The Top Trails of Fall
by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator
I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!
Having a dramatic rise in elevation from home to work makes it clear that the peak of color is upon us. With the peak of color comes the rising urge to be outside enjoying the crisp weather and the vibrant colors that make Wintergreen’s forest so spectacular. This week’s Nine Minute Naturalist will cover my favorite hiking options at Wintergreen that will allow you to appreciate the diversity of trees and colors along our trails.
My favorite loop trail to maximize the eye candy of fall is the Hemlock Springs Trail into the Cedar Cliffs Main Trail. A key component to this loop is that it has ecosystem diversity. Hemlock Springs Trail has a footpath that meanders along a creek at the bottom of a gorge. This location causes a microclimate environment that supports a northern forest type. The stretch of trail is loaded with sugar maple and birch which offers a ton of yellow and orange color amongst the green oak trees. As you head over to Cedar Cliffs Main Trail via the Cedar Cliffs South Trail, hikers get a wonderful overlook peering into the Shamokin Gorge. This vantage is a unique view from where you can see and hear the Lower Shamokin Falls cutting through the gorge. As you head up the rocky Cedar Cliffs Main, you will notice a very different trail. The trail traverses the top of a ridge full of heath such as mountain laurel, blueberry and azalea. This ridge does offer some good color but it is a bit more muted than Hemlock Springs. The bulk of the ridge is made up of northern red oak, hickories and black gum that create a nice mixture of green, yellow, and red for you to enjoy as you labor up the hill. The loop is a bit over two miles and is rated as moderate.
Another combination of trails that I love hiking at the peak of fall is the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve (SSNP) onto the Old Appalachian Trail (OAT). This has similar qualities to the Hemlock Springs/Cedar Cliffs Main loop in that it features a microclimate created by water. The SSNP is located amongst a braided stream in a depression at high elevation. It features trees such as speckled alder and black ash common throughout the Northeast and Canada. The main color comes from the sugar and red maple, birch and black gum. American beech is common throughout the nature preserve and stays green longer than most trees in our forest. Combining this green amongst the reds and yellows create a lovely walk during the color peak. The understory is laden with spicebush and witch hazel which offer lovely yellows. At the back of the SSNP, connect with the OAT and take a left (south for those directionally disposed). This stretch of trail is an old logging road that features a lot of pioneer species such as sassafras. Sassafras in the fall has a range of color on each leaf and adds a great accent to this walk. Stay on the OAT and cross Laurel Springs Drive. This section increases in rockiness as you near an overlook with views to the west. Note the swatches of pine that offers a great evergreen dichotomy to the changing forest on the southeast facing slopes of Torrey Ridge. Head back to the SSNP and finish the loop. This hike is approximately 2.5 miles and is rated as easy to moderate.
A couple other options I highly recommend are The Plunge and Stoney Creek Park Trail. The Plunge is great not because of the tree color along the hike but because it offers the best views at Wintergreen. The view south to Three Ridges and the Priest are spectacular at peak foliage. This trail is rated moderate to difficult but is only .4 miles out and back. The Stoney Creek Park Trail is on my list of great fall options because it has a wonderful diversity of tree species ranging from southern red oak to persimmon to sycamore and also because of its elevation. Being at the bottom of the elevation range on Wintergreen property means it has a different peak foliage time. When the leaves are past peak at the top of the mountain, head to the bottom to get great foliage.
We have entered the hiking sweet spot. The time when the weather is crisp and cool, the bugs have relented, and the foliage is its peak. Get out on our trails and find your favorite spots to be awed by the nature at Wintergreen.
***One note about fall hiking is to know that hunting season is upon us and to be aware of the rules and regulations where you go hiking. The only trail affected by hunting at Wintergreen is the Lower Shamokin Falls. It passes through Wintergreen primitive lots where hunting is allowed.