March 2003: Presque Isle State Park


Erie, Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania's most popular state park is believed to have formed 11,000 years ago from the deposits of sand carried by wind and water across Lake Erie. This "flying spit" of sand is the largest in the Great Lakes region and the only one in Pennsylvania. Presque Isle State Park is estimated to be moving eastward at the rate of one-half mile per century. Although Presque Isle is French for "almost an island," the area has often been completely surrounded by water. One such breech in the sand peninsula lasted 32 years.
During the War of 1812 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used a harbor on the east side of Presque Isle as a base of operations for the critical Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. After the clash with the British fleet, Perry returned to Presque Isle for the winter, using a shallow pond to bury American dead. The harbor was named Misery Bay in light of the hardships suffered that winter. Today the Perry monument on Crystal Point remembers the American exploits here.
The 3,200-acre peninsula was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1969.

Presque Isle is unique in that plant succession from sandy shoreline to climax forest can be seen in less than one mile. This transformation can be viewed from the 5.8-mile Multi-Purpose Trail, a National Recreation Trail. The path begins at the park entrance and shadows the Presque Isle Bay shoreline until it ends at the Perry Monument. As this main pathway is popular with cyclists, skaters and joggers, dogwalkers may want to migrate to one of the park's many other trails. Dogs are welcome on all trails but ticks are heavy so avoid the trail fringes. Dogs are not allowed on the swimming beaches but you can hike a little ways up the peninsula past the supervised beaches where dogs can enjoy the frisky waves of Lake Erie.
There are more than a dozen short trails radiating across the peninsula that offer a pleasing variety of easy hiking. The Sidewalk Trail was constructed of wooden boards by a lighthouse keeper to reach the Presque Isle Lighthouse from his boat over a mile away in Misery Bay; it is now a concrete strip down the center of the trail that was resurfaced in 1925. The North Pier Trail traces the shoreline along a sand ridge and the Long Pond Trail hugs the shoreline of one of the park's several lagoons. Longer trails such as the Fox Trail (2.25 miles) and the Dead Pond Trail (2 miles) traverse distinct ecological zones as they move from sandplains to oak-maple forests.

Presque Isle is a key resting point for migratory birds for both land and shore birds. As many as 320 species of birds have been identified here, arriving from the Artic to South America. One of the best spots in the park to study this great ornithological stew is at the observation platform at the end of the Gull Point Trail. The 1.9-mile circle hike is at the farthest tip of Presque Isle where changes to the sand spit are most dramatic.

Allegheny National Forest (Route 6). If the crowds at Presque Isle grow tiring, drive south, pick up Scenic Route 6 and head east. The Allegheny National Forest covers more than one-half million acres and reminds you why Pennsylvania is actually the most rural state in America (most people living in "rural" areas). Hiking trails vary from day hikes to short, scenic jaunts. Two of the best explorations are the amazing rock outcroppings at Jakes Rock and the Ancient Rocks at Rimrock near the Morrison Hiking Trail. The longest trail in the Allegheny National Forest is the 86.3-mile North Country Trail.

From I-90 & I-79, US 20 or PA 5, take PA 832 through the city of Erie to the park entrance gate on Lake Erie, just south of the city.