Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Appalachian Trail Trek

The Pinnacle Overlook along the Appalachian Trail in Berks County, Pennsylvania

The Sunday after Thanksgiving this year (November 29, 2009) in the Mid-Atlantic was spectacular--temperatures in the low 60s with cloudless skies. The day just begged for a hike, and we were happy to oblige. We tackled one of our favorite circuits--a 7-mile loop along the Appalachian Trail near Reading, Pennsylvania, that includes the best viewpoint in Pennsylvania, the Pinnacle. This portion of the AT is located just south of Hawk Mountain and shares many of the same physical characteristics with its more famous neighbor to the north: expansive views, challenging rocks, and soaring raptors.

One of the rare, relatively stone-free sections of the Appalachian Trail atop Blue Mountain

This circuit involves three separate trail segments. First, there's a quick, steep climb ascending 600 feet over a distance of about a half-mile. Whew! Then there's a long, flat, but extremely rocky section along the ridgeline of Blue Mountain. Finally, a side-trail returns the hiker to the starting point along a steep, downhill trail on an old logging road running beside a beautiful mountain stream called Furnace Creek, so named because it provided water for the nearby Windsor Iron Furnace in 19th century.

A tight squeeze for backbackers
Many Appalachian Trail through hikers consider the Pennsylvania portion of the trail the most challenging of all because it is so rocky. The image below shows one of the most--but by no means the only--challenging section of this circuit hike.

An especially challenging portion of the Appalachian Trail. This jumble of rocks is the trail.

The crest of the Appalachian Ridges is cloaked with a Mixed Oak Forest. This forest used to be called the Oak-Chestnut Forest, but the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight fungus in the 1920s all but wiped-out the American chestnut. It's niche was filled by chestnut oak (Quercus montana). The ridges are windy and cold, and the soil is acidic, well-drained and nutrient poor. Most of the trees are chestnut oaks, but there's a smattering of red and black oaks, black cherries, and birches in the woods, too. Labor Day usually offers a plethora of blueberries.

Chestnut oak (Quercus montana) replaced American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) in the Mixed Oak forests after the onslaught of the chestnut blight in the 1920s. Note the thick bark and the faded white AT blaze.

The Pinnacle Overlook--best view from the AT in PA
Most people hike this circuit to enjoy The Pinnacle Overlook, widely acknowledged to be the best view from the AT in Pennsylvania. At the peak of fall color, it can be hard to find a place to sit to have lunch here. This is the only place I have ever seen a rattlesnake in Pennsylvania; it was curled up under a ledge. There are lots of slump caves and narrow crevices to explore below the cliff face, too.

Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus) soaring on thermals along the cliff edge

After three hours of hiking uphill and or crossing treacherous rocks, the third portion of the hike on the old logging road is a real treat.

Mosses and ferns set aglow by low-angle afternoon sunlight

Eastern hemlocks and rhododendrons line Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is beautiful along its entire length. Here, I discovered a small falls about two feet high. Just below this point, Furnace Creek is impounded behind a dam to provide drinking water for the borough of Hamburg, Pennsylvania.

Because of the depauperate soil and relatively harsh conditions in the Appalachian ridges, wildlife is not common--especially in November. We only saw one Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), one Black-capped Chickadee (Poecila atricapillus), and one White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) in addition to the Black Vultures. Oh, and a small Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) that startled us by crawling across the trail--in November!

Yours truly at the Pulpit Overlook (elev. 1,582')