An Autumn Hike Through the Serpentine Barrens in Nottingham Park, PA

In the small town of Nottingham PA, there exists a unique park that offers visitors a chance to visit a rare ecosystem found only in this region: Nottingham Serpentine Barrens Park.  Rich in history and ecology, this Chester County attraction rests within a series of barrens that straddle the boundaries of Pennsylvania and Maryland.  The area is said to feature desert-like conditions due to the level of toxicity caused by unusually high amounts of metal in the soil, combined with a lack of nutrients.  As such, only a limited number of plants can grow in the area, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.  Due to the sunbaked nature of serpentine rock, such areas also typically boast warmer temperatures than the nearby region.

Upon entering, the park seemed anything but desert-like.  Tall trees, both pine and deciduous native throughout the area, were found in abundance just as they are across the northeast.  They also appeared to be at the peak of their fall colors, leading to anticipation for the coming autumn hike.  A small fenced area near the entrance offers visitors a preview of the serpentine grasses found throughout the area.

Entrance to Nottingham Park

After parking, a nearby map detailed the various trails found throughout Nottingham Park.  On the western side of the park, we discovered a little spot dubbed “The Mystery Hole.”  Unable to resist, we decided to begin our autumn hike at the Feldspar Trail leading to both it and the Buck Trail.

The trail system is surprisingly large for a county park.  We were led through forests and fields of serpentine grass with large creeks beside the trail.  Though the path occasionally featured large rocks or fairly deep (though easily avoided) holes, the trails were well maintained and easy to navigate.  The fall foliage seemed rather vibrant in some areas, but also very bare in others.  Along the way, various signs would provide information regarding the park’s history and ecology.  Apparently, some of the nearby areas were used for mining long before the importance of the local plant life was fully understood.  Remnants of old mining sites could still be found along the trails, the most impressive being the elusive mystery hole.

The mystery hole was actually a large pond area with rock walls rising above its banks.  Once a quarry, it now serves as a point of interest for visitors.  The area is surrounded by a fence, blocking access and inhibiting the ability to take pictures.  Some large rocks nearby could have provided relatively easy access over the fence, but I’m not one to risk jail time.  The fall colors reflecting from the lake still made for a serene setting, and I was able to catch a few shots through the fence of the area.

Nottingham Barrens Mystery Hole during Fall

Autumn leaves reaching over the Nottingham Park “mystery hole” quarry site.

Other than the quarry sites, the environment didn’t seem very different from those found throughout the northeast, though the fall colors still made for a great autumn hike.  The serpentine grass largely resembled overgrown grass found in any field, though I’m not sure how it would look during the spring or summer.  And, to be fair, we only covered a small section of the entire park.

Field of Serpentine Grass During Autumn

A field of serpentine grass with fall foliage rising in the distance.

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Fort Mountain: An Autumn Hike on the Sentinel of the Appalachians

As my trek down south continues, I decided to take another autumn hike at Fort Mountain State Park.  Located just outside the small town of Chatsworth, Fort Mountain is a unique park that features a history as rich as its luscious fall foliage.  The fall leaves have turned to even more brilliant colors than those of my last hike, and the weather is much cooler at this higher-altitude park. Fort Mountain offers the highest point of the Cohutta Mountains, a small range near the southern tip of the Appalachians.  It is on this mountain that visitors will find a summit with a rich historical value shrouded in mystery.

Fort Mountain is named after a series of rocks leading up to the peak that appear to have been arranged as a defensive barrier.  Experts have yet to agree on the origins of the stone wall.  Some are convinced that it was built by Native Americans, while others claim it was conceived by European explorers.  There are also those who believe the occurrence is completely natural and its arrangement a coincidence.  Even experts that agree on it being man made remain at odds about what they were protecting themselves from.

Personally, I believe it was this ghost tree I found standing watch over the hiking trail. It seemed eerily reminiscent of the coming Halloween holiday.

Regardless of its true origins, the rocks were the inspiration for the construction of the nearby stone fire tower, a project meant to enhance the mountain’s historical value and the local economy through the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the historic New Deal.  Built upon the mountain’s highest summit, it certainly suits its purpose as a fortified watchtower for the nearby barrier.

Fort Mountain State Park’s boundaries begin long after the road starts climbing.  The mountain pass leading up to the park’s gates offers excellent views of unique fall foliage and the nearby mountains.  The drive certainly succeeded in building anticipation for the coming autumn hike.  The fall colors became more vibrant as I climbed higher, and the nearby mountains reached towards the low hanging clouds along the side of the road.

A mountain pass leading to the Fort Mountain State Park

The mountain pass leading up to Fort Mountain State Park

Rugged mountains as seen from Fort Mountain

Peering through the fall foliage to the nearby mountains

 

After driving into the park, I grabbed a map from the ranger station to plan my route.  The trails to the north quickly drew my attention, as they led to the Stone Wall, tower, and overlooks.  The Cool Springs Overlook trail seemed the best place to start, as it connected with the loop, a trail that circled the top of the mountain and provided access to all other nearby trails.

Cool Springs Overlook Trail Head

Cool Springs Overlook Trail Head

 

I found a viewing platform just a short walk away from the Cool Springs Overlook trail head.  While the overlook failed to reveal any nearby springs, it did offer another incredible view of the mountains.  This is one of the best aspects of an autumn hike, as the fall foliage revealed vibrant colors across the landscape.  I found the trail leading up the overlook to be mostly straightforward, though it did offer periodic challenges, including some that were difficult to spot until coming dangerously close.

Just past the overlook, the smaller trail led up to the loop.  Right before connecting with the loop, however, I found myself crossing a small, now mostly dry creek (small enough to step over).  The trail then cut to the northeast and began leading me to the Stone Wall Trail.  While hiking, I noticed some rather large piles of rocks stretching up the side of the mountain.  These offered a little more credence to the notion of a natural occurrence.   A little closer to the Stone Rock Trail, I noticed a layer of deep mud and some water stretching across the path.  This would have been enough to abruptly end my hike, but I noticed a small (though more technical) side-path that led around the puddle.  I had to climb a fairly steep (though relatively short) incline to reach it, one that was partially hidden behind a boulder.

As I traveled higher up the trail, I began to feel what seemed to be small drops of precipitation.  I became concerned, as the temperatures were ranging between the low 40s and upper 50s, and I had not brought an umbrella with me.  Still, the forecast had promised a 0% chance of rain, so I decided to take the chance and carry on.

While hiking the loop, through the tufts of autumn leaves, I could make out the outlines of the Cahutta Mountain range.  Even though my autumn hike started up higher on the mountain, I was surprised to see just how much I had already climbed since my initial view from the overlook.  The loop soon connected with the Stone Wall Trail, providing rugged access to the very site that made this mountain famous.  As I had not yet viewed any pictures of the wall, I really wasn’t sure what I would find.

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Call it ruins or a formation, the Stone Wall wasn’t quite what I expected.  In fact, I didn’t even realize that I had stumbled across it until the autumn leaves cleared and revealed a granite tablet in the midst of a cascading pile of rocks.  The tablet provided some historical information regarding the mountain, the wall, and the stone monument just ahead.  The information had faded after years of weathering, and I imagine the state park service will need to revamp it soon before it fades to the point of illegibility.

Past the tablet, the trail curves up towards the stone tower.  Steps composed of rocks lead the way, making for a hike that’s easier on the ankles but harder on the knees.  It is actually at the top of this trail that visitors will find the mountain’s summit, and atop it, the stone tower (many descriptions of the mountain claim that the rock wall is found at the mountain’s highest point).  By the time I reached the tower, the small drops I felt earlier had given way to a lightly falling mist, increasing my concerns of eventually getting soaked in the cool fall weather.  Thankfully, the lower section of the tower is open to visitors, so I decided to seek shelter inside, hoping to wait out any possible rain.

After the mist cleared, I headed west and down a series of stairs towards the next overlook.  This one provides an excellent view of Chatsworth, GA, though thick clouds obscured the mountains across the valley.  The mountain to the north revealed just how low the clouds were hanging, as its peak was just reaching into them from a summit not much higher than the one on which I stood.  To the south, the curves of the nearby mountainside provided a clear view of its stunning fall foliage, while the mountain just beyond remained partially hazy.  It made for a somewhat surreal view.

 

As I headed back towards the summit, the mist began falling again, a bit thicker this time.  Even though there were more trails to explore, I didn’t want to take any more chances and decided to end my hike early.  I wasn’t too disappointed though, as I had already hiked some amazing trails and still had one last view from the eastern overlook.  This time, the wind was blowing a cloud just over another mountain’s summit, causing it to part ways almost like smoke, but with almost a magical touch to it.  I had never seen such a sight before, but it was one that will certainly end any future hesitations of hiking on a cloudy day.