Hiking in St. Anthony’s Wilderness
Jun 03, 2015 08:20PM
By Erica Shames
Stretching from Ellendale in Dauphin County to the western fringe of Schuylkill County, Stony Valley is the second largest roadless area in Pennsylvania. Small streams and springs originate high in the mountains—holding populations of wild brook trout—and they drain into Stony Creek, which flows west until it dumps in the Susquehanna River at Dauphin. Stony Valley, also known as St. Anthony’s wildness, is a reminder of what Pennsylvania looked like ages ago.
And it’s a place to easily escape the bustle of Central Pennsylvania, and yet remain within driving distance of downtown Harrisburg. Hikers exploring the area can walk along Devils Race Course, or contemplate the geology of Box Car Rocks. The Appalachian Trail traverses both mountains and the valley on its way to the Delaware River. Most of the valley is owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission so it is open for recreation throughout the year.
“I tell people that I own this valley,” said Larry Herr, of Lebanon County.
But the history of Stony Valley could have changed dramatically had the coal held out or the railroads flourished.
Take a careful walk around Stony Valley and history emerges. The easiest way to see the valley is via the Stony Valley Rail Trail, which follows an old railroad grade. The nearly 20-mile trail is mostly flat, and cuts through several ghost towns including Rausch Gap.
side trail out of the valley floor and visit “The General” an old steam shovel
that once was used to mine coal. Nearby, a stone-lined tower serves as a silent
reminder that the valley was once teaming with coal mines.
At one point in the 1850s, there were more than 2,000 people living in the valley. Active coal mines, and a sturdy railroad yard, gave the valley the potential to become true boom towns like many others in the coal region.
But ultimately, the mines closed as more profitable seams were found
elsewhere. With a lack of coal, the railroad floundered. One by one, the towns
closed. By the start of the Great Depression, all but a few hearty souls
remained, with the last settlers-- squatters living in an old chicken coop--
were evicted when the land was acquired by the state in the 1940s.
“It truly was the boom and bust of the industrial age,” said Brandy Watts Martin, a historian who has done extensive research in the area.
Throughout the summer and fall, hikers take to the Appalachian Trail.
Crossing the Susquehanna River at Duncannon, the trail quickly leaves the
hustle of Central Pennsylvania behind when it climbs to the top of Peters
Once hikers enter Stony Valley, they are reaching the most remote stretch of the AT in the state.
“The remoteness and solitude is so appealing,” said Jeff Buehler, a hike leader with the Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club.
But the solitude makes things challenging. The Susquehanna Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the Appalachian Trail, is responsible for clearing brush and building features like rock steps that prevent trail erosion. Few roads reach the area.
“It not an area that I would suggest
for new hikers,” Buehler said.
But for those with seasoned hiking legs, this is perhaps the finest stretch of trail in the state. Hikers coming down from Peters Mountain will walk past the remains of Rausch Gap, a town that was once home to more than 1,000 people. Now, hikers can see the remains of homes and wells, and the Rausch Gap shelter—a place to stay for overnight hikes.
On the eastern fringe of Stony Valley, Gold Mine Road cuts through the valley connecting Routes 325 and 443. From parking areas along the road, visitors can walk a brief trail to Box Car Rocks, named after the enormous boulders that have formed due to eons of erosion. Gold Mine Road is also an easy way for cyclists to access the Stony Valley Rail Trail.
Traveling west along the old railroad grade, cyclists and hikers will come across Sand Spring, a walled in natural seep built by early settlers.
Further down the grade, visitors will find the remains of Rausch Gap, and its small cemetery, and eventually the foundation of the Cold Spring Hotel, which once held 200 guests.
Continuing west on the trail toward Dauphin, an old fire road comes down
from Stony Mountain and over a little stream known as Devil's Race Course.
Here, the stream originates under a lengthy bouder field-- and according to
legend, settlers believed the noise of the creek underneath the stones was made
by the devil himself, Watts Martin said.
Throughout the year, different organizations including the SATC hold
organized outings in the area. Watts Martin also leads guided tours, showcasing
the history of the region.
Just about every notable mammal species can be found in the valley-- even the elusive bobcat. Once while walking his dog, Larry Herr stumbled on a black bear cooling itself in a small spring, startling human and bruin alike.
Within the confines of Stony Valley are several swamps and beaver ponds, most of which are hidden off the beaten path, noted Josh McKinney, an avid hiker who lives in Dauphin County. The sheer size of these game lands, and its proximity to so much of the state's population, makes it a gem for nature lovers, McKinney said.
“The fact is, this is a massive amount of wilderness located 15 miles from the state capital. It’s a jewel for Pennsylvania,” he said. “It has everything from historic, to recreation and is really sprawling wilderness.”
Written by Darrin Youker, a freelance writer, and avid hiker, based in Reading.
If you go –Hike to St. Anthony’s June 7
For those you receive their copy of the magazine right away—publication date is June 3—Paul Shaw, outings chair of the Otzinachson chapter of the Sierra Club, will lead a hike in St. Anthony’s Wilderness, on June 7. Pick your hike: 9.5 miles (strenuous) or 15.5 miles (very strenuous). Bring water and lunch. Meet at K-Mart parking lot, Rt. 15, Shamokin Dam, at 8:30 a.m., or at Sheetz on Rt. 322, near Duncannon, at 9:15 a.m. For more information, contact Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or (717) 215-8339.
Please visit SusquehannaLife.com for information about upcoming events about Stony Valley and its history.