Hiking Pennsylvania: Devil's Pulpit, the Appalachian Trail, and Lehigh Gap

Along the North Trail to Devil's Pulpit.
Imagine you're planning a weekend day hike and the EPA describes your chosen destination as an "uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people." Perfect spot to seek peace and tranquility outdoors, right? Though an EPA-designated Superfund site isn't typically where I'd expect to find myself hiking, that's exactly what happened on a recent trip with Philadelphia-based TerraMar Adventures.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) passes right through the Lehigh Valley region, and if I hadn't spent some time in the Lehigh Gap Nature Center after our hike, I'd never have guessed the area's history. Decades upon decades of industrial pollution left a large chunk of beautiful Lehigh Valley land barren and/or contaminated. The affected areas in and around Palmerton, Pennsylvania, including a slope on beautiful Blue Mountain, were added to the National Priority List for cleanup in the early 1980's and much work has been done to re-vegetate the defoliated land.

Now, the Lehigh Gap Nature Center (LGNC) owns nearly 800 acres in the Lehigh Valley between the Appalachian Trail and the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor Trail, dubbed the Lehigh Gap Wildlife Refuge (LGWR). The LGNC is a non-profit, member-run conservation organization, and Nature Center itself opened in 2010. The area's master plan notes that local groups continue to work with the EPA to restore and revegetate the land, and the Nature Center's parking lot was the starting point for our seven mile hike.

Not what I'd expect the area around a Superfund site to look like, but exactly what I expect of the AT in Pennsylvania!

After departing from the Nature Center, we took the Prairie Warbler and Woodpecker Trails straight up to the AT, heading west. The PA 309 to Lehigh Gap section of the AT is also accessible via a small parking lot near the intersection of Route 873 and Paint Mill Road, but we opted for the starting point with a larger parking lot. Also, the Nature Center team has interpretive signs posted identifying plants and trees in the area, and both short trails are great options for us learn about the LGWR's flora without venturing far from the Nature Center.

The Prairie Warbler and Woodpecker Trails climb quickly, and the AT continues steeply up, heading west. We made a quick stop at the George W. Outerbridge Shelter along the AT about a mile into the for snacks and to read the shelter log book. After we passed our first intersection with the North Trail, which loops up and over Kittatinny Ridge, we continued along the AT though beautiful and characteristically rocky Pennsylvania woods.

Along the North Trail on the opposite side of Kittatinny Ridge. It looked so different!

A bit less than two miles past the first intersection with the blue blazed 1.5 mile North Trail, we picked up the North Trail at its second intersection with the AT to begin our loop back toward the car. And boy am I glad we did. I tend to prefer loop trails in general because you get to see different terrain, and we saw some pretty incredible changes in scenery along the North Trail.

We went from heavily forested, hilly land with rocks and boulders to what looked like trails I've seen in Colorado. The north side of Kittatinny Ridge is more barren, open, and the flora looks completely different. The trail was sandy and we had expansive views of the other side of the Lehigh River. Though it's not as scenic as other sections along the Lehigh, given how industrial it looked, the ridge itself was beautiful and clearly recovering.

After a quick stop at Devil's Pulpit, we continued south along the North Trail and reconnected with the AT, then retraced our steps back to the Nature Center.

Huge thanks to TerraMar for letting me co-lead the hike, and for a great time! Pro tip: make sure to stop in the Nature Center; they had fresh local honey and a great collection of books as well as beautifully done interpretive exhibits. 

If you're looking for a longer hike, Backpacker Magazine has great descriptions of the PA 309 to Lehigh Gap section of the AT, which is part of where our hike took us, and the Lehigh Gap to Wind Gap section east of our destination. Have you been on any part of the AT in Pennsylvania? Which parts? Would you plan an adventure at a Superfund site? We'd love to hear from you!