Get back to nature on the Butler-Freeport Community Trail
At times, the Butler- Freeport Community Trail seems to be a mere ribbon of pathway cutting through a landscape so large.
Steep, rocky hillsides loom within a matter of miles of calmer and drier terrain of rolling farm fields, accounting for the trail’s variety and charm.
Then there’s the lack of total flatness. The trail ascends a slight uphill grade for about 15 miles heading north from Freeport to Butler, which is noteworthy for cyclists.
The 21-mile trail is not your garden variety rails-to-trails path along a picturesque river corridor with miles of the same habitat.
It’s the environmental uniqueness plus the 16 opportunities to get onto the trail that accounts for the “exponential” growth of its usage, according to Chris Ziegler, president of the Butler- Freeport Community Trail Council and Jefferson Township resident.
“People who live in the area only have to drive a few miles to get to it,” said Ziegler, who has been using the trail for more than 15 years.
“Now, seldom are you by yourself on the trail,” she noted.
With events such as a half marathon and organized outings by walking and biking groups, tourists from Pittsburgh and beyond are becoming regulars on the trail
Closer to Freeport, hemlocks are prevalent on the steep slopes. Some are studded with rock walls decorated with patches of moss and ferns and, in early spring, the hills are thickly matted with white trillium and spring beauty wildflowers.
“The serpentine nature of the corridor bending this way and that provides a multitude of exposures to sun and shade,” said Charles Bier, a senior director for conservation science at the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and a longtime Buffalo Township resident.
“The variation in soils, seeps, outcrops and exposures have resulted in a diversity of habitats, and increases the variety of plants and animals,” he noted.
The trail is perhaps most dramatic and diverse below the Monroe Road access in Buffalo Township, where Little Buffalo Creek flows into Buffalo Creek.
The trail speaks its own language in the Buffalo Creek portion with the cadence of the rush of Buffalo Creek and the gentler meanderings of tributaries and water trickling down the mossy rock faces.
The variety is interesting here: The north-facing slopes are cool and moist, favoring northerly species of plants such as eastern hemlock, American yew and mountain maple, Bier said. The milder environments support occasional patches of the more southerly pawpaw tree or pink lady-slipper orchid, he noted.
The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania has recognized this stretch — the largest unbroken patch of forest along the whole trail — as an Important Bird Area, obviously because of the variety of birds there. But it is the unique environment that attracts those birds.
New trail destinations
Two new trail facilities are in works by two nonprofits.
The Butler-Freeport Trail Council is building a picnic pavilion designed as an antique train station in the Winfield portion of the trail, according to Ziegler.
An anonymous private donor from Saxonburg has given $21,000 for the project.
The design of the 16-feet by 32-feet pavilion is based on the Butler Junction train station, which had “unique character,” according to Ziegler.
“It will be a stopping place for trail users to meet and greet,” she said.
Work is expected to get underway this year.
Meanwhile, at Buffalo Township’s Monroe Road trail entrance, the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania continues work on design, engineering and permitting for the upcoming Buffalo Creek Nature Center.
“Site conditions pose several challenges, including soil conditions and the proximity to Little Buffalo Creek — a high quality designated stream,” said Jim Bonner, executive director of ASWP.
Audubon plans to release an updated master plan and construction time lines this month.
Mary Ann Thomas is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Mary at 724-226-4691, [email protected] or via Twitter .