Continuing Adventures in a Snowless Winter

The girl running the front desk at the hotel the next morning after Groundhog Day pointed us to Cook Forest State Park. She said there was some great hiking there and specifically pointed us to a *fire tower* from which we could get an excellent view of the surrounding area. She also suggested Bilger’s Rocks, to the south of us, as another really cool place to visit. We decided to go to Cook Forest, and then maybe hit Bilger’s Rocks on our way out of town the next day.

Upon arriving at the park, we checked in at the park office to get suggestions about where to go into the park and, specifically, how to get to the said *fire tower*. Personally, I’d never have even thought to stop at the park office to get information. Don’t ask me why. It probably has something to do with my often general shyness with strangers. And probably somewhat more to do with my rather masculine aversion to asking for directions. Thankfully, Crow doesn’t have such inhibitions. The ranger working the desk was really nice and she showed us lots of neat places to go, suggesting also we check out the Beartown Rocks at Clear Creek State Forest as well. She also explained that Cook Forest contained many old growth trees and pointed us to the Longfellow trail that would take us into the heart of the ancient forest.

Old growth in Cook Forest from the ground up to the sky.

I was a little sad to learn that there were some good cross-country skiing trails and even an ice skating rink at the park when weather permitted. Weather wasn’t permitting at the moment. It was a sunny day, maybe 40 degrees or so. A great day for a hike, though.

Mars Girl & Crow start out on the Longfellow Trail.

Crow peeks around an old growth tree.

I’ve been to a forest of sequoia trees in California (Calaveras Big Trees State where my cousin Angy was married) so I’ve seen big, old trees before. These trees–hemlock, white pine, various types of maple, oak, beech–were not quite as grand as a sequoia obviously. But yet, they were impressive in their girth and still a wonder. Every time I look at old growth trees, I like to imagine what they could tell us about our world if they could talk. All the history they’ve lived through. What would they say about the Native Americans that surely walked through in the trees’ younger years? Could they comment on the explorers that followed? Climate change? Pollution? An organism of the earth, like me, with a story to tell. Amazing. Even more amazing that they managed to escape being cut down by humans looking for lumber. Thankfully, the old growth of the forest is protected land.

Yes, it's true. I'm a tree hugger! One should always respect their elders.

Not so old growth in Cook Forest.

The lower part of the trail took us a long a creek. We stopped to eat a power bar and enjoy the surroundings. It was just one of those days where it felt so good to be breathing the crisp, fresh air and stretching your legs amongst the soothing presence of nature. The slight chill in the air made each breath in cleansing.

Where we took our snack along the creek.

After the hike through the old growth, we got back in the car and drove up to the entrance of a dirt park road that is closed in the winter to vehicles, normally used for cross-country skiing. Crow was afraid it would be a boring walk since it was technically a park road in the summer, but the ranger had assured us that it was scenic and nice. This was the way to the *fire tower* as well as a scenic overlook–Seneca Point–indicated on the map by camera.

The road was rather rugged (something my new Subaru would eat up!). We started in a zone of mostly coniferous trees and ended up in a zone of deciduous trees. The abrupt change was especially noticeable because the lack of leaves on the deciduous trees made everything suddenly a lot brighter and warmer. I always find it remarkable that you can cross a line in a forest and suddenly be in a completely different world.

At a parking lot at the end of the road, a sign pointed to a small path that led to the *fire tower*. I really wanted to be brave on this one. So I started climbing up without thinking too much about it. I mean, it’s not closed off to the public, so it’s perfectly safe, right?

Harmless little fire tower.

It's just a harmless little fire tower... It's not that high... *gulp*

I don’t know if it’s just the way these towers are constructed with their metal stairs and skinny little fence railings. You could see through the step rails below your feet. And, of course, they shake so much as you climb; they sway in the slightest of wind. They just give the impression of complete instability. The little enclosure at the very top is not open to the public, but you could ascend all the way to the level immediately below it. Which Crow did. I felt so much vertigo from the climb and the swaying that once I got to the level below the last, I already started climbing back down. I could not even dart my eyes outward to enjoy the view. What a wimp.

Mars Girl holding on for dear life... and shortly about to turn around.

Crow stayed above me for a little bit, taking pictures, but he also admitted to feeling a bit uncomfortable up there. This certainly was nothing like the tower at Myakka, but completely like the one I remembered climbing at Mt. Davis (PA’s highpoint) so long ago. Oh well. The view was nice from the ground too.

Scenic view (that I missed) from *fire tower*.

Another view from the *fire tower*. (I don't see any fires.)

I was a bit disappointed in my cowardly behavior. But, oh well. I suppose you can’t be a daredevil about everything. I know that I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane in my younger years, but I was also, um, younger. And I had a parachute. I guess I prefer my feet firmly planted on the ground. I also don’t like rock climbing and have no desire to do so. Ever. A girl knows her limits.

The view from Seneca Point.

So we walked over to Seneca Point which offered a view without all the fear. It was a little disappointing that they chose to put a fence around the edges, though–that kind of takes away from the natural feeling of the environment. I’m smart enough to stay away from the edge of a big drop. It’s too bad many people aren’t. Still, at least I could appreciate this view.

It was late afternoon when we finally made it over the Beartown Rocks. But position of the sun illuminated the rocks in such a way as to highlight their beauty. It was perfect for taking photographs.

I started experimenting more with panoramic mode...

In terms of historical experience, rocks have “seen” the history of the world thousands of times over. They out-date human history and, if alive and sentient, could speak volumes about the ever-changing Earth. I guess if you’re a geologist, they do, in a way, speak to you if you know how to read the patterns left behind on their surfaces, know their composition. I am just as enchanted by the age of these ancient rocks as I am the oldest of trees. It was fun to walk among them and I would have loved to have known more about their history.

Almost as if moved into that position by giants, a little alcove at Beartown Rocks.

Cool picture of the moon captured by Crow at Beartown Rocks.

After a full day of laid back exploration, we returned again to our hotel at DuBois for one more night. When we had planned this trip, I booked a night’s stay in Ligonier, PA, near the Seven Springs and Hidden Valley ski resorts so that we could spend a day downhill skiing. We planned to do this Sunday and since we had all day to check in at the hotel in Ligonier, we decided to go to Bilger’s Rocks, and then Penn’s Cave.

A panoramic view at the top of Bilger's Rocks.

Bilger’s Rocks was a challenge to find, located on a discrete little country road off US-219 north of Grampian. The first time we tried to locate it, using the map, we missed the entrance to the country road. Though harder to find, these ledges exceeded our expectations; they completely blew away everything we’d seen at Beartown Rocks. There were so many crevices and caves, nooks and crannies–literally a playground for two curious adults. Though icy in spots (due to it being winter), we really enjoyed threading our way through the rocks.

A rocky passage along Bilger's Rocks. I love how the tree roots thread across the rocks.

Below are some of the best shots (most of which were taken by Crow on his fancy camera) of Bilger’s Rocks to give you an idea of the place. It was really immense and wonderful. Definitely going out of your way to visit.

Crow down below at Bilger's Rocks.

Mars Girl feels small amidst the ages-old rocks.

Where rocks divide...

Mars Girl poses with the Mighty Rocks.

Rocks, rocks, everywhere, rocks!

This “room” was boxed in with an entry on the one side. I saw it both from above and below:

A little room among the ledges from above.

The room from below.

Mars Girl on the other side of a skinny passage.

Rock on rock--as if some giant was using the rocks like we do Legos.

No, I'm not attempting to push the rock. This was actually a tight squeeze that I wormed myself through.

A little "ice fall" on the rocks.

While observing some patches of ice laying across the rocks, such as the one shown above, I noticed droplets of water moving beneath the surface of the ice. They looked like little space bugs scuttling beneath the surface, making me think of something from a science-fiction movie. I captured this on video because it was just so cool.

It took us awhile to feel compelled to leave Bilger’s Rocks. But we reluctantly left knowing that we wanted to get to Penn’s Cave before it closed at 5pm. So off we went. We arrived there about two hours later, around 3:00pm–just in time for the next tour! Being winter hours (Penn’s Cave is only open on the weekends during the winter), it was really quiet in the shop. When we got down to the cave for the tour, there was just one other couple waiting for the boat.

Yes, I said “boat.” Penn’s Cave is accessible only by water. It’s the coolest cavern I’ve ever been to (and Crow admitted I might be disappointed the next time I go to another cavern). The tour is via a motor boat. The water comes from a ground spring and appeared neon blue in color.

Entrance to Penn's Cave.

It was a completely different world within the cave. I admit that we didn’t get too many good pictures–the lighting conditions inside the cave were not conducive. It’s one of those experiences where you just have your memory to look back to, which in some ways is almost better.

The narrow passage to the first room in the cavern.

I was immediately floored when our boat moved into the first “room” inside the cavern. It was like a natural cathedral with its high ceilings and ancient stalactites and stalagmites reaching for each other like statutes sculpted by the hands of Mother Nature. Someone had set up lights strategically, which the tour guide turned on with a switch, so that you could admire fully the formations. It was breath-taking. I had several moments of marveling at the wonder that is our world.

Some structures inside Penn's Cave.

However, I have to wonder how much damage the lights are doing to this natural wonder–it doesn’t take much to disrupt the growth of the stalagmites and stalactites, and the rest of the geological formations within the cavern. So, part of me had trouble really reconciling my need to explore with the harm it was doing to the environment. Though, the tour guide explained, at one point in the cavern’s history, they used to let tourists take pieces of the cavern home with them. At least they aren’t doing that any more. We were also warned at the beginning of the tour not to touch anything because the salt from our skin could ruin the formations.

Stalagmites and stalactites in Penn's Cave made more dramatic by lights.

We were followed from room to room by a little screech-owl who fed on the bats that inhabited the cave. He watched us from a high perch in one of the last rooms. That was pretty sweet. I’m glad the natural wild life was not disturbed by our presence at all.

Our little owl friend.

The opposite end of the cave from which we came in was blown out purposely with dynamite at one point so we ended up in a man-made lake. We took a spin around it once and to get a look at the wildlife park that also shares the space at Penn’s Cave for tourists to explore in the summer. That seemed a little out-of-place to me, but, okay. It is the middle of Pennsylvania. You have to draw people there somehow. As if this beautiful cavern wasn’t enough!

Mars Girl as we headed into the lake at the other side of the cavern.

The tour was really cool–definitely breath-taking. I kept asking myself, “Why don’t I ever stumble upon a natural cavern on my own property?” As so many caverns just seem to be randomly discovered by accident by people going about their own business. I would love to have my own cavern. And not share it with anyone but my friends. And maybe a few geologists.

Crow and Mars Girl at the end of the path leading to Penn's Cave.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun. I liked being there with everything so low-key and quiet. It definitely inspired me to check out some of the caverns local to me in Ohio that I’ve not had the chance to see. Hmmm… do I smell a summer weekend ROAD TRIP!?

And the best ending to this story is that when we headed out of town, we found a really nice restaurant at the top of a hill called The Mount Nittany Inn. They had good beer on draft!! And a beautiful view of the surrounding area.

So all is not completely lost in Pennsylvania. In fact, later that evening in Ligonier–of all places–we discovered The Wicked Googly (thanks to the direction of some locals) which was in walking distance from our hotel. Unexpectedly, it was located in a bowling alley (most often known for its wide selection of yellow beer). Not only was there live music, but an above par selection of draft beer which included–among many other choices–our favorite, the beloved Southern Tier Choklat Stout. Oh my goodness! What a reward after days of disappointing beer encounters. So, ultimately, it was good we did all that walking and exploring.

We did manage to get to Hidden Valley to ski on our last day of vacation. I’d never been there before, always choosing the much more famous Seven Springs. I was actually taken aback because I figured Hidden Valley to be a let down after Seven Springs’ challenging hills. No, Hidden Valley holds its own, being only slightly less challenging, and is apparently a lot less busy than Seven Springs. It certainly seemed to have a lot of slopes. I will definitely have to purposely visit there again when we actually have a winter.

Conditions were typical of this less-than-pleasurable winter: good to start, but icy as the day wore on. Due to my lack of days on the slopes this year, I was a little timid so I didn’t really enjoy myself as much as I would have in a better season. But it is what it is.

Despite the disappointing winter, though, we still managed to make the most of our time together, exploring those little places so close to home that we often overlook in sight of the bigger places to which we want to travel.

But I’d still like to finally try cross-country skiing. Maybe next year…?

One thought on “Continuing Adventures in a Snowless Winter

  1. Heidi,
    Thank you for sharing your lovely trip. All the pictures were beautiful. I especially loved the one where you are hugging the tree. Me too!

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