately, the descent down the other side was just as steep and four times as long.  The fronts of my toes actually hurt a little today from being jammed into the front of my boots.  And the loose gravel and leaves are much less entertaining on the way down.  We made it down just fine and, from there, had an easy stroll to the car along the lake.

We'll definitely do this one again.  It was a beautiful hike, even without the views.  We hiked a total of 11.2 miles and saw a total of four other people on trail. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 The Tuscarora Trail south of Richmond Road in the mist.
Rhododendron roseum (Pink Azaleas) along the Tuscarora Trail.  The scent of these filled the air along the trail.
A little red eft on the trail.
 The badly overgrown section of trail.  My friend and I (taking the picture) are both actually on trail in this picture.
 The foggy junction with the Geyer Trail.  The Tuscarora Trail continues straight across the clearing, but it was a little hard to tell that at first.
 Water droplets on a strawberry leaf.
 A fiddlehead on the Plessinger Trail.
 Hypoxis hirsuta (Yellow Star Grass) on the Plessinger Trail.
 Cypripedium acaule (Pink Lady Slipper) on the Knobstone Road Trail.
 The sign for the Horseshoe Trail, with the warning!
 A little toad in the leaves on the Horseshoe Trail.
 Cowans Gap Lake from the dam.
A tiny cricket near the trail.  This little insect was about the size of my thumbnail.

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