The Scalping of Big Mountain


As I’ve read more stories about men and women that climb the high peaks of the world, I’ve found myself attracted more to high places.

I’m even saving my money to buy my own climbing gear. Every time a friend calls about a possible day hike or weekend adventure, I try to convince them that we should drive to Mount Marcy or Mount Mitchell just to say we did it. Often we settle on some other less-involved journey.

Pennsylvania’s highest point is Somerset County’s Mount Davis, a mere 3,213 feet in altitude. After that, you can find several subsequent mountains, but it’s difficult to say for sure which are the top 10. However, some time ago, I was looking over the higher mountains in Pennsylvania and found one that’s probably in the top 20, at least.

Big Mountain

Tuscarora Mtn.'s summit as seen from the road leading to Cowans Gap State Park.
Tuscarora Mtn.’s summit as seen from the road leading to Cowans Gap State Park.

The Tuscarora Mountain ridge runs from Maryland to Perry County in Pennsylvania, interrupted at points, so it’s not a continuous ridge in the strictest sense. One of the more prominent features along the ridge is what is known as “Big Mountain” just east of McConnellsburg, Pa. At 2,458 feet above sea level, it’s one of the highest points in the ridge-and-valley region of central Pennsylvania and the high point along the Tuscarora ridge.

On April 14 — after a friend canceled a waterfall hike in Columbia County, Pa. — I finally decided it was time to stop talking about Big Mountain and just climb to the top. The 4-mile hike from Cowans Gap State Park rises about 1,220 feet to the summit using the Tuscarora Trail, a part of the Great Eastern Trail from Florida to New York. The Tuscarora connects with the Appalachian Trail along the Blue Ridge north of Carlisle, Pa.

The switchbacks leading up the mountain from Cowans Gap to the ridge line at 2,000 feet.

Considering the Tuscarora is a lesser used trail compared to the AT, there are some parts where I was glad the bushes and saplings hadn’t blossomed yet. The brush grows so close to the trail in some spots that even without leaves, it’s nearly necessary to hack through with a machete. But the scenery makes the trail worth the strenuous nature.

The Mothman Cometh

“Tens of thousands of acres were devastated.”

Boulder field with the Tuscarora summits.
Boulder field with the Tuscarora summits.

Big Mountain’s ridge to the north is evidence that we’re contending with significant natural forces and, sometimes, even mankind’s best attempts to save a forest can fall short.

When you reach the first sub-summit of Big Mountain’s northern ridge, the terrain levels off around 2,000 feet and you have another mile before you reach link trails. This is where a machete would come in handy during the summer months. But it’s also where I started seeing an increasing number of dead or dying trees. Oaks in particular but pines, too.

I hiked on,  sucking water regularly from the bite valve hanging over my shoulder. I stopped to photograph Big Mountain’s profile with a sub-peak and massive boulder field in the foreground.

Dead and dying trees are plentiful on the Tuscarora ridge.
Dead and dying trees are plentiful on the Tuscarora ridge.

As an outdoorsman, conservationist, and generally someone who actually listened in science classes over the years, one dead tree is no big deal. When you start to see five, 10, 20, 30 trees in regular groupings and increasing frequency, you begin to wonder what’s happening.

Soon, the trees thin and you get the sense you just walked into a desert, death everywhere around you. Your heart sinks as your pace slows to a crawl. At first, the obvious chainsaw bite marks jump out and you assume you’re looking at a recent clear-cutting. That is until you realize the dead trees are still on the ground, drying and bleaching in the unusually hot April sun.

Acid rain denuding the Pennsylvania mountain tops? Loggers leaving only the unusable wood to rot? No.

The reason for the clear-cut and the dying trees is actually the Gypsy moth, an insidious pest that can munch through an entire forest quickly, said Steven Keiper, a forester with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry’s Buchanan State Forest District 2 in McConnellsburg, Pa.

The denuded Tuscarora ridge at the intersection with the Guyer Trail.
The denuded Tuscarora ridge at the intersection with the Geyer Trail.

In 2007 and 2008, Gypsy moths terrorized Pennsylvania’s forests from Clinton County in the north to Fulton County in the south, Keiper said. Most of the oaks were defoliated despite the forestry service’s attempts to kill the moth caterpillars with approved pesticides. In the years following, Pennsylvania’s trees were spared from the moth by natural disease, he said. However, the state also experienced multiple summers of drought which stressed the oaks, killing even more trees.

Cairns along the trail on the balding ridge.
Cairns along the trail on the balding ridge.

“The combination of multiple defoliations and drought stress were too much even to the strongest and healthiest oaks,” Keiper said in an email. “What you are seeing now is the result of this. Tens of thousands of acres were devastated.”

Recouping my soul

View of the valley to the north from Big Mountain's peak.
View of the valley to the north from Big Mountain’s peak.

20120414134800Dead trees have never been enough to keep me down. I completed the next two miles to the top of Big Mountain and, even though I was by myself, I found the hike to be one of the most enjoyable I’ve done in a long time.

The scenery is incredible from the summit, and I completed a personal goal of climbing one of Pennsylvania’s higher peaks, even if it is only a 2,458-foot knob in the ridge-and-valley system. The mountain may have paled in comparison to Marcy, Washington, or Mitchell, but it was my conquest.

20120414164213And along the way, I saw both the natural grind that threatens our forests, and the exquisite beauty of spring’s renewal as tiny bulbs of color poked from the ground and colorful nymph butterflies darted around me for 10 minutes as I attempted to photograph them (unsuccessfully). 

20120414170340But standing atop Big Mountain, I ate my late lunch and nearly choked looking out over one of the greatest reliefs in the commonwealth, the peaks, valleys and gullies undulating before me under the ashen sky. 

And in that moment, my soul was as free as a mountain flower shucking off the frozen soil of winter, breaking through the bonds of rock and death that stifle and hide its beauty. 

Where that blossom breaks free, there you witness strength and perseverance.

Writer’s note: This post was originally published in 2012 under the title “The Gutting of Big Mountain.” The article has been edited for grammar, clarity, and ease of reading, including a more complete ending. Photos, once part of a video slide show that didn’t translate into WordPress, have been added.

In 2012, Keiper also told me Tuscarora Mtn.’s knob was not called Big Mountain. That’s the common name given on the Internet and is drawn from the Big Mountain Shelter below the peak at 2,000 feet. The 2009 Potomac Appalachian Trail Club map I used on my hike does not name the knob. However, on the map’s elevation profile, the summit is called Big Mountain.  

I intend to return to the Tuscarora Trail.


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