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The Great Allegheny Passage Nature Trail — Part I

| Sunday, July 5, 2009

I would imagine that most of you have heard about the Great Allegheny Passage. It's a biking/hiking trail beginning in McKeesport and meandering 115 miles to Cumberland, Md. It follows the former Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad from McKeesport to Connellsville, and the former Western Maryland Railway from there to Cumberland. Because it's an old railroad bed, the trail is nearly flat all the way.

A highlight of the trail is that it follows major rivers most of the way. You ride, or walk, along the Youghiogheny from McKeesport to Confluence, then the Casselman to Meyersdale. From there, smaller streams are your companions over the Eastern Continental Divide and down the face of Big Savage Mountain to the Potomac River at Cumberland.

Following rivers means that the route seldom is a straight point A to point B and is more like a huge snake writhing across the landscape.

The Passage has been a huge success as a bike trail. Hundreds of thousands of people ride the hard-packed limestone every year. Some cover a few miles in a day, and others travel the whole length in a couple of days.

I have a different view of the Great Allegheny Passage.

To me, it's one long nature trail. Being near rivers, and snuggled against wooded valley slopes, the trail is perfect to find wildflowers, birds, geography, geology, forests and just about any facet of the natural world you might want to explore.

It's not a nature trail I expect to visit for an hour, or even a day. No, the Passage offers such a diversity of natural-history highlights that I expect it will take me years to find all the interesting nooks and crannies.

Eventually, the trail will be completed from McKeesport to the Point in Pittsburgh, and, because parts of that section already are in place, I'll start at the Point and sketch some natural-history highlights of the Passage.

I don't need to go far to begin to find natural history along the trail.

Along the Monongahela River, upstream of the Hot Metal Bridge, steel and concrete quickly give way to trees and river floodplain thickets. Along this stretch are several moisture-loving forests of silver maple and sycamore. Tall and fat-trunked, the trees are easy to mistake for the original woodlands that lined the Monongahela when George Washington visited and the French ruled. Park the bike and scramble to the bottom land, and you go from city to pocket wilderness.

The trail eventually will pass through the Waterfront shopping development and to the edge of the river again. Just upstream on the Homestead Grays Bridge, and on the opposite side of the river, is the mouth of Nine Mile Run at Duck Hollow. This spot is a favorite bird-watching location. Waterfowl, gulls, herons, ducks and geese congregate here in the winter and during migration. Armed with a spotting scope, I set up alongside the trail and find a variety of birds resting on this calm spot in the river.

Between Mckeesport and Boston is Dead Man's Hollow. The 440-acre wildlife reserve is the largest privately owned conservation area in Allegheny County. It is protected by the Allegheny Land Trust. Trails lead through the forested valley. Underneath the trees are remains of a clay-pipe factory that at one time filled the area. Dead Man's Hollow always reminds me of how, given a chance, nature quickly reclaims even the most disturbed lands.

Just south of West Newton is Cedar Creek Park. In the spring, the park is high on my list, because the wildflowers are spectacular. Among the drifts of common trout lily, white trillium, hepatica, Dutchman's breeches and violets are rarer gems such as snow trillium and harbinger-of-spring. The beginning of the foot trail in Cedar Creek is conveniently just off of the Passage.

Of equal interest

For my interests in the inorganic, the geologic features along the Great Allegheny Passage are numerous.

South of Cedar Creek Park, where the Passage passes under the I-70 Youghiogheny River Bridge, are flat layer-cake beds of sedimentary rock. They are limestone and illustrate the underlying geology of this region. Of course, this exposed outcrop is just a small sample of the rock strata that extends above and below the bands that I see in this one spot.

Passing through Connellsville, the Great Allegheny Passage heads into the wilds of the Allegheny Mountains. The underlying geology still is layers of sedimentary rock. However, the beds are bent into a quartet of undulating mountain waves that the trail cuts through, rather than going over.

The water gap through Chestnut Ridge makes my ride an easy one. Because the river valley is steep and narrow, there is a slightly warmer micro-climate. That allows plants, usually found more to the south, to thrive here. Along the trail are groves of paw-paw trees under the big maples, basswood and tulip poplar. Paw-paw blooms in May with leathery chocolate-brown flowers. In fall, it has odd kidney-shaped, creamy tan, fruits. I've never acquired a taste for paw-paw, but some find it a delicacy.

Taking my time, as I should traveling a nature trail, I often stop, find a log or big boulder, sit, and enjoy the surrounding forests.

The trees of the Youghiogheny River Gorge are relatively young for a forest. It's hard to imagine that this area was without trees in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The forests were cut off the slopes, and logs were floated downstream or hauled out on the railroads. The wood went into the building of homes, businesses and the industry of the Youghiogheny and Monongahela river valleys during the industrial boom. Since then, the valley walls, especially between the trail and the river, were never touched again, and maturing forests are slowly growing back to their former magnificence.

Sometimes, I forgo identification of species and thinking about processes, and just sit back and enjoy the scenery. A hallmark of the Allegheny Mountains is its waterfalls, and along and near the Great Allegheny Passage, there are plenty.

Hidden in a tangle of rhododendron are Jonathan and Sugar Run Falls between the Bruner Run raft/kayak take-out road and the High Bridge at Ohiopyle. I stay alert for signs telling of trails that lead off the Passage to both of these cascades in Ohiopyle State Park. The falls are small drops over Pottsville Sandstone ledges. In the spring and after heavy rains, they are raging torrents. In the dryness of August and September, I wonder why they are called "water" falls, because they usually are wet, moss-covered ledges.

Crossing the Low Bridge over the Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle, I hear the roar just downstream. Ohiopyle Falls never ceases to give me pleasure.

Most visitors stop to enjoy the vista, and I do the same. However the scoured rocks alongside the river are home to several plants found nowhere else in Pennsylvania. Marshallia, carolina-tassel rue, and pencil-flower thrive in a zone where flood waters topple shrubs and trees and sweep them away. What is left is an open, sunny habitat for plants that can withstand the flood. The rock ledges along Ferncliff Trail, just a short walk off the Great Allegheny Passage, are worth the pause to see plants that I can't see in any other place.

Ohiopyle is just about halfway between Cumberland and Pittsburgh on the Great Allegheny Passage. I'll finish the trip next month.

Additional Information:

The Great Allegheny Passage

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