Erie Bluffs Park still a walk on the wild side

Destination Pennsylvania

May 21, 2006|By BOB DOWNING | BOB DOWNING,AKRON BEACON JOURNAL

LAKE CITY, PA. / / Erie Bluffs State Park is Pennsylvania's newest and the 117th in the state system.

The still-wild tract 12 miles west of Erie and just east of the Ohio line is long on potential and short on amenities.

There are no facilities, no trails, no toilets, no signs. There is a small unmarked parking lot off state Route 5, but that's just about it.

The nature-based park -- it was dedicated by Gov. Edward G. Rendell in mid-2004 -- features the largest tract of undeveloped land on Lake Erie along Pennsylvania's 60 miles of shoreline.

The 540-acre park west of Lake City in western Erie County features nearly a mile and a half of cobbled beach flanked by 90-foot-high bluffs.

There are rare and endangered plant species, an unusual oak savannah sand barren ecosystem, exceptional wetlands and significant archaeological sites. The park includes a noted steelhead fishery on Elk Creek.

Pennsylvania envisions the park becoming an eco-tourism destination, perhaps with a small environmentally friendly lodge.

But plans for the lodge are coming under fire from Pennsylvania eco-groups such as the Sierra Club that do not support such lodges in the state parks.

Erie Bluffs was acquired in late 2003 by the Pittsburgh-based Western Pennsylvania Conservancy from Reliant Energy. It had planned to build a new electric generating plant on the site that is 70 percent forested on the bluff-top plateau.

The conservancy then turned the land -- long known locally as the Coho site; it was named after the popular lake salmon -- over to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

It is the first new state park in Pennsylvania in 20 years and only two hours from Akron.

"This acquisition fulfills a decades-long vision to make this distinctive tract a state park to be enjoyed by Pennsylvania citizens and visitors to this region," Rendell said at the time of the park's dedication.

"With its spectacular scenic vistas over Lake Erie and an adjacent world-class shallow stream steelhead fishery, Erie Bluffs will prove to be a unique eco-tourism destination," he said.

The beach and the bluffs are the big attractions at Erie Bluffs, but the park is not for anyone unwilling to do a little cross-country bushwhacking through the heavy woods.

I made a midwinter visit and found the small unmarked parking lot. It is on the north side of state Route 5. It lies west of the signed Elk Creek Access Area and west of a bridge over an active railroad line.

Visitors are asked to park near the road and walk a farm lane through leased fields of corn -- and sometimes soybeans -- to the bluffs and the beach, said Dorothy Krupa, head of nearby Presque Isle State Park, which is managing Erie Bluffs. The views from the wooded bluffs are first-rate, and the Lake Erie scenery is pretty cool.

The beach is narrow, perhaps 35 feet wide with lots of zebra mussel shells and driftwood. It is a rocky beach -- with lots of cobble or small stones. The waves break on ledges of gray rock.

I saw two bald eagles soar overhead and alight in a tree atop a bluff.

Getting down to the beach can be tricky.

The bluffs are heavy with loose, sandy soil. They are still at risk of eroding and slipping. The bluffs are moving inland at the rate of one to seven feet a year.

There is also significant gray clay that gets slippery with water from the seeps or springs in the bluffs.

Many of the park's at-risk plant species are found in the seep areas of the bluffs and, for that reason, visitors don't want to stomp around the seeps.

You can gain beach access at Elk Creek and along an old road next to Duck Run at the western edge of the park.

The easiest, safest and greenest way to get down to the beach or back up the bluffs is via ravines cut into the bluffs by small streams. There are a half dozen pristine cold-water brooks.

It's not always easy, but it can be done. You may end up clinging to tree roots and small saplings in an effort to pull and claw your way uphill to reach the bluff tops.

The hiking is somewhat rugged with no trails. But it's hard to get lost. Lake Erie is to the north and state Route 5 is to the south.

Pennsylvania has a plan costing $24 million to $27 million to develop Erie Bluffs during the next 10 to 15 years.

That includes developing 10 miles of interconnected trails, a picnic area and group and primitive camping.

The trails would include an east-west Plateau Trail, a Bluff Trail with overlooks, a Beach Trail and a trail up Duck Run.

The 518-mile Great Lakes Seaway Trail, a national scenic byway in New York and Pennsylvania, runs next to the park's southern boundary.

The state is also looking at developing a rustic 20-room lodge. That would be a first in the Pennsylvania state park system and has come under fire.

The park also intends to naturally restore 150 acres that have been leased for decades to local farmers.

Erie Bluffs is expected to complement Presque Isle, a swimming and beach park on a 7-mile peninsula that sticks into Lake Erie. It gets nearly 4 million visitors a year.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Erie Bluffs State Park is about a six-hour drive from Baltimore. Take Interstate 70 west to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Take the turnpike toward Pittsburgh and look for the exit to I-79 toward Erie. The park is just north of Lake City, 12 miles west of Erie.

INFORMATION

For more information, contact Presque Isle State Park, P.O. Box 8510, Erie, PA 16505; 814-833-7424. The Internet site is www.dcnr.state.pa.us.

You can also get information from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, 209 Fourth Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15222; 412-288-2777; paconserve.org.

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