Just walked the Larch Hill Trail at Frances Slocum again. Always find new and fascinating things on the superb trail.
By Bob Quarteroni
If you look at an Eastern Larch tree in the dead of winter you will say that’s exactly right: it is dead, totally, completely dead.
How could anything live spring from those withered, desiccated branches? It’s so far gone looking one tree web site starts: “Don’t cut down that tree; it’s not dead, it’s a larch!”
But looks are deceiving and this intriguing, fascinating tree is very much alive.
Eastern larch – also known as tamarack and hackmatack — is a relative rarity, a deciduous conifer. In fact, the larch is our one and only deciduous (leaf shedding) coniferous tree.
(Interestingly, a fine example one of the other two deciduous conifers — dawn redwood – can be seen in Kirby Park. The third deciduous conifer is the bald-cypress.)
When the larch does shed its needles in fall, it puts on a show: They turn to a beautiful golden yellow before falling and transforming the tree into its death-in-life phase.
Whatever the advantages of dropping its needles – and that is still hotly debated – the larch is a perfect tree, as long as the environment is cold enough. It’s a strictly northern tree, and it’s built to handle the cold. It can survive temperatures as low as minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and it grows as far north as the edge of the tundra.
And it fares well here.
In the spring, the larch’s new needles grow out in a wonderful soft green whorled pattern. Larch is also one of the first trees to leaf out in spring, and its bright green stands out starkly against the barren woods.
One of the best places to enjoy this unique tree is on the aptly named Larch Tree Trail in Frances Slocum State Park.
On this hilly two-mile trail in the northeast of the part stands a vast stand of larch, with perfectly straight trunks. Column upon column of them standi in precise rows, as if at attention. The result is a natural cathedral of stunning beauty, peace and an ideal spot for contemplation.
While the larches are the crown jewels, the trail has much more to offer. From its lovely stands of striped maples with their improbable green trunks, to endless stands of Indian pipes, fungi like hoof fungus and turkey tail, wild flowers of all types and shrubs like wild raisin and nannyberry, there’s lots of see.
There’s also abundant wildlife, including turkey and deer — lots of deer,
It’s also a birders delight, and the woods are full of avian sights and sounds, from downy and hairy woodpeckers to the black-capped chickadees I fed by hand in winter to northern flickers, nuthatches, brown creepers and many, many more.
A favorite chum of mine is a pileated woodpecker who makes enough noise for a rhinoceros while, at the same time, being difficult to spot. He haunts the lower reaches of the trail and is a treat if you can catch a glimpse.
Above all, it’s a very good place to listen to the quiet.
“This is a gently winding trail, fairly easy to traverse with short inclines,” said avid hiker Roberta Blau Brentano of Scranton. “There is a great variety of flora to excite the senses for all types of nature lovers. This is a great place to enjoy the peace and renewal that is given by forests.”
To reach the trailhead, take the first left on the main park road after the park office, a steep downhill.
As soon as you reach the bottom, there is parking to the left. Park there and walk the few hundred yards to the trailhead (go left as you exit the parking area so that the spillover pond is on your left). Do not park near the trailhead gate or you may be ticketed.
The first third of the trail is uphill, the next flat and the last third downhill. It’s marked with orange blazes and easy to follow.
The one spot where you need to keep your eyes peeled is when you are descending and the trail forks with the Larch trail to the right and the Campground trail to the left. It’s easy to miss this so if you start seeing cliffs on your left, you’re on the Campground trail.
More information is available by calling 570-696-3525, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or going to www.visitPAparks.com.