Millie the rescue retriever spotted them first. She perked ears and emitted an indignant “whuf!” as a woman came walking her little terrier up the mountain road. We had parked at the top of Quarry Gap Road at an elevation of about 1,300 feet near the crest of South Mountain. The gravel road marks the border between Caledonia State Park and Michaux State Forest. The pair had obviously climbed quite a ways, and I noticed the woman didn’t have a backpack or a water bottle. I fished out a gallon jug from the back of my car and waved it to her. “Does your dog need a drink?” I called out. “No, thanks,” she waved back. “There’s a little crick up ahead.”
Crick. I hadn’t heard that term since I was a kid poking through the woods behind our home in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. If you misjudged the width of the crick when you hopped across, you’d get a high-top sneaker full of crick water. We called that a “soaker.” We got lots of soakers growing up. There always seemed to be a pileated woodpecker cackling derisively off in the distance whenever that happened. I heard that word, “crick,” and I knew I was back in Pennsylvania.
Michaux State Forest comprises about 87,000 acres covered with white pine and hemlock along the Pennsylvania end of South Mountain. It’s named after André Michaux, the 18th-century French botanist and explorer most noted for his study of North American flora. Michaux described and named many North American tree and plant species between 1785 and 1791, shipping ninety cases of specimens back to France. He then introduced many species to America from all around the world, including camellias from Japan, the tea-olive tree from south-eastern Asia and the crepe myrtle from China.
Michaux is where Pennsylvania’s forest conservation movement got its start in 1901, the year the first tract of land was purchased. The state’s first forest tree nursery was established at Mont Alto a year later. The forest is bisected east to west by U.S. Hwy. 30, the “Lincoln Highway.” The northern half of the forest is bookended by Caledonia State Park and Pine Grove Furnace State Park. The Appalachian Trail runs 36 miles south to north along the length of the crest of the mountain, connecting the two parks.
Millie on the Appalachian Trail
Ferns along the Appalachian Trail
Millie and I had come to visit the forest one week in late June. We took a campsite in a hemlock grove in the Hosack Run Loop of Caledonia State Park, which turned out to be a good central point for our explorations. This is also the only dog-friendly section of the campground. It was just a short drive up the mountainside to the spot where we met the woman and her little dog, where Quarry Gap Road touches on the Appalachian Trail. We found a spring where Millie sampled the pristine water and we strolled a couple of miles in the cool breeze just so we could say we hiked the Appalachian Trail.
Millie drinks from a spring at Quarry Gap
The next day, we drove up to Pine Grove State Park, where we met a couple of guys from Lancaster who were hiking the trail on down to Caledonia, 17 miles south. The park is close to the halfway point of the 2,186-mile trail, the perfect location for the Appalachian Trail Museum.
While we were at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Millie and I admired a 30-foot-tall stone structure, all that remains of an iron furnace operation that started on this spot in 1764 and operated under a variety of owners for the next 131 years until the technology became obsolete and no longer financially viable. The last blast of the furnace was in 1895. I’m particularly interested in this industry, since my great-grandfather worked as a “puddler” in the iron mills in England before he emigrated to work in the steel mills in Pittsburgh in the 1880s.
Pine Grove Furnace
There are interpretive panels that show how this tapered square tower was once the center of an expansive industrial operation. A nearby creek was dammed, providing waterpower to operate an air pump to blow on a charcoal fire at the base of the furnace, making it hot enough to melt iron ore. That reservoir is now one of the two lakes in the park. The other lake was the pit where they mined the ore. Thousands of acres of the surrounding forest were hacked down to make charcoal to feed the furnace.
Workers would load the chimney of the furnace like a muzzle-loaded musket, starting with wheelbarrows filled with charcoal, then the iron ore, and then limestone, which worked as a flux to siphon off impurities in the molten iron. Then they’d fire it up and let the iron melt out of the ore. It would collect in a chamber at the bottom.
It was the puddler’s hot and dangerous job to open up the vent at the base of the furnace and guide the molten iron with a paddle as it oozed out, directing the flow into furrows dug in the sand. There would be a main channel and smaller channels running off on either side, like suckling pigs. The cooled and hardened ingots were what they called “pig iron” for that reason. Forges and mills on the site transformed the pig iron into cast iron stoves, kettles, fireplace backings and possibly even cannon balls for the Continental Army.
Before there were railroads to cart ore, fuel and the limestone, you had to build the ironworks in the location where all these ingredients could be readily found. Other ancillary buildings in the park include a mansion where the ironmaster and his family lived, and a grist mill that is now the home of the Appalachian Trail Museum. This park also has a very nice campground and interpretive nature trails.
It turns out that Caledonia State Park was also the site of an ironworks, but the original furnace has been replaced by a scale replica built as a monument to its owner. That was Thaddeus Stevens, known as “The Great Commoner,” who represented Pennsylvania in Congress around the time of the Civil War. In Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “Lincoln,” Thaddeus Stevens was played by Tommy Lee Jones, and when you compare the actor’s craggy visage with the tintype portrait of the stern-looking man he was portraying, it’s an almost eerie match. Stevens was a staunch abolitionist and worked hard to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Caledonia Furnace Monument to Thaddeus Stevens
Stevens’ anti-slavery stance got him into trouble when Confederate General Jubal Early marched by the Caledonia ironworks. It was the Confederacy’s policy not to destroy private property, but General Early made an exception in Stevens’ case. His troops burned the whole operation to the ground on June 26, 1863, just a few days before the epic battle at nearby Gettysburg.
The Thaddeus Stevens Historic Trail runs along the banks of Conococheague Creek (pronounced “KON-a-ko-cheeg”) and passes by several sites where woodsmen used to create huge mounds of logs to burn into charcoal to feed the iron furnace. This is the East Branch of the creek that eventually flows into the Potomac River at Williamsport, Maryland.
As we drove back and forth across South Mountain, Millie and I explored a number of other unique sites around Michaux Forest, stopping to take short hikes here and there. We stopped by the Long Pine Run Reservoir and watched two kids catching bluegills with their dad and a lone fisherman launching his kayak off a grassy bank.
Long Pine Run Reservoir
At the end of one hot day, we cooled off in a shady pool of a creek. We checked out one of the vernal pools at the Mt. Cydonia Ponds Natural Area. It was dry at the time, but these pools fill with rainwater and snowmelt in the spring and provide vital habitats for amphibians and rare aquatic plants alike.
Soaking in Conococheague Creek
With just a few free days, we couldn’t cover the whole 87,000 acres, but what we did see of Michaux State Forest, we liked a lot. In addition to the modern campgrounds at the state parks, with all the amenities for RV hookups and very well-maintained bath houses, there are numerous primitive campsites dotted all around the mountainsides, some of which are accessible by car, others you need to hike into. And of course, there’s the incomparable Appalachian Trail. Millie and I will be back, preferably on another hot day when we can take another soak in the crick.
Caledonia State Park is in the northernmost section of the Blue Ridge Mountains known locally as South Mountain, near Gettysburg. The park provides picnicking, fishing, hiking, golfing, and camping opportunities.
Michaux State Forest encompasses more than 85,500 acres and is the site of first forestry school, Mont Alto.
Pine Grove Furnace State Park is located in central Pennsylvania at the northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in an area known as South Mountain.
The Appalachian Trail is one of the longest continuously marked footpaths in the world, measuring roughly 2,180 miles in length. The Trail goes through fourteen states along the crests and valleys of the Appalachian mountain range from Georgia to Maine.