I like to recommend a hike in 665-acre Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center as a cure for pessimism. Imagine you’re hosiery baron Jacob Nolde, in 1904, walking around your newly purchased estate near Reading, PA, along steep hills above Angelica Creek. Like virtually all property in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the 20th century, your land is best described as former forest. Penn’s woods are gone: cleared for timber, agriculture, or (as here), burned for charcoal in ironmaking furnaces. So you’re wandering your stump-filled estate and come upon a miracle: a single white pine tree. But you don’t see a single tree. No, you see a forest.
Thank goodness for boundless American optimism, and hardy European tree seedlings. Although he was inspired by a native white pine, Nolde, a German immigrant, decided to re-create the wald of the old country. He and his Austrian forester planted half a million spruce and fir trees. Nolde also allowed native hardwood trees to regenerate on large portions of bare land. After his death the family continued to manage the forest. In the mid-1960s,Pennsylvania’s state park system acquired the estate.
A little more than a century after Jacob first conjured a tree-covered landscape, Nolde Forest provides a unique opportunity to hike through dense, dark conifer woods that evoke the primeval forests of fairy tales, and mature deciduous woods typical of southeastern Pennsylvania.
There are no vistas. But that’s the point. Here, you can see a forest.
On a beautiful spring day my companion and I began at the old Sawmill, at the trailhead across a small dam on the rocky Angelica creek. After a short walk along wildflower-laced banks, we crossed a stone bridge constructed for the estate, and climbed uphill along the wide Boulevard Trail. It’s laid out on an old fire road, climbing up and around the hill in a long loop, through pure stands of confiers, as well as some that are deciduous trees only, and some mixed woods.
Nolde Forest’s 10-mile network of trails lends itself to interlaced loop hikes that can be lengthened or shortened depending on what you feel like doing that day. On this day I felt like listening for the songs and calls of birds: both those weary travelers grateful for extensive woods to stop and rest as they migrate north, and year-round residents busy building their own family estates out of twigs high in the sheltering boughs. There are other days when I’ve felt like just listening for the songs in the trees, comparing the different sounds that the wind makes through fine needles of the coniferous evergreens with the broad leaves of oaks, beech, tulip poplars and maples.
The Boulevard Trail winds by a large rock outcrop that begs to be climbed. From here I looked out and down as the land drops off steeply. There are trees above and below, and sunlight peeks through canopy here and there, as a reminder that trees need sky.
At the end of the loop we crossed to the Watershed Trail, following the Punches Run as it tumbles down a hemlock ravine. This trail in particular seems to attract families; kids and their parents were enjoying the play of the stream along the rocks, kneeling down among wide Mayapple umbrellas to find the single white flower hidden under the leaves.
Back at the stone bridge we followed the road up to the Tudor-style Nolde family mansion that serves as the park office (there is also parking here). As mansions go, it’s not that overwhelming (especially compared to the McMansions that populate today’s former forests), but it is gorgeously constructed of quarried schist that shimmers and glitters in the sun. Around back, a leaded glass window commemorates the “single white pine” that inspired Jacob Nolde’s vision. In the walled flower garden, we enjoyed a picnic lunch, entertained by floating butterflies and a darting hummingbird .
From the Mansion, several footpaths wind through the woods and back to the Mansion or the Sawmill. Trails are generally well-marked at intersections, so it is easy enough to find your way, and even improvise as you go along. One caveat: maps are not currently being printed for this park. Perhaps officials were embarrassed by winning national distinction as America’s best state park system, and wanted to give some other states a chance. In any event, signs at the trailheads suggest you take a photo of the detailed map posted there or download one from the website or the app. If, like me, you prefer a paper map, it’s best to come prepared with your own copy.
From the Chestnut Trail, we took a short, steep downhill spur to one of the park’s two small ponds. We spotted not only the painted turtles that give this pond its name but also numerous salamanders, frogs and dragonflies.
We looped all the way back to our starting point, exploring the woods on a combination of trails that climbed to the top and descended on the return. The total elevation gain is about 300 feet from bottom to top, steepest on the south and east sides of the hills that face the Angelica Creek.
At a couple of spots we passed swaths cut out of the forest for management purposes, and long clearings that maintain pipeline rights-of-way. On a small scale these voids in the canopy provide a glimpse of the denuded hillsides that Jacob Nolde walked a century ago. As we returned to the Sawmill, the wind in the trees serenaded us. It might have been “Imagine.”
This hike and 49 others are described in detail in my book, Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia.
About Susan Charkes
SUSAN CHARKES is the author of Best Day Hikes Near Philadelphia, Outdoors With Kids-Philadelphia, and The Wild Here and Now. She is a freelance writer/editor and nonprofit consultant, based in southeastern Pennsylvania. Susan often leads hikes for the Appalachian Mountain Club as well as for community groups. More at http://www.susancharkes.com.