About an hour ago
Winter 2021 looks similar to spring, summer, and fall 2020 – at least when it comes to most forms of personal conviviality.
But one place that has remained safe for activity during the pandemic has been nature, and that certainly won’t change in winter.
Westmoreland County and the surrounding area offer a multitude of ways to enjoy the outdoors and get some exercise – or plenty of exercise, depending on how far and how high you want to hike.
From gentle, handicapped-accessible trails to steep climbs on muddy ground, the region offers something for everyone and plenty of wildlife along the way.
Photo submitted / Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry
The fall foliage in this view extends west on Laurel Mountain as seen from Wolf Rocks in Forbes State Forest.
An excellent view
“I hike all year round,” said Carly Greene, Murrysville recreational director. “I like to go to places I’ve never seen before and find new ways.”
That includes the colder months.
“We went to Beam Rock outside of Ligonier and there are plenty of hiking and snowmobiling trails,” Greene said.
The Beam Rock Trail in Laurel Summit State Park, southeast of Ligonier, is less than a mile away. While the trail itself only climbs 78 feet, the endpoint offers views from more than 2,600 feet above sea level.
Laurel Summit State Park is also home to the Wolf Rocks Trail, a 4-mile loop in the Forbes State Forest. The west end has panoramic views of Linn Run State Park and Westmoreland County.
“I go to Wolf Rocks in winter because it looks different every season,” said Rusty Glessner, a photographer who lives at State College and grew up in Somerset County. “There are certainly fewer bugs in winter and you don’t have to worry about snakes or ticks. Adams Falls, near Linn Run, is another good one. These are my contact points. “
For picturesque winter spots, Glessner also recommended the region’s waterfalls, especially those in Ohiopyle State Park in Fayette County.
“It’s probably my favorite place in the whole region, in winter,” he said. Glessner even wrote a guide for the PA Bucket List website: “22 Must-See Waterfalls in PA’s Laurel Highlands”.
An illustration from an April 1886 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper shows workers rushing to fight the gas well fire noted in the historic marker along Route 22. The illustration hangs in the Murrysville Municipal Building on Sardis Road.
Not only is the Westmoreland Heritage Trail a mostly flat, easy-to-navigate trail, but it also takes in plenty of local history. Just a couple of things on the way:
• The Haymaker gas well, drilled in 1878, was the first commercial natural gas well in the country. It was drilled 1,400 in the same sandstone that now has a plaque placed north of the path near Braun Avenue in Murrysville. The well caught five months for five months in 1881 but was later brought under control and piped to Pittsburgh on gas.
• The Export Coal Mine, the first major mine on the Turtle Creek Railroad, was in operation until 1952. This year marks the 100th anniversary of a coal workers’ strike of 1921. Just south of the trail, on Washington Avenue, is one of the Westmoreland Coal Company fan houses, and a few years ago a local boy scout troop discovered several former mine entrances nearby District Court 10-3-02.
Submitted photo / Mark A. McConaughy
An immature bald eagle soars over Saint Vincent Lake in Unity in 2019.
Western Pennsylvania is part of the Atlantic and / or Mississippi trajectories for migratory birds – depending on the map you are looking at – and local parks and trails offer many passageways, according to Plum naturalist Susan Miller.
“Winter is a great time to see waterfowl, hawks and bald eagles,” Miller said. “After a blizzard is a good time to look for waterfowl, as they can be herded down during migration to rest in lakes or ponds.”
Locally occurring species include the great crested grebe, the brent duck, the bufflehead, the redhead, the American wigeon, and the American coot.
Miller said Ethel Springs Lakes in Derry Township is a good place for water birds.
“On January 3, someone called me to say they had seen 270 mergers at Beaver Run Reservoir,” Miller said. “And bald eagles are a common sight at Loyalhanna Lake Dam.”
Without the leaf cover of spring and summer, some of the area’s birds of prey are easier to spot.
“Red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, Cooper’s hawks, sharp-skinned hawks, and American kestrels are more visible, and you can find them on telephone poles,” she said.
Those who are seriously interested in bird watching can also find bird watching hotspots via the free eBird.org service, where nature lovers record when and where they observe different species.
Always be prepared
As with any hike, preparation is important and goal-specific. The list of offers for a walk on the Westmoreland Heritage Trail will certainly not look like the one for a hike to a peak in the Laurel Highlands.
According to Outdoors.org, a good winter supply list includes at least 2 liters of water for each person, a waterproof package cover, high-energy foods and snacks, toilet paper, hand sanitiser, lip balm, sunglasses, first aid kit, a lighter or matches, pipe, fire starter, hiking map, Compass and appropriate clothing, depending on the weather.
“As long as you wear the right clothes, you are bundled up and you know where you are going, you will be fine,” Greene said. “There’s a lot of information out there about whether you’re out in the cold, hiking, camping, or something else.”
Patrick Varine is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, email@example.com, or on Twitter.
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