Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

West Rim sidewall and Owassee Slide Run (2/20/2020)

This morning I set out to scale the side-wall of the west rim of the Pine Creek Gorge near Barbour Rock from the bottom up, to traverse the Owassee Slide Run ravine from the top down, and to experience five different habitat types during the course of a six-mile saunter. When I say EXPERIENCE five different habitat types let me just say that I'm not content to traverse the fringe of it. No, I want to be totally immersed in and get the full winter experience of the best the canyon has to offer. I didn't want to miss out on the amazing treasures that were sure to be found in some of the hard-to-reach places I intend to pass through today.

Today's route

Today's route, zoomed in

10:00am- It began easy enough, at the northern terminus of West Rim Trail. As I prepared to take to the trail, snowmobilers were gathering in the lot getting ready to ride the roads along the canyon's west rim. As there has been for the past week, a crusty snow covers the ground all around.

Young hemlocks along the trail
Between the trailhead and the intersection of Owassee Road I experienced the first habitat type of the day; mixed hemlock-oak forest. One of the very cool aspects of this first stretch of trail is that these species of trees which dominate the forest are present in a number of age groups. Mostly its the medium to large trees, but there are several patches of small thickly clustered stands of hemlock directly adjacent to the path. It's good to see what is called forest succession happening here along West Rim Trail; an indication of a relatively healthy community of trees.

Where West Rim Trail intersects with Owassee Road, I turned left on the road headed down towards Pine Creek. At the bottom of Owassee Road I experienced the second habitat type of the day, as hemlock-oak forest gives way to tall pale barked sycamore trees that line the banks of Pine Creek. One of the rather unfortunate variables about this creekside habitat is that much of the banks as well as the islands are packed with dense stands of knotweed.

Sycamores at Pine Creek

Geese on a gravel bar in Pine Creek
Partway along Owassee Road a pair of Canada geese had taken up residence on one of the gravel bars. Perturbed by my presence one of the geese let out one honk right after the other until I was far enough past to be out of sight. I'm sure the goose just wanted me gone, but the calls of that goose echoing off of the canyon walls was music to my ears. The river is poetry in motion; water flows, forming and reforming islands, gravel bars and the channel itself; gently yet powerfully winding its way through the gorge. All is fluid, ever changing. As it is with the river, so it is with the succession of trees in the forest, and so it is with life.

I continued along Owassee Road until I reached the point in the road that I guessed was close to being directly downhill from Barbour Rock. It's a long way from the bottom to the top, and difficult to figure out which canyon-wall-cut to settle into since the view of the top is blocked by the masts of many trees. A herd of eight deer were foraging along the powerline cut, which would make my third habitat type of the day. The relatively high rate of disturbance that is imposed upon the vegetation growing beneath the powerlines sets the stage for honeysuckle and staghorn sumac, both of which are present there in abundance.

Birch roots!
Now heading straight up the sidewall of the canyon beyond the powerline cut, I'm back in hemlock-oak forest for a little while. I happened upon a birch tree that captured my attention partway up the hill. Being that it lives on such a steep slope, it seems the soil around its roots has been carried downhill. One of the adaptations that a tree like this one must have is the ability to continually add to the vertical reach of its root structure in order to maintain the same depth and make a living on this steep easily eroded hillside.

Roughly two-thirds of the way up the canyon wall, things got challenging as I entered the fourth habitat type of the day; the land of dwarf juniper and red cedar. The thing about dwarf-juniper and red-cedar is that they do well in loose nutrient-poor soil. As you can imagine, loose nutrient-poor soil is not good for footing. But today I was helped by the fact that temperatures were in the low twenties and that meant the ground was also frozen; not frozen solid, but frozen crunchy, which makes some otherwise impossible hillside maneuvers doable; especially when one embraces the mode of transportation that is scrambling on all fours!

I knew I had entered the land of dwarf-juniper and red-cedar when the vertical face of a mansion sized rock stood in the way of my current trajectory. Looking up from the base of this mammoth hunk of sandstone I could see both cedar and juniper protruding from its top like spiky tufts of hair.

Mammoth rock!
It seems that every time I manage to successfully scale the sidewall of the canyon I'm always helped by the forest animals. In this case, some small-to-medium-sized mammal had left tracks on the ground which led me around the base of the mammoth rock and then zig-zagged between a couple of sheer rock faces, some of which, having icicle fangs on their faces seemed to say BEWARE! NOT THIS WAY!
Icicle fangs of the canyon wall!
There were a couple of places where I paused among scattered sandstone rocks on the steep eastward facing slope to enjoy the company of red-cedar and dwarf-juniper. Oh what a view these woody plants have, if only they had eyes to see it! Then, following the tracks of the small mammal (whose identity I'm not quite certain of) I topped out at a different location than I did the last time I took a route similar to this one on July 4th 2019.

The land of dwarf-juniper and red-cedar.
The rim of the canyon at Barbour Rock is a transitional habitat zone, being that it is the upper fringe of the land of juniper and cedar and the edge of more mixed hemlock-oak forest. It's also worth noting that, while I did not take the easy route today, Barbour Rock is one of the best most easily accessible vistas, a short half-mile walk along a level gravel path that starts at the parking lot along Colton Road, exactly three miles from Route 6.

I proceeded north on West Rim trail, through more hemlock-oak forest until I reached the point where West Rim Trail meets Owassee Slide Run. I veered off of West Rim Trail, entering the fifth habitat type of the day; hemlock and striped maple dominated ravine. Following the watercourse that cascades along the ravine's contours was easier said than done. While the ice formations in an around Owassee Slide Run were not as varied as that of Strap Mill Hollow three days ago, there was one ice formation in particular that caught my eye. It caused me to think of the chrysalis of a butterfly; a long thin strand of ice secured tightly to the bottom of a flat rock that extended out over and perhaps four feet above the waters of Owassee Slide Run. This long thin strand of ice had developed a thick bulbous bottom that dangled just inches above swiftly moving waters.

Chrysalis icicle
A little farther downhill I could hear the mighty roar of a waterfall in the direction I was headed. I tried traversing the south side of the ravine. Too steep. Crossing to the ravine's north side, the trunks and exposed roots of hemlocks, oaks, and striped maples aided in my descent to one of the most incredible icy falls I've yet to see in the Pine Creek Gorge! Massive icicles hung to the right and to the left of flowing water and the spray at the base of this forty or so foot waterfall created a thick frosty coating of ice out to about thirty feet from its rocky face!

This particular waterfall was a little less than half-a-mile from Owassee Road at the bottom. It would definitely be easier to access this waterfall from the direction of Owassee Road, but even then, easier in this case does not mean easy. Once I followed Owassee Slide Run to Owassee Road it was just a matter of walking back the road and then the northern-most section of West Rim Trail back to the trailhead where I started. My walking, hiking, scrabling, climbing saunter was finished at 2:30pm, four hours after it began.

The falls of Owassee Slide Run.

All in all, an excellent adventure today.

Scale the side-wall of the west rim of the Pine Creek Gorge near Barbour Rock from the bottom up- CHECK!

Traverse the Owassee Slide Run ravine from the top down- CHECK!

Experience five different habitat types during the course of a six-mile saunter- CHECK!

The Pine Creek Gorge seems to me to be one of the most unique places in the Pennsylvania landscape, and I find the northern part of the Pine Creek Gorge between Ansonia, Leonard Harrison State Park, and Colton Point State Park to be one of the most ecologically, geologically, and environmentally interesting of all the places in the Pine Creek Gorge.

Pine Creek Gorge looking south towards Leonard Harrison and Colton Point State Parks from Barbour Rock Vista.


  1. Excellent narrative, enjoyed it very much.

    1. Mjyowlhollow, thank you for your encouragement! I'm glad you enjoyed reading the article!