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Trips and Tips

Blue Knob State Park and Its Elusive Wild Turkeys

 

A note about COVID-19 and visiting parks: Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

It’s time to get outside! The late fall and early winter are perfect times to explore the mountains and hike the forests of south central Pennsylvania. One of the most challenging areas to hike is Blue Knob.  Blue Knob State Park is a gem of a place to get-away-from-it-all and discover the beauty of the mountains. It isn’t the easiest hiking, but it is rewarding, with views and vistas of purple mountain majesties.

Blue Knob State Park is named for its majestic dome-shaped mountain. At 3,146 feet above sea level, it is Pennsylvania’s second highest peak and is the northernmost 3,000-plus-foot mountain in the Allegheny Mountain Range. The rocks near the summit have a bluish-green appearance, giving Blue Knob its name. The state park offers year-round backwoods adventures on more than 6,100 acres of forest. The vistas are specular and awe-inspiring during every season of the year.  

Over 18 miles of mountain trails crisscross within the Park. You can plan a walk to intersect several of the challenging and well-marked hikes to take full advantage of the panoramas surrounding this highland location in "Penn’s woods.” Several of the park’s trails are designated as multi-use, and if you are a foot walker you may see mountain bikers or horseback riders sharing some trails. Several trails are designated for cross-country skiing or snow-mobiling when conditions are right. There are ample trails within this park for everyone. If you hike like we do, during the week after school starts and football begins, the likelihood of seeing others on most trails is low.  

A selection of connector trails provides a wonderful option to change up distance or difficulty as you hike. Start out on a trail of possibly three or five miles and connector trail intersections provide a real-time opportunity to extend or shorten the hike. The trails are well-marked with blazes or symbols.  Numbered and labeled posts mark intersections, but be sure you save an image on your phone (cell service was spotty to non-existent!) or, better yet, use a paper trail map available free from the park office.

Although connector trails may shorten or extend the hike, remember to consider not only the distance but the climb or descent. Many trails at Blue Knob are steep! It is, after all, an impressive mountain! If hiking a loop trail, a section going down means there will be a hike up! Plan your hike, carry a map, and ensure you have water, snacks, and other necessities.  A walking stick or hiking poles make hiking a bit easier and can help maintain balance on uneven terrain.

We visited Blue Knob in the early days of November with our dogs Zoe and Magpie, and utilized both an online app with a trail map and the available park paper map as our guide. Taking advantage of ample parking at Willow Springs Picnic area, we first explored a section of the Mountain View trail, listed as "most difficult hiking" on the park map. It was!

One of the park's large, old trees

With time to spare, we determined that another trailhead should be explored.  A shared entry-point for both Homestead and Sawmill Trails was a short distance from the picnic area.  The trails could be completed as a loop using a connector trail back to our car. Perfect!  The park map listed the trails as "easiest hiking" and it showed a gradual descent into a valley with a slightly steeper return ascent via the connector trail. The trail was rocky in spots, but easy to follow.  We completed the 2.4-mile, "family-friendly loop,” in less than an hour, returning to our car parked at the trailhead with two happy and worn-out dogs.

The sun was starting to set and we wanted to catch it! A great feature of Blue Knob State Park is that you can drive directly to two vistas. You don’t need to hike back into a really secluded location to enjoy a breathtaking view!

Blue Knob State Park displays its core history through many of the buildings, trails and roads which were constructed in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  This early recreational construction was accomplished by a group of young men known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC assisted in creating several of the park’s recreational facilities, particularly the hiking trails and assorted buildings, many of which still stand and are used today. It is certainly nostalgic to look at some of the well-crafted buildings that remain as they did years ago.  

In 1977 the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) constructed Lost Turkey Trail.  This 26-mile trail transverses the state park and surrounding state forest, state game, and private lands.  A favorite of backpackers, many people use sections of this trail for day hikes. Speaking of lost turkey, one of the main reasons we visited the Blue Knob area was to possibly observe one of my favorite native birds of Pennsylvania – the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) – in the deep woods. This remote area is an excellent location to see them. I have been a turkey watcher from my younger days growing up in Cameron County and while in college I studied ornithology and did several research papers on them.  

Seeing them in the wild involves many hours of waiting and watching, as the wild turkey is a very elusive bird. It takes patience and quiet stillness to catch a glimpse of this elusive, year-round resident of Pennsylvania’s forests.

The author using his box caller

There are stories that Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wanted to use the wild turkey as the national emblem of the United States. There is no hard evidence that this is true, but in a letter Franklin wrote to his daughter he said, “For my own part I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.” As for the turkey, Franklin wrote that it “was a much more respectable bird.”

Much to my disappointment, we didn’t see any turkeys this time during our visit to Blue Knob, however, the ranger at the park office said she had just recently seen several turkeys on Sawmill Trail. As we walked, we saw droppings and scratchings (digging as they search for food). Turkeys feed on insects, berries, seeds and nuts. The turkey scratchings we saw were for acorns, insects, and other seeds and grasses. They will also eat small baby rodents (mice), and frogs, salamanders, snakes, and even other baby birds they might find.

Alas, it was getting late and turkeys normally start to roost in trees as dusk approaches. We have a lot of trips planned to the woods of Pennsylvania yet this season, and I feel confident I will see my feathered friends during another day trip.  

This blog only scratches the surface of recreational opportunities available at Blue Knob State Park.  In addition to those mentioned, opportunities include camping, cabins (including a 100-person group cabin camp), trout fishing, hunting, a public swimming pool, wildlife viewing (including black bear, coyote, porcupine, fox, grouse, and white-tailed deer), birding, picnicking, downhill skiing, and more.  Traveling through this park whether by foot, horse, mountain bike, skis, or other means, you feel a sense of gratitude to those who preserved the beauty of this natural environment. It is definitely worth a visit at any time of the year. Expect to be amazed, delighted, and awestruck!

Blue Knob State Park

Blue Knob State Park is located in the northwest corner of Bedford County, Pennsylvania. The 6,128 acre park is popular year-round as it boasts trails from hiking and biking to cross-country skiing and snow mobiles.

Virgil Chambers

Virgil Chambers is retired from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission where he was Chief of Boating Safety Education. Director Emeritus of the National Safe Boating Council and a life member of the American Canoe Association, he is published and recognized world-wide for his numerous contributions to boating and water safety. He enjoys paddling a wide variety of boats with his wife, Pamela and their dog, Zoe.

November 17, 2020

Main image: All photos by Virgil Chambers
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