Wintergreen Gorge, located on and adjacent to the Behrend campus, has been a popular recreation destination for students and 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. 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.
To begin addressing the problem, Behrend started the first phase of the Wintergreen Gorge Sustainability Master Plan this summer. This initial $690,000 project will make existing trails more sustainable, protect wildlife, and improve visitor access to the gorge. 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.
Phase I—expanding and improving parking at Cooper Road and installing boardwalks over protected wetland areas nearby—is nearly finished.
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.”