Monday, April 28, 2014

Michaux State Forest and Rethinking Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania rock garden.

Pennsylvania, let’s be honest.  I haven’t given you a fair shake.  My impression of your burly mid-atlantic hollows has been tempered with long car rides on Interstate 81.  Usually by the time I get to your border the luster on a long road trip headed south has worn off.  I am bored and just cranking out miles.  It’s usually about this time that I pass through the Wilkes-Barre area.  Just the name evokes images of broad valleys, hills cut in half by strip mining, a massive car junkyard and perpetual construction. Not to mention the “ker-clunk-ker-clunk” of the endless evenly spaced concrete with only deer corpses and semi-trucks to keep you company.

Needless to say these are not positive associations. 

But that image is changing.  My revelation started last Spring when my wife and I went to visit friends in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Given that we were driving, I decided to bring along my bike and see if I could find some decent mountain biking in the area. 

The city of Carlisle feels like a picturesque small town – complete with large porched houses, wide avenues, trees, and beautiful lawns.  Dickenson college adds to the vibrant yet historic feel of downtown.  I felt immediately at home:  the first time I had felt that in the Keystone state.  About an hour south of Carlisle, toward the border with Maryland is a ridge on which sits Michaux State Forest.  My online research indicated that there was some decent riding, but the place was HUGE:  a real wilderness.

Great spot for a hearty breakfast.
So on a beautiful spring afternoon I ventured south on the back roads to Michaux.   Leery of getting lost I stopped at the park office and asked if they had any maps for mountain biking.  The ranger seemed incredulous, as if I was the first person who had been mountain biking in a while, which I took as a bad sign.  Despite this, she did have a photocopied map.  However, without any elevation lines or mileage it was clear it wouldn’t be much help.  I made my way up to the area suggested as a trailhead and parked in the empty lot.  A couple rangers stood by an ATV talking, when I came up and asked about the local mountain biking they didn’t seem to know where the trails started.  They suggested I head to the south end of the parking lot and look there.  This encounter and my conversation with the park office were made even more odd with what I discovered next.

As I headed to the south end of the parking lot, I came across a large clearing where there were a few tents, a car trailer, and ribbons marking a course through the open grassy field.  I had stumbled upon the start/finish line for a  mountain bike race.  The place was eerily silent though. There was nobody in sight.  The sign announced the “Michaux Enduro” and it appeared a course had been marked, so I followed the arrows and headed out onto the trail hoping it was a fifteen mile course and not a fifty miler. 

The first section was wide doubletrack with crushed shale which led into a large field.  I blasted down a long steep singletrack descent under some powerlines, entering the woods again far below on the other side.  A doubletrack trail climbed through the woods back to the top of the hill and re-emerged onto the powerline.  The trail snaked into the woods again, and through some mean rock gardens.  Unlike their rounded cousins in New England, Pennsylvania rock gardens are filled with sharp angular rocks, upping the ante for any falls, however slow.   Maintaining speed was key for keeping above the suck of the deeper crevasses, and so I danced around on the bike trying to avoid striking my spinning pedals on the sharp rocks below.

The trail dove steeply down into another valley, where it ran  alongside a brook.  The trail became hard to follow, and I moved slowly and deliberately tying not to get lost.  The next section found me climbing up onto the hill on a slow steady class-four road.  I descended again, this time on a trail so steep that I found myself completely on top of the rear wheel with my nipples hitting the seat. 

Rolling hills on the ride to Michaux.
I crossed over the powerline again, back to the side I had started on and entered a relatively flat and fun singletrack section that wound its way from a rocky hardwood glade into a smooth pine glen and then back out to the start/finish line field.

Still completely abandoned, I sat in the empty field for a while letting the new Pennsylvania soak into my consciousness.

I had never before pictured her hills and forests as a true wildernes:  as places to explore or get lost.  But after my day winding around the park I couldn't help but rethink my impression. While I still hold the broad valleys in my mind, I now picture opeaceful old hardwood stands and open farmland .  I can now see the vast stretches of undeveloped land, untouched by the mining and gas companies or even places like Michaux which were once clear-cut for industry but have since been reclaimed by nature.   

I can see the Pennsylvania many people love so much.


  1. Nice writeup. Makes me wish I rode bikes instead of ran when I studied at Dickinson...

  2. You hear that kids?! Bike while you can!