State backs plan for Wintergreen Gorge trail improvements

When horses trampled the first known winding path along the banks of Four Mile Creek in the early 1900s, no one could have predicted that the trail someday would see major foot traffic from thousands of college students and community members.

But when Mary Behrend donated her 400-acre Glenhill property, including the Wintergreen Gorge tract, creating what is now Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, students quickly discovered the horse trail – and the gurgling waters, swimming holes and waterfalls alongside it.

The gorge, a 3,980-foot-long, 250-foot-wide chasm, likely formed more than 11,000 years ago, when rushing water beneath a melting iceberg carved through shale and sandstone on its way to Lake Erie.

Today, the gorge is a popular destination for hikers, birders, naturalists, fossil-hunters and waders who want to cool off in the creek. But the trail, which was never meant for heavy public use, is eroding in spots. Trees are being stressed by the loss of soil at their roots. Storm water has created gullies. Clumps of earth are falling into the creek.

Drainage pipes, gravel and topsoil are temporary fixes.

“The college has been more than progressive in its efforts to maintain the trail,” said Ann Quinn, lecturer in biology. “But, as it currently exists, the trail is unsustainable.”

What the gorge trail needs is an ecologically-minded overhaul and realignment. Quinn and Mike Naber, lecturer in geosciences, have secured the first step: a $48,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Pashek Associates, a Pittsburgh-based landscape architecture firm, is designing a better and more sustainable gorge trail by using switchbacks, rain gardens and other techniques to stabilize the trail system.

“We don’t want to restrict use or access,” Naber said. “We want to preserve the trail and the gorge so that more people can use it for a longer time. Once we have a plan and make the suggested changes, the trail will preserve itself.”

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Last Updated September 03, 2013