Jennings offers hiking, flowers, even an endangered snake
It will be another two months before the rare, 20-acre prairie ecosystem of Jennings Environmental Education Center is in full bloom, but late spring is a beautiful time to hike the trails of the park's woodlands.
Sitting just 12 miles north of Butler and adjacent to Moraine State Park, Jennings encompasses 300 total acres, three-quarters of which is covered by dense forest. There are more than five miles of well-maintained and marked trails that run on either side of the Route 528.
An easy loop to follow begins behind the center at the Old Elm Trail, continues across Big Run and turns right onto the Black Cherry Trail. Turning right onto the Ridge Trail will take hikers into Moraine State Park, but the Black Cherry Trail continues on and turns left just before a power line cut. When it makes its way back to Big Run, the ruins of an old saw mill are visible on the other side of the creek.
According to center director Wil Taylor, the mill was constructed by the same person who built the nearby Old Stone House off Route 8.
“We had an archeological survey done recently and it was a saw mill/timber mill where they processed timber around 1870, 1880,” he said. “At that time in this area people were clearing the landscape and taking a lot of that timber to this saw mill to have it processed. It didn't last very long, and we don't know why. Either it wasn't very successful or it was just a temporary mill used as the area expanded.”
From there, hikers can continue on the Old Mill Trail left back to the center or extend it a bit more by linking into the Woodwhisper Trail.
Hikers can expect to see dense ground cover developing as the canopy closes in and skunk cabbage, cinnamon fern, interrupted fern and false hellbore thrive. Many of the spring wildflowers are sparse this time of year, Taylor said, but there are some still holding on, including jack in the pulpit, sweet cicely, purple phlox and wild geranium.
“As far as wildlife goes, the birds are nesting so there's a lot of nesting warbler action in the woodlands and over on the prairie side people can get nice views of the eastern bluebirds and swallows using the nesting boxes,” Taylor said. “It's also a fairly good time to see the massasauga rattlesnake.”
The Jennings prairie is one of the few places in Pennsylvania to find the endangered snake. Venomous but also reclusive, the small rattlesnake may bite if startled. Therefore, the people at Jennings ask visitors to the prairie to stay on the mowed paths and keep alert. Taylor said they've also started a snake reporting program and ask that if visitors do spot one that they fill out a card.
There is ample parking at the center, and it's worth stepping inside to check out some of the exhibits. The center provides a variety of educational programs throughout the year and serves 167,000 visitors, including many school groups. Even when there are no programs, visitors can stop in and observe bees as they come and go through an opening that leads from the outside to a beehive encased in clear plastic or view displays of some of the flora and fauna that inhabit the area.
Past programs have included maple sugaring, battling invasive species, wild edibles and spring wildflowers. The park will host Celebrate the Bloom on July 20 to showcase the blazing star, a prairie flower that is rare to Pennsylvania and for which Jennings was established to protect. The reserve is the only public and protected prairie in the state.
Upcoming programs include kayaking the Slippery Rock Creek on June 9 and children's discovery sessions throughout the month. For a list, visit http://www.apps.dcnr.state.pa.us/Calendar/list.asp and select Jennings Environmental Center from the select facility menu.