Sauntering on the West Rim Trail

LINDA STAGER/Sun-Gazette Correspondent An iconic red pine grows on the West Rim Trail.

WELLSBORO — As dawn comes, I peek out the window and confirm that, indeed, it rained overnight.

It doesn’t look promising for heading to the woods. But a quick check of my weather app shows that by 8 a.m., it could be magical out there: blue skies and sunshine are forecast. So I hurriedly pack up my equipment and hit the trail.

By the time I arrive at sunrise, the day is quiet, and the dark woods beckon. A variety of warblers and other birds sing their dawn songs with relish.

The trail is quiet underneath my feet as the wet leaves cushion my footsteps. Everything still has a wetness to it as my pants brush against the ferns that line the single-track path. Fog swirls as I walk closer to the rim of the canyon.

Natural landmark

The Pine Creek Gorge is fondly called the Grand Canyon of the East, the “canyon” for short. It runs for 47 miles in a north-south direction through wilderness landscape. Eighteen miles of the gorge along Pine Creek are designated a National Natural Landmark.

The canyon was cut during the glacial Ice Age. Its gorgeous red, exposed rock formations near the canyon rim are evident above the heavily forested gorge walls. Wonderfully pristine and scenic Pine Creek runs through the bottom of the approximately 800-feet-tall chasm.

Two of my favorite places exist here.

At the base of the canyon, along Pine Creek, runs the Pine Creek Rail Trail. It is 62 miles long and starts just north of Wellsboro and ends in Jersey Shore. It follows the ancient footpath of the Iroquois tribes and, later, the old Jersey Shore, Pine Creek and Buffalo Railroad bed.

It often is described as one of the best rail trails in the country.

On the west rim of the canyon snakes the West Rim Trail, a 30-mile hiking path that also is declared one of the best hiking trails in the country.

The northern trail head is along Colton Road, just a mile south of Ansonia, and the southern trail head is at Rattlesnake Rock, 2 miles south of Blackwell.

Holy land

My goals today are to hike to “Stager Point,” a self-declared spot on a pinnacle just off the trail. Watching the sunrise there is good for the soul, so I relish doing it.

I also plan to check out the status of the mountain laurel blooms. Our state flower, the mountain laurel is abundant near the West Rim Trail so I know I will have ample chance to see it up close.

And I plan to saunter. What an odd word to describe hiking in the woods — yet, it aptly describes what I intend to do.

John Muir, a great environmentalist and author who is referred to as the “father of the national parks,” has been credited as saying: “Hiking — I don’t like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike.

“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre’ — To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now, these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

So I intend to saunter, to make my pilgrimage to “Stager Point” and all points in between. As Muir would have said, I am going “home,” his metaphor for nature. Today is my day to channel Muir.

Laurel daydreams

Camera and tripod in hand, I hop out of the car, adjust my packs and step onto the trail next to the square-emblazoned badged tree. Those orange trail markers will guide my way along the well-maintained trail.

Today’s hike traverses part of Colton Point State Park and Tioga State Forest. I am in the good hands of the state Department of Natural Resources and Department of Forestry employees. This trail is in great shape.

It winds uphill through an understory of bright green ferns that contrast against the reddish color of the pine needles and ground debris that carpets the trail. They sway in the slight breeze as I walk by. They are so bright green that my photos of them always look unnaturally colorful.

Soon I start seeing what I came for — mountain laurel — big bushes of it. The dark green shiny leaves still glisten with water from the rain storm. And against those dark evergreen leaves are the delicate flowers I came to see. Clusters of tiny white, fused-petal, bell-shaped flowers speckled with maroon dots fill the bushes with brightness and light.

Author Jeanne Rostaing once described the mountain laurel flower as resembling “tiny origami rice bowls.” That comes to mind as I stop to take a photo.

Mountain laurel grows in thickets in mountainous areas, and both sides of the trail here are sometimes lined with 20-foot tall bushes. I pass through the canopy of laurel and daydream the dreams of a wanderer.

Pack it out

The closer I get to the rim of the canyon, the foggier it gets. I know the sun will soon burn off any remaining fog, but I hope to see wisps delicately blowing down the gorge when I arrive at the rim. I am not disappointed as I settle in at Stager Point and watch the last vestiges swirl in a southerly direction and then poof: they are gone.

The usual black and white warbler that lives at Stager Point greets me with his song and perches on a branch near me as I sit down to watch the sun blaze its way down the sides of the canyon.

Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, darkness comes to the base of the canyon long before anywhere else. But as the day arrives, so does the sun’s rays as they reach deeper and deeper into the gorge. By the time I get up to move on, the private suspension bridge across Pine Creek and next to the rail trail is emblazoned in light.

Back on the trail and around the corner, I stop at one of the campsites along the trail. The natural stone fire ring is nicely kept and previous visitors have left kindling wood and logs at the campsite as if visitors are expected anytime.

The trail is a “pack it in, pack it out” trail, which means that all garbage leaves with you when you leave. I am struck with how clean everything is here. There is no litter anywhere to be seen. And I am pleased.

Around the bend, I soon come to the iconic red pine tree along the trail. It’s precipitously perched on a red rock precipice as if it might blow over any day now.

Early photos from the late 1800s show the tree as a sapling. These days it hangs on, on sentry as if it is waiting for photos to be taken of it.

My daydreams wander to who might have stood here before me, in 1980, in 1960, in 1930, in 1880, in the 1700s? And I step a little closer and peer over the edge. Only the bravest visitors step to the very edge.

I take the tactic that it is better to be safe here, in a land of no cellphone coverage and infrequent visitors. I remember the tale of a hiker who was lost in this area perhaps almost 50 years ago now. His body was never recovered. So, I stay back from the edge.

Mind your footing

As great as the views from the West Rim trail are, they come with a warning. The trail runs precipitously close to the edge of the rim of the canyon. Sometimes, it seems that it is only 18 inches from the edge of the cliffs. It is fraught with “toe trippers” — tree roots that rise out of the ground and lie across the trail.

As I watch where I put my feet, my gaze alights on the slightest movement. I stop to check it out and find a snail crossing the trail. I take a video with my cellphone. It is slow!

As I move on, worldly cares remind me that I have a schedule to keep. By now the heat of the day is starting to arrive. I stop near Stager Point again to feel the cool, thermal breezes come off the canyon rim.

And then I think how wise John Muir was. His interest in conservation and environmental stewardship set a tone that continues to be followed. We all enjoy his gifted foresight and the national policies that have followed. My thoughts wander from him to thinking about how much our own state government agencies continue that wisdom.

And, then, I saunter on.

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