‘The Gorge Has Been Loved a Little Too Much.’

Lydia Musser, Kevin Pasquale, Anthony Achille walking in the Gorge

Lydia Musser, Kevin Pasquale, Anthony Achille walking in the Gorge

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Trail restoration project will preserve Wintergreen Gorge for future generations

Wintergreen Gorge, located on and adjacent to the Behrend campus, has been a popular recreation destination for students and the surrounding community for seventy years. It’s easy to see why: The 3,980-foot-long canyon is surrounded by mature forest and offers shaded trails for hikers, runners, and bikers. Fourmile Creek, which cuts through the gorge, features a half-dozen waterfalls and places to wade and cool your heels.

“The problem is that the gorge has been loved a little too much,” said Dr. Mike Naber, associate teaching professor of geosciences, as he points out severe erosion on the ridge of the main trail during a tour. “There are heavily trafficked parts of the trail that have no topsoil. Without soil, vegetation can’t grow, which makes the trail susceptible to flooding and erosion.”

The hillsides in the gorge are unstable in places, due to heavy use by hikers, trail runners, and bikers. At the site most popular with visitors—a 250-foot overlook known as “Devil’s Backbone”— nearly all of the natural undergrowth has been worn away.

But, this summer, Behrend began the first phase of the Wintergreen Gorge Sustainability Master Plan. This initial $690,000 project will make existing trails more sustainable, protect wildlife, and improve visitor access to this beautiful natural resource. Funding for the project was provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the Erie County Department of Planning and Community Development, and Penn State. Planning for the work began in 2013.

The primary gorge trail already was cut when Mary Behrend donated her 400-acre property to Penn State in 1948. The Behrends rode their horses there. The college has maintained the gorge as a public resource, but foot and bicycle traffic has affected the natural environment, which includes three endangered plant species. More than fourteen miles of trails cut through the area.

“Many of the gorge trails in use today were developed over time, as visitors created their own paths,” said Dr. Sherri “Sam” Mason, sustainability coordinator at Behrend. “Some began as shortcuts. Others were a way to avoid water or mud. The planned improvements will provide a more functional, ADAaccessible trail system that better protects and preserves the unique and fragile environment of Wintergreen Gorge.”

Phase I—expanding and improving parking at Cooper Road and installing boardwalks over protected wetland areas nearby—has begun.

Other improvements planned include topping the trail with compacted aggregate to make portions of the trail ADA-accessible, raingardens to filter runoff from the Bayfront Connector, a bridge over Trout Run, and stabilization of the entire 2,300-foot creek trail.

“Everyone involved in this project appreciates the unique environmental value of the gorge,” said Dr. Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies, who oversees sustainability efforts at the college. “The planned improvements carefully balance the need to preserve public access to the gorge while protecting and enhancing the natural environment for generations to come."