By Bob Quarteroni
When you hear the phrase “Shades of Death,” happy thoughts are not likely to be the first to pop into your mind.
Which is a shame because here we have an example of a spooky name that masks a wonderful natural experience.
We are speaking of the Shades of Death Trail at Hickory Run State Park, a short but complicated little trek that is a wonder, one the park map itself describes as …” probably the most picturesque trail in the park.”
Believe me, it is.
Hickory Run State Park is approximately 100 miles west of New York City, easily reached by taking I-80 west and taking exit 274 and following Pa 534 about six miles to the park. The trail can be reached starting at the Park Office parking lot.
But to answer the inevitable question first: How did the trail get its name?
You can get as many answers as sources you consult but the Department of Conservation & Natural Resources provides a good answer in its park map: Its “gruesome name (is) attributed to the thick forests and rough terrain experienced by the early settlers.”
In a smaller map, DCNR says “Before the Civil War, the (entire) area was known as the ‘Shades of Death’ because the entire region was covered with a dense growth of virgin white pine, hemlock, and secondary species of oak and maple.”
Despite its name, it’s a delight, and although it’s a short 1.1 miles it provides an intense hiking experience because it is definitely not a hike for flip flops or not paying attention, which is why the park lists it as a “most difficult” trail.
That’s because the rocky trail that follows Sand Springs Run goes through a roller coaster of jumbled, jagged rocks, exposed roots, muddy spots and fairly steep up-and-down sections.
So care must be exercised. It’s not that it’s especially difficult, but it does demand that you pay attention to where you are and where you are stepping. And it absolutely requires good hiking footwear.
That being said, you’ll be charmed by the wealth of natural beauty as you wander through rhododendron thickets and unique rock formations, one of which – a steep set of stairs cut right in the rock – look as if they could have been carved by aliens.
There are the remains of old logging mills and dams dating back to the 1800s. The dams, as beautiful as any picture postcard you’ve ever seen, are the stars of the trail.
All three are highly explorable and trout fishermen flock there. On the day I walked the trail, a trio of anglers was steadily hauling in trout.
The hike itself could have been an inspiration for Robert Frost’s “For the woods are lovely, dark and deep.” It’s a dappled delight, all scudding shadows amid flashes of sunlight, playing over a lovely green canvas.
Flowers and plants abound, from an enchanting stand of maidenhair fern to a colorful fungus identified as hemlock varnish shelf by Dave Wasilewski, president of the Wyoming Valley Mushroom Club, who noted that they “have a long history of being used as a health-promoting tonic.”
And birds abound, making it an “excellent place to spot Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers in the spring and summer,” according to the Hickory Run map.
But what I enjoy most about this hike is lying back on many of the large smooth boulders that line Sand Springs, listening to the gentle burble of the stream and watching the clouds through the leafy trees.
The trail is out-and-back so if you don’t want to double back you can leave one vehicle at the trailhead at the Hickory Run Park Office on Rt. 534, just past Hickory Run, and another at the Amphitheater, almost exactly a mile from the park office on 534, and the other hike trailhead.
I prefer to walk it from the Amphitheater because I often get so caught up in looking at things and taking side trips that I don’t finish the entire trail and the best scenery is at this end of the trail.
While you’re at Hickory Run you might want to see the park’s premiere attraction, Boulder Field. This rocky landscape is a National Natural Landmark. It’s striking because it’s a massive plain of boulders, without vegetation, over an area 400 by 1,800 foot. Some of the Boulders are 26 feet long. It has remained virtually unchanged for more than 20,000 years.
Additional information on Hickory Run is available by calling 570-443-0400 or visiting www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/.