Behrend trail project launches $690,000 Wintergreen Gorge restoration effort

Four students walk in the woods of Wintergreen Gorge.

Penn State Behrend is leading a coordinated effort to protect and preserve Wintergreen Gorge, a Natural Heritage Area on and adjacent to the Behrend campus.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. — Penn State Behrend has begun a $690,000 project that will make existing trails more sustainable, protect wildlife, and improve visitor access to Wintergreen Gorge, a Natural Heritage Area on and adjacent to the Behrend campus. Access to the trail system, including parking, will be limited at the Cooper Road trailhead during the initial phase of the project.

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 Planning Department, and Penn State. Planning for the work began in 2013.

Wintergreen Gorge is a 3,980-foot-long canyon surrounded by mature forest, with steep slopes that are susceptible to erosion. The hillsides are unstable in places, due to heavy use by hikers, trail runners and mountain 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.

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 impacted the natural environment, which includes three endangered plant species. More than 14 miles of informal trails, many of which descend to Fourmile Creek, now cut through the area.

“Many of the gorge trails that are used today developed over time, as visitors created their own paths,” said Sam Mason, the sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend. “Some began as shortcuts. Others were a way to avoid water or mud on the original trail. These improvements will provide a more functional, ADA-accessible trail system that better protects and preserves the unique and fragile environment of Wintergreen Gorge.”

A student looks out over Wintergreen Gorge at Penn State Behrend.

A student looks out over Wintergreen Gorge, a Natural Heritage Area on and adjacent to the Penn State Behrend campus.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

The first phase of the trail project will stabilize and improve public access to an 850-foot trail that begins at Cooper Road. Those improvements — which will include select placement of boardwalks over protected wetland areas — will decrease erosion, protect native plant species, and provide a more viable and sustainable area for wildlife, including the fish in Fourmile Creek.

The Cooper Road trail will be topped with a compacted aggregate trail surface, which will make portions of the trail ADA-accessible. Aggregate is more permeable than asphalt but provides a surface firm enough for wheelchairs or strollers.

The parking area at the Cooper Road trailhead will be expanded, with space for 17 vehicles, including two ADA-accessible spaces, to address traffic and safety concerns near the trailhead.

Several rain gardens will be constructed to filter runoff from the Bayfront Connector.

Throughout the project, public access to the trail system will be available from the trailheads at the west end of the Prischak and Ohio Hall parking lots at Penn State Behrend. Visitors to the Behrend campus should check in at the Police Services office in Erie Hall to determine if a parking pass is necessary.

Later phases of the trail project will stabilize and improve a 2,300-foot creek trail, with limited use of boardwalks to protect wetland areas. A deteriorating footbridge over Trout Run also will be replaced.

“Everyone involved in this project appreciates the unique environmental value of Wintergreen Gorge, which is a resource not only for Penn State Behrend but for the entire Erie community,” said Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies, who oversees sustainability efforts at the college. “This trail improvement project carefully balances the need to preserve public access to the gorge while protecting and enhancing the pristine natural environment for generations to come.”