Category Archives: Hiking

Evidence of Bears

Bear scat, Sugar Run Trail, Ohiopyle State Park, 19 May 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bear scat, Sugar Run Trail, Ohiopyle State Park, 19 May 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last month I hiked the well traveled Sugar Run Trail at Ohiopyle State Park.  At the top of the trail I saw footprints of people and dogs … and I encountered this.  I put my boot next to it for scale.

I didn’t see paw prints near it but the size of this scat pile indicates it was deposited by a large mammal. There’s not a lot of fur in it and it’s blue (why?) so this animal eats more than just meat.

The scat had been deposited so recently that I could smell it as I took the photograph.  I found another, older pile further down the trail.  This large omnivorous mammal left his mark over and over again.  A black bear.

The bear lives there. I was just visiting.  Though he wasn’t in sight he was probably in earshot so I made human noise (speaking, whistling) so he’d know I was traveling through.

I’m sure he didn’t want to be surprised any more than I did!


(photo by Kate St. John)

The Importance of Tall Boots

Mary and Sarah walk the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Mary Birdsong and Sarah Sargent hike the Gull Point Trail, 15 April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Last Friday I hiked the Gull Point Trail at Presque Isle State Park with Mary Birdsong, Sarah Sargent and Julie Dell.  Last winter’s storms blew down trees, eroded the northern shoreline, and inundated the trail but Friday was Mary’s second shorebird monitoring trip so she’d already found the best way to get to the Point.

Before we left for the park, Mary said I’d need knee-high waterproof boots.  I don’t own any, so she loaned me her extra boots shown on the left.  They are really tall, nearly up to my knees with a 13.5″ shaft.  Mary has true knee-high muck boots with (probably) a 16″ shaft, like those pictured on the right.


Boots: LaCrosse 13.5
Boots: LaCrosse 13.5″ shaft compared to Original Muck 16″ shaft (photos by Kate St. John & from Original Muck Boots Company)


It took us a long time to get to Gull Point on the driest route.  As Julie walked ahead of me I felt great about my borrowed boots.  They were perfect!

Julie hikes ahead of me on the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Julie hikes ahead of me on the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)


And then we got to this spot.

Mary and Sarah walk the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Mary and Sarah walk the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

As you can see, the water really is knee high.

Mary and Sarah walk the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)
Mary and Sarah hike the Gull Point Trail (photo by Kate St. John)

I picked my way with my hiking stick and then … uh oh!  The water overtopped my boots and rushed into both of them.

On dry land I pulled off the boots and dumped them out, wrung out my socks and put everything back on. Sarah’s calf-high boots were inundated too but she changed into her hiking boots (see them over her shoulder).  Mary and Julie were fine with their 16″ knee boots.

The water was just 1″ higher than 13.5″ boots could bear.  I’m not sure why Lake Erie is so high right now but if it gets deeper the 16″ boots will be too short as well.

If you’re venturing to Gull Point, be prepared.

Squish, squish.

I’m glad I wore wool socks.


(photos by Kate St. John; Camouflage Muck boots photo from the Original Muck Boot Company)

p.s. Check out Mary Birdsong’s blog: Feather, Spade and Spoon

Fossil at Ferncliff

Rock, path, with fossil at Ferncliff (photo by Kate St. John)
Rock with hashmark pattern across it (left to right) at Ferncliff, Ohiopyle (photo by Kate St. John)

15 July 2015

Years ago when I first hiked the Ferncliff Trail at Ohiopyle I was puzzled by this pattern on the rock beneath my feet.

In those days there weren’t interpretive signs nearby so I tried to make sense of it as best I could.  I decided it was a motorcycle track, but I couldn’t figure out how the vehicle had gotten there and why it had run from the cliff into the river.

Duh!  Motorcycles don’t leave tracks in rock.  It’s a fossil.

Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)
Fossil at Ferncliff Peninsula (photo by Kate St. John)

This Lepidodendron is one of six kinds of fossils found along the river’s edge now listed on an interpretive sign as: Cordaites leaves, Lepidodendron scale, giant Calamites, Psaronius, a giant dragonfly and Sigillaria.

Though I’ve seen the other ones this is the fossil I like the best.

Lepidodendron was a tree-like plant with scales on its trunk that grew as high as 100 feet tall.

Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikipedia)
Drawing of Lepidodendron by Eli Heimans, 1911 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

It lived and died in the Carboniferous (coal making) era.  If the tree had fallen in a swamp it would have become peat and then coal, but it happened to fall on sand so the patterns of its scaly trunk were preserved in rock.

Not far away is one of Lepidodendron’s last living relatives: Lycopodium or groundpine. Only 6-12 inches tall, its tiny trunks and branches provide a visual hint of its ancestor’s appearance.

Lycopodium (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Tree Groundpine, Lycopodium dendroideum (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The past and present are near each other at Ferncliff Peninsula.

(fossil photos by Kate St. John. Drawing of Lepidodendron and photo of Lycopodium from Wikimedia Commons; click the images see the originals)

Natural Ice Sculptures

Icicles along the Butler-Freeport Trail near Monroe Road (photo by Kate St. John)

A week ago I found beautiful ice formations along the Butler-Freeport Trail at Monroe Road.

Water’s constant drip made a curling fountain.

And some of the icicles accumulated frosty teeth.

Frosty teeth on the icicles (photo by Kate St. John)


The weather was warming that day and part of this massive ice cliff …

Cliff lined with massive icicles (photo by Kate St. John)

… had crashed to the ground across the trail.

Icicles crashed to the ground (photo by Kate St. John)

Here’s one of the smaller chunks near my boot.  I’m glad I wasn’t there when it fell.  Watch out below!

Chunk of fallen icicle for size comparison (photo by Kate St. John)


This weekend the weather has been unseasonably warm.

I wonder what the icicles look like now.


(photos by Kate St. John — taken with my cellphone because I forgot to bring my camera)


First Day Findings

Wingstem seeds, North Park, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

What can you find outdoors on January 1 in Pittsburgh?  Nine intrepid naturalists from the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania and Wissahickon Nature Club hiked at North Park to find out.

Though yesterday was quite sunny the temperature hovered just below freezing and the wind was strong.  We bundled up to look at seeds, trees, dry weeds, and birds.

Above, a wingstem seed pod looks just like a dried version of the flower’s central disk.  Below, in the thicket we found juncoes, titmice and chickadees … and then changed our focus to identify the trees.
Participants on the New Year's Day hike at Irwin Rd (photo by Kate St. John)

Dianne Machesney found this still-red scarlet oak leaf.  I held it to take its picture.
Scarlet oak leaf, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

The ground wasn’t frozen but the creek had glimmering white ice.

Ice on Irwin Run, 1 Jan 2015 (photo by Dianne Machesney)
(photo by Dianne Machesney)

After the hike, some of the party drove up Pearce Mill Road to check on the beaver dams on the North Fork of Pine Creek.

The beavers were snug in their beds while we braved the cold.

Beaver dam on the North Fork of Pine Creek (photo by Dianne Machesney)
(photo by Dianne Machesney)


(photo credits: wingstem, hikers and oak leaf photos by Kate St. John.
Creek ice and beaver dam photos by Dianne Machesney

Soon, Very Soon

Last Sunday I hiked the Vondergreen Trail at Beaver Creek State Park near East Liverpool, Ohio. 

The trail follows Little Beaver Creek as it cuts through the surrounding hills.  Along the way there are remnants of the channel and locks of the Sandy and Beaver Canal that ran for 73 miles through 90 locks and two tunnels from Bolivar, Ohio to the Ohio River at Glasgow, Pennsylvania.

Completed in 1848, 20 years after it was chartered, the canal operated for only four years.  It closed in 1852 after the Cold Run Reservoir Dam broke and ruined much of the canal.  By then competition from the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad made it uneconomical to rebuild.  The canal boom ended abruptly.

At Grey’s Lock I stopped to read the historic marker but I didn’t absorb what it said because my attention was snagged by the sound of crows.  Just out of sight, they were flying my way.  150 passed overhead and congregated somewhere on the north side of the creek, still within earshot. 

That flock is just the start of something big.

Right now the crows are gathering in the countryside.  150 here, 200 there.  Some have made it to town, but no great numbers yet.

Soon, very soon, the crows will come to Pittsburgh.  By winter we could have 10,000!

(photo from

Thinking Cool Thoughts

The weather has moderated a little, but it’s still hot and humid. 

I’d like to go hiking but southwestern Pennsylvania has a 50% chance of thunderstorms today and I won’t hike in lightning if I can avoid it. 

Now it looks unavoidable.  The sky has become ominously dark as I write. 

If the weather was merely hot I’d visit Cucumber Falls, pictured above.  The falls are part of Cucumber Run in Ohiopyle State Park and they’re easy to get to.  There’s a parking lot near the falls for a quick visit, or you can get a better look at Cucumber Run by hiking the Great Gorge Trail.  Hike upstream to feel the cool air in the creek valley or walk downstream to the Youghiogheny River where you can watch the rapids.  Here’s a map of the park.   (The map takes a while to download.  If it looks black, change the zoom and the map will appear.)

Unfortunately Ohiopyle is a 90 minute drive from Pittsburgh and I can’t see driving that far to wait in the car for a storm to pass.

I guess I’ll have to stay close to home and merely think cool thoughts.

(photo of Cucumber Falls by Caleb Foster from

Cool Water

Here’s a place that’s changed for the better in the last 200 years.

Hells Hollow Falls are part of the gorge cut by Hell Run, a tributary of Slippery Rock Creek in Lawrence County. 

At its headwaters Hell Run flows through farmland, then into the woods where the gorge and waterfall have been protected as part of McConnell’s Mill State Park.

It wasn’t always this beautiful.

In the mid-1800’s the valley was logged and mined for its iron-ore-rich limestone and the coal to fire its industry.  The Lawrence Iron Furnace, two coal mines, a quarry, and a lime kiln were all within a short walk of the waterfall.  It must have been a smoky, dirty place in those days.

In the 1870’s the local iron business collapsed and within 50 years the coal mines closed too.  The trees grew back, the buildings disappeared, and the brick-walled lime kiln became a curiosity in the woods. 

The only noticeable scar is coal mining’s affect on the water.  The abandoned mines release toxic, orange, acid mine drainage (AMD) into Hell Run’s feeder streams above the falls.  Fortunately, even in the dry month of July there’s enough fresh water to dilute it. 

When I visited Hells Hollow Falls last Sunday I marveled at the miniature slot canyon upstream.  Geologists say this channel was formed when the creek ran inside a limestone cave just below ground level.  Eventually the top of the cave fell in and revealed the flume, pictured below.  If I was the size of an ant, this would be the Grand Canyon.

If you’d like to see these wonders for yourself, click these links for information on Hells Hollow and McConnell’s Mill State Park.

The waterfall looks cool … especially in this heat.

(photos by Kate St. John, taken on 17 July 2011)

An April Hike

Last year, WQED’s Web Department made three videos for me to post on my blog:  An April Hike at Raccoon Creek State Park, the Pitt Peregrine Fledge Watch, and a third (not yet edited) film of Marcy Cunkelman’s garden in August.

Though it was filmed last year on April 23, the Web Department had to wait until their summer intern, Christa Majoras, was available to edit it.  Christa did a fine job and completed the video in July, but by then these scenes of April were out of season so I saved the video for this week.

My plan was to show you a preview of flowers-to-come but life is full of twists and turns.  Who could imagine we’d have a spring so warm that the plants would be two to three weeks ahead of schedule?  This video is again out of season — late by two weeks.

Use your imagination as you watch.  Go back in time to March 31 and remember what the landscape looked like.  Or watch this video for signs of just how far ahead this spring is compared to April 2009.

Sit back and enjoy An April Hike.

(video filmed by Joan Guerin, edited by Christa Majoras)


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