Wolf Rocks Trail is in Laurel Summit State Park about five miles east from the Grove Run Trail that we hiked last month. This area, like that around Grove Run, was extensively logged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the park roads, in fact, have been built on the rail beds of the logging railroad spurs that connected into the main line of the Pittsburgh, Westmoreland, and Somerset Railroad which ran along the present day Linn Run Road. Remnants of these old rail beds (old rail ties, gravel, etc.) can still be found along some of trails.
It is difficult to visualize the activity and human and mechanical energy that filled this area just over 100 years ago. The primal forests of hemlock, white pine, and mixed hardwoods were cut acre by acre, the downed trees were dragged to the rail sidings by horses and then hauled away to the saw mills in Ligonier. There were piles of logs everywhere. The finished lumber was shipped to Philadelphia to build houses, props were cut and sent deep into the booming coal mines, and the mining companies bought entire towns-worth of lumber. Great piles of tannin rich hemlock bark were stacked along the sidings waiting for loading and shipping to leather tanning factories. Fires from the locomotives and from the boilers in the mills were common. Much of the land was cut, then burned, and then burned again. Only a few plant species could survive the incredible ecological “filter” of this destruction and stress.
Deborah and I met Rob, Michele, Nancy and Deb down on Route 30 and then drove up the rough, dirt and gravel road to the Laurel Summit State Park picnic area. We brought Izzy for another woods adventure and Nancy and Deb brought their golden retrievers, Ripley and Maizey. The three dogs handled each other well and added a great sense of the unexpected to the hike (it is amazing what dogs find when they are in the woods and what they think to do!).
The first section of the Wolf Rocks Trail is a young forest dominated by red maples, sugar maples, black cherries, yellow birches and red oaks. In the summer the understory is lush and green with ferns. Today, though only a few scattered evergreen wood ferns are still green and standing. All of the other species have succumbed to the seasonal changes and are brown and dry. Witch hazel trees and saplings of the over-story trees form a middle vegetative layer along with sometimes very dense stands of the still green and vibrant mountain laurel. In the deep shade under the laurel there are small patches of snow (now THAT’s a sign of winter!).
The trees on this section of the trail are very uniform in diameter (about 12 inches) and height. This homogeneity in size is characteristic of a re-growth site that was uniformly affected by a large disturbance. The abundance of northern red oak and red maple is also consistent with a forest site that has been massively disturbed. Red oak’s ability to stump sprout and withstand fire, and red maple’s ability to rapidly reproduce and, via their abundant winged seeds (“samara”), colonize newly disturbed sites fit the site history of clear cutting and extensive ecosystem fires. The secondary trees (yellow birch, pin cherry, and black cherry) among the red oaks and red maples are also all very common “early colonizers” of sites after widespread logging and fires.
As we move along the trail the trees become more widely spaced. The understory between them gets a great deal of sunshine and in the summer is full of a tall and lush undergrowth. Today, great circular expanses of the frost killed ferns open up along the side of the trail. White pines (from very large trees with twenty inch trunk diameters, to saplings, to tiny seedlings) “suddenly” are growing among the maples, yellow birch, and black cherry trees. Have the pines “replaced” the red oaks? Possibly the greater distances between the individual trees in this trail section favors the sun loving pines over the more shade tolerant oaks. The pines are reproducing vigorously here. Pine needles cover the trail surface in a smooth, thick, orange carpet. The scent of the pines is incredibly pleasant.
The trail surface is wet and very broken up by rocks and roots. Its irregularity demands careful attention to each step. The trail has been very heavily used. Its surface is compacted several inches below the surrounding soil levels. Surface water from rainfall probably is directed into this lowered hollow of the trail generating an on-going erosion problem. The extensive root exposure on the trail is a direct reflection of this erosive flow of surface water. Sections of the trail have moss growing directly on the soil surface and on the exposed rocks and roots. A bare, well walked step line winds its way around and through these glowingly green surfaces
Catbrier (also called “greenbrier”) grows very thickly among the surrounding ferns and out into the edges of the trail. The sharp thorns cut at our pant legs as we walk past. We quickly come to the juncture of the Loop Trail, the Spruce Flats Trail and the Hobblebush Trail. The Hobblebush Trail is labeled “Expert Biking Only.” Can that trail somehow be even rougher and rockier than the trail we have been walking on?
We turn onto the Wolf Rocks Loop trail which runs first to the west and then toward the northwest along the edge of the ridge that overlooks the Linn Run Valley. Through the bare trees we get glimpses of the valley. Wolf Rocks at the end of the trail will give us an unobstructed panorama over the Linn Run and Fish Run valleys and their surrounding hillsides.
American beech dominates the first section of the Loop trail. Under the beech trees are patches of a lycopodium called “ground pine.” Over three million years ago, ancestors of these fern relatives grew as massive, tree-sized plants in the wet, coastal, swamp forests of what would become western Pennsylvania. As these behemoths died, they fell into the poorly oxygenated waters of the swamps and partially decomposed into peat. These peat layers were then sealed away from atmosphere by sediment layers laid down by the rising and falling oceans. These fossilized remains became, over time, the “fossil fuels” of coal, natural gas, and petroleum that have been and continue to be so important in Pennsylvania’s economy.
The three dogs race back and forth between their scattered people walking the trail. Maizey and Izzy come back to check on Rob and I (at the back of the group again!) and then speed on up ahead to see what Ripley might have found (often deep puddles of water and mud that are perfect spots to lie down in!). All three dogs have mud-blackened legs and feet to complement their gorgeous, golden coats. They are also having a great time!
There are more wind-thrown trees on this section of the trail. We are close to the western edge of the ridge and undoubtedly the wind exposure here is greater than at the more sheltered trailhead. The power and consistency of the wind blowing in from the west all across the Laurel Highlands represents a potential energy resource. A number of “wind farms” have been built along the ridges to try to tap into this renewable resource. But, nothing is ever free or completely harmless, and the potential impacts of these wind turbines especially on birds need to be clearly understood before we rush into their widespread construction.
The Loop rejoins the main Wolf Rocks Trail at a junction we name “Jameson’s Point.” We stop and have a quick snack and break. The trail then follows a broad, flat, well walked path out to the rocky overlook. The rocks themselves are great blocks of sandstone that have begun to crack and shift away from the mass of the ridge. Ice wedging, root intrusion, and the slow, steady pull of gravity (not to mention the weights and vibrations of quite a few hiking boots) will slowly power the separation of these rocks from the ridge top. Someday, the rocks will break away and tumble down the slope to make a “rock city” on some level section of the hillside.
We put the dogs on their leashes as we approached the rocks and promontory. We don’t want them stumbling off of the rocks or sliding down the steep cliff face. On past visits to these rocks we have seen large rattlesnakes among the shrubby vegetation. In fact, in 2006 we saw the biggest timber rattlesnake I have ever seen in Pennsylvania coiled up under a mountain laurel bush. His warning rattle was deep and loud! It was difficult to determine his exact length but he was in a foot diameter coiled mass, repeatedly wound around himself, and his body was the diameter of my forearm. Even allowing for adrenaline induced visual exaggerations, he was impressive! But today, in early November, there are no active rattlesnakes so we climb about and put our hands and feet into crevices that we would surely avoid in warmer weather.
The sun is starting to drop down in the western sky and the temperatures are steadily falling. We zip up our coats more tightly and speed up our pace a bit as we walk the main trail back to the parking area. Red and sugar maples, red oak, black cherry, and sassafras dominate the forest. Cat brier and mountain laurel fill in the understory along with an impressive number of mostly red maple seedlings. There is a park-like feeling to the forest: widely spread trees surrounded by a uniform understory. Could the rocky soil be one of the causes of the great spaces between the trees? Along one long section of the trail the path was elevated on packed up soil and crossed several covered cross-logs that spanned sections of boggy soil that was loaded with sphagnum moss. Possibly this was an extension of the nearby Spruce Flats Bog.
We get back to the cars after a little more than three hours of hiking. We are tired, a bit footsore, and cold but decide that we need to keep going so that we can see the Spruce Flats Bog before the sun completely sets.
(continued next week!)