Sam Mason stands on the new Wintergreen Gorge boardwalk.

Trail project improves public access to Wintergreen Gorge

A 165-foot boardwalk and an expanded parking area will improve public access to the gorge, a Natural Heritage Area.

On the new boardwalk in Wintergreen Gorge – 165 feet of compressed bamboo decking, set just south of the Cooper Road trailhead – Sherri “Sam” Mason, the sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, explained how it’s possible to protect a natural area by inviting more people to explore it.

“Having access to natural spaces affects us in so many ways,” she said. “There’s a physical benefit, but there also are mental and emotional components, and those factor in to how we connect with a place. When we feel that connection, we want to protect the place.”

The boardwalk is part of a $690,000 effort to stabilize the trail system in Wintergreen Gorge, a Natural Heritage Area on and adjacent to the Penn State Behrend campus. Funding for the project, which began in 2013, was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the Erie County Planning Department and Penn State.

The college has maintained the gorge as a public resource, but foot and bicycle traffic have eroded the natural environment, which includes three endangered plant species. At the site most popular with visitors – a 250-foot overlook known as “Devil’s Backbone” – most of the natural undergrowth has been worn away.

The boardwalk will encourage visitors to remain on the primary trail, which is the spine of a 14-mile network of informal “shortcut” paths, many of which have accelerated erosion in the gorge: Given the option, Mason said, most people will choose the easier walk.

A half-mile stretch of the Cooper Road trail has been topped with a compacted aggregate surface, making it ADA-accessible. Aggregate is more permeable than asphalt but provides a surface firm enough for strollers, and even wheelchairs.

“Being part of a community means you think about others as well as yourself,” Mason said. “Our students have good access to the gorge, but we want everyone else to enjoy it, too. That includes people with mobility issues.”

The trail project created several new rain gardens, which will filter runoff from the Bayfront Connector. It also expanded the parking area at the Cooper Road trailhead: The lot now has space for 17 vehicles, including two ADA-accessible spaces. Additional parking is available on the Penn State Behrend campus, at trailheads near Ohio Hall and the School of Science complex.

The college has secured $380,000 in funding for the next phase of the trail project, which will extend the aggregate-topped path to Trout Run. That work is expected to begin in the fall of 2021.

“We need some time to see how this first phase improves things, particularly in regard to the water coming off the Bayfront Connector,” Mason said. “We’ll make adjustments, and we’ll develop a plan that further improves public access to the gorge while protecting the natural environment for the generations that follow us.”