Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Mason-Dixon Trail along the lower Susquehanna Gorge

Two-state view of the lower Susquehanna Gorge, Conowingo Reservoir, from 440 foot Bald Hill.

Looking for a memorable hiking experience that offers plenty of thigh-burning mountainous terrain but no mountains? Want a hike that provides consistent close encounters with, and spectacular views of, one of the nation's great rivers?  Then head for the Mason-Dixon Trail along the west bank of the Susquehanna.  It has no peers.

I'll be reporting this bit of trail in two segments, the lower and the upper Susquehanna, each about thirty miles in length.  Both sections offer miles of wild-land hiking along the steep-walled escarpments that the river has carved for itself out of rolling Pennsylvania and Maryland farm country.  As said, there are no mountains here, but the elevation difference between riverside and the adjacent high ground is as much as 300 feet.  With numerous tributary streams plunging off the high ground into the river, a trail following the river inevitably descends and climbs many times over.

Is the Susquehanna River really one of the nations greats?  Yes, in two different ways.  First of all, at over 300 million years old, it is the second oldest continuously flowing river in the world.  It pre-dates the formation of the Appalachian Mountains through which it delves.  Its second claim to greatness is the volume of flow.  Of the rivers in the continental US (lower 48) that drain into the sea, only the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers have greater discharge.  If you multiply this quantity, the expanse of flowing water to be experienced, by the number of miles of nationally recognized foot-only trail, away from roads, that are within view of the water, then this hike is far and away number one in the country.

My hike of the Lower Susquehanna began at the Norman Wood Bridge, which connects Lancaster and York counties.  The bridge was built in the late 1960's.  When I was a kid going to church camp in the area (Camp Donegal), it was not there.  I remember it being built, remember what a great short cut it provided us to get to the camp.

Norman Wood Bridge as seen from the river bed downstream

This is Amish country.  As the Lancaster Amish Settlement continues to grow, it is expanding across this new bridge.  There's also a hiking trail that crosses the bridge called the Conestoga Trail, and I took the time to hike a three mile piece of that on a quiet Sunday early morning before starting to explore the Mason-Dixon Trail.  As I walked across the bridge I was passed by as many Amish buggies as motorized vehicles.

When I came to Camp Donegal as a kid one of my strongest memories is hiking down to the river.  We followed a foot trail in deep rhododendron growth beside Mill Creek to where it empties into the river just below Holtwood Dam.  I loved the many waterfalls along the creek, and loved exploring among the pools and boulders on the river bed.  That was twenty years before the Mason-Dixon Trail was conceived.  Today the Mason-Dixon uses the lower part of the trail I hiked, passing the best of the waterfalls before climbing steeply to a viewpoint overlooking Holtwood Dam.  Here's the waterfall.

And here is a good view of Holtwood Dam, not from the Mason-Dixon Trail but from the Conestoga Trail on the eastern side of the river.

Along the west shore, the Mason-Dixon Trail offers more than spectacular scenery.  There is history too.  In places it follows the course of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal, built in the late 1830's.  I started this segment at Lock 12 ...

... and ended in the town of Havre de Grace at the head of the Chesapeake Bay at the final lock, with its embedded 1839 dedication stone.

In the background is the white painted steel structure of the US 40 bridge, which the M-D T uses to get across the river.  Unlike the Norman Wood Bridge, however, pedestrians are not allowed to cross here.  You have to find a ride.

In between these two points there are more wonderful sights than I can possibly show.  There's more history, mills, furnaces, and ruins.  There is Conowingo Dam and Peach Bottom Nuclear Power Plant, which, along with Holtwood Dam, continue to supply the area with electricity.  There is a 2 1/4 mile river-side bike trail called the Lower Susquehanna Heritage Greenway.

That follows an old railroad track that usurps some of the even older canal tow path.  There are marinas and boat launch areas with wonderful river views.

And then there are the little things.  A baby box turtle.

Tree bark that seems to be begging for a kiss.

And the first of the fall color among the Sassafras leaves.  I decorated one of my hunter-orange hiking shirts to commemorate this species.

There was one section of trail near Peach Bottom where they are desperately seeking a maintainer.  Here I encountered a completely impassable section with an ad-hoc bypass, and lots of thick underbrush.

But that was the exception.  The bulk of the M-D T along the Lower Susquehanna was a wonderful experience, and I highly recommend it.

Here is an overview of the GPS tracks of my wanderings, sometimes employing short cuts in the six out-and-back day-hikes that I used to cover this segment.

Fall means hunting season, the first frosts, and some of the best hiking conditions of the year.  More to come.

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