Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Where the Trees Are Tops: State forests (somehow) keep a low profile

Many Pennsylvanians don’t realize that state forests exist.

“It’s something that’s maddening,” said Tim Ladner, district forester for the six-county Weiser Forest District, which includes Dauphin County. “We have an identity crisis—people don’t always think about going to the state forest for recreation.”

It’s kind of ironic, considering that the very name of our state, “Pennsylvania,” is derived from German, meaning “Penn’s woods.”

It’s also ironic, given that outdoor recreation has never been hotter. Visits to Pennsylvania’s state parks increased more than 26% between 2019 and 2020, primarily because nature provided a pandemic escape and refuge. Exact state forest figures are harder to determine. Officials like Ladner agree that forest visitation increased by the thousands, but didn’t reach dramatic peaks like the parks.

 

Natural Resources

While many Pennsylvanians are familiar with state parks such as Gifford Pinchot, Codorus or Little Buffalo, our state forests of soaring treetops somehow keep a lower profile. Both operate under the umbrella of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), but their missions are distinctly different.

“It’s real simple—state forests manage the natural resources sustainably and we do dispersed, low-density recreation,” Ladner said. “State forests offer more of a solitude experience. You’re not going to see or hear as many people, you bring your own water, find your own firewood. You’re more on your own, but you’re hopefully going to see more nature.”

While state parks can attract crowds to their lakes, pools and campgrounds—where there are hot showers, access to electricity, and concessionaires offering everything from boat rentals to ice cream cones—you’ll find none of the above at state forests. What you will find are trails, simple wooden signs, a handful of campsites over thousands of acres, and trees as far as the eyes can see. Admission to both state parks and forests is free, but visitors pay for the privileges the parks offer, such as campsites. Everything the state forests offer is free—even camping, although a free permit is required.

State forests are kind of a paradox: no-frills, natural beauty. Peace and quiet, amid nature. It’s that simple.

“I think most people who visit state forests are just looking to get away,” said Ladner.

 

Off the Grid

Camping in a state forest is often called wild camping or dry camping because there are no services such as running water. There’s a “carry in, carry out” policy because another thing you won’t find in state forests are trashcans. Tent camping is widely available, and some state forests also offer larger campsites—really, clearings in the woods—for vans or RVs. When RVers park—or dock—without hooking up to water, sewer or electric, it’s called boondocking. Many RVs and vans are designed to go off the grid and create their own power through solar panels.

And that’s exactly what I did a few weeks ago. My husband, college-aged daughter and I—along with our dog—boondocked our small RV in northern Dauphin County, in the Haldeman Tract of the Weiser State Forest. It’s 5,300 wooded acres on Broad Mountain near Halifax. Driving there, we saw more deer and wild turkeys than humans.

In a tiny clearing, perched partway down the mountain, we occupied one of only five campsites across the entire acreage. A mixed forest of pines and oaks, mosses and ferns—all various shades of green—surrounded us.

Access was off a former logging road of packed gravel that twisted and turned down the mountain. The night we arrived, a sudden thunderstorm turned its gullies into rushing waterways. As the storm subsided, we were left with the sound of water, trickling and echoing down the hill, as night fell.

Not only were we off the electric grid, but we had no internet or cell service. That was fine with me—state forests are great places to disconnect from devices and connect with nature.

We hiked and ran on trails where the only sounds were our footfalls on the path below, songbirds and rustling leaves in the wind above. I couldn’t remember the last time I had really listened to the sound of rushing wind through the treetops.

It was the long 4th of July weekend, and while we didn’t see the holiday’s traditional fireworks, we likely saw one of the darkest skies in Dauphin County, scattered with bright, twinkling stars. The Haldeman Tract includes a prime “dark sky viewing area” and hang-gliding site with a beautiful vista—all at an elevation of 1,700 feet. Tiny, sparkling and rock-strewn streams crisscrossed the entire mountain.

 

Finding Balance

Speaking of water, Weiser State Forest includes hundreds of islands in the Susquehanna River.

“There are over 500 islands we’re responsible for, between Harrisburg up to Berwick,” said Ladner. “We have 20 designated campsites on the islands that get a fair amount of use, from kayakers to church groups, on a first-come, first-served basis—no reservations needed.”

Across the state, there are 2.2 million acres of state forestlands divided into 20 districts; Weiser is one of those districts.

“Wildlife, recreation, solitude, wood products, water—forests do a lot for us. One of the reasons we manage forests is because of human demands,” said Ladner, who puts the importance of tall trees into perspective—without forests, we wouldn’t have clean air or water. It’s all a balancing act of land management, with development of our towns and cities offset by forests.

Just as a journey deep into the woods can help us strike balance in our own lives.

It was pioneering naturalist John Muir, credited with convincing the government to create and preserve national parks, who perhaps said it best: “Into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

For more information on Pennsylvania’s state forests, see www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateForests.

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