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Susquehanna Life

Our Natural World: Lessons from Musser Gap

Sep 12, 2019 04:36AM
By Katherine O. Yeaple

In Centre County, about two miles from the main campus of Pennsylvania State University, lies Rothrock State Forest, at the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. This lush woodland was once stripped bare, and the wood burned, to create charcoal to fuel the region’s iron furnaces. Rothrock Forest was named for Dr. Joseph Rothrock a pioneer who led the effort to conserve and manage the forests in Central Pennsylvania.   

Today, Rothrock State Forest encompasses 97,000 acres of forest and over 300 miles of trails.  According to Mark Potter, a park ranger for the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, “Rothrock is home to an unbroken forest, which means it is an important habitat to wildlife and birds. There’s deer, bobcat, ruffed grouse, black bears and rattlesnakes.” 

Nestled in the southeastern border of these narrow ridges and broad valleys are the headwaters of Spring Creek formed by springs in the valley floor.  The Spring Creek watershed wells supply most of the drinking water to Centre County’s residents.


It began with just 423 acres, a small parcel of land at the foothills of Tussey Mountain dubbed Musser Gap.  In 2006, a local non-profit named Clearwater Conservancy bought land slated for a housing development. The impetus behind the purchase was to protect the water quality with forest and riparian buffers. Once Musser Gap was conserved, Katie Ombalski, a Clearwater conservation biologist approached Rob Cooper at PSU’s Office of Physical Plant and asked if Penn State would partner to create a greenway/trail across PSU owned lands that also sit atop the Spring Creek Watershed. 

The greenway would provide a walkable/bikeable connection for residents of State College to Rothrock State Forest and its extensive trail system through the newly protected Musser Gap. Penn State was interested. From 2008 to 2014, Judith Larkin, a landscape architect at Penn State and Ombalski were co-project managers of Musser Gap Greenway and Trail project. The project was awarded a DCNR C2P2 grant for acquisition and development of outdoor recreation facilities. According to Larkin, “It’s a quality of life thing—an asset for the community.”

At the time, Dan Sieminski, associate vice president for Finance and Business at Penn State, characterized the idea this way: “This project is the culmination of a lot of planning and a lot of dreaming.”

In addition to protecting the watershed, the Musser Gap Greenway and Trail project also connects people to nature. According to Ombalski, “By transferring [the property] to Rothrock, it became public land. Recreation is an important part of conservation.” 

The multi-use trail includes a 50-foot steel footbridge across Slab Cabin Run and riparian buffer zone. Other improvements made to the land included the removal of a 1960s-era concrete reservoir. “You’ve got some switchbacks and curves,” says Larkin. “You have grade changes with challenging hills as well as flat levels.”  PSU maintains the trail and greenway as part of a 50-year service agreement.

Personal experience

On a crisp March day, I explored the trail with my dog Jackson. A biker glided through the shallow run and passed me as I walked up the gradual incline and narrows.  At 0.9 miles, I reached a wooden bridge. The clear waters rush downstream over boulders covered in bright green moss. Beyond the bridge, where the biker had dismounted, I veered left following the well-marked red trail blazes of the Misty Mountain Trail. As I climbed, the waters of Musser Run accompanied me in the other direction. 

From the Misty Mountain Trail there are countless interior forest trails, including the 330-mile Mid State Trail or the popular Lower trail in Shingletown Gap. But instead, I turned right to go up the ridge to the Lion’s Valley Vista where the line of sight goes across Happy Valley to Black Moshannon and, further still, the Allegheny Front. Next, I began a steep rocky zig-zag descent down Frog Hollow Loop.  To avoid twisting an ankle I paced myself by occasionally stopping to admire the baby ferns growing along the rock walls.  

The partnership between Clearwater Conservancy and Penn State is ongoing. The next phase of planning, called Musser Gap to Valleylands (MG2V), is to determine the future of the 365-acre parcel of PSU-owned land adjacent to the Musser Gap Greenway and Musser Gap Trail. “We are working together for a healthy environment,” says Deb Nardone, Clearwater’s director.   

One evening at Foxdale Village, a retirement community less than a mile from Musser Gap, students from Penn State’s School of Landscape Architecture presented several design alternatives.  One concept included safe tunnels for turtles to cross under roads while another proposed the reforestation of agricultural lands to conserve wildlife habitat and the watershed. “The goal is that the final plan will balance the different competing needs,” explains Nardone. 

Why is it important to connect people in the community to nature?  Larkin answered simply, “Nature is magical.  Few other things have the same power to inspire, heal, nurture and connect us.”

Katherine Yeaple is a writer who lives in State College.

If You Go

Friends of Rothrock State Forest will host a trail fest on Tussey Mountain Ski Slope Sunday, Sept. 22.  Festivities will include mountain bike rides, guided hikes and several food vendors.  

For other events,

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