Untouched for hundreds of years, old-growth pine, hemlock, oak, and spruce trees reach for the sky. These forests, primeval woodlands rich in biodiversity, are rare gems in the Northeast. This winter, snowshoe back in time by exploring these ancient giants of the forest.
Old-growth forests include trees never harvested for timber that are between 150 and 500 years old. Less than 1 percent of the woodlands in the eastern United States fit this description. Development, logging, fire, natural disaster, and invasive species have impacted the other 99 percent. Yet, groves of these ancient trees still exist.
Cathedral Pines in Cornwall,Conn., near Mohawk Mountain, will bring you back 200 to 300 years. Some of the oldest trees have been growing since 1676, when King Philip’s War between the American Indians and colonists was ending. In 1883, John E. Calhoun, one of the first members of the Connecticut State Park Commission, purchased the property, and his family protected the land from logging until 1967. The Nature Conservancy has managed the 42-acre area since then.
Starting at the parking lot off Essex Hill Road, take the blue-blazed Mohawk Trail. The trail takes you through the heart of an old-growth hemlock stand and past giant, topped pine trunks crisscrossing the forest floor—many knocked down by a 1989 tornado.
After 0.7 mile, cross a small brook and enter a section of the forest unscathed from the tornado. White pine and hemlock dominate here. Near the summit of Mohawk Mountain, stands a small stone tower with limited views (where the Mohawk Trail and Mattatuck Trail intersect). At the top, you can see Mount Race, Mount Everett, and the edge of the Catskills.
Ecosystems like this old-growth forest are often home to a multitude of bird species. Calls of red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches, catbirds, chickadees, warblers, woodpeckers, blue jays, red-tailed hawks, and many others, fill the air come spring at Cathedral Pines.
When you are done exploring the past, head back the way you came. The trail is steep in places; if you are looking for an easier snowshoe, The Nature Conservancy manages the Silas Hall Pond, Hollenbeck, and Iron Mountain preserves, all within a 20-mile radius.These are mature hardwood forests, though, not specifically old-growth.
Distance: 3.7miles out and back
Info: nature.org; Best Day Hikes in Connecticut (AMC Books); cornwallhistoricalsociety.org
Outside of Connecticut, you can explore these old-growth forests.
Gibbs Brook | White Mountain National Forest, N.H.
Heading out from AMC’s Highland Center, follow the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained recreation path in America. Along the south bank of Gibbs Brook, about 0.6 miles along the Crawford Path, is Gibbs Falls and an old-growth red spruce forest.
Distance:5.2 miles out and back
Info: Best Day Hikes of the White Mountains, 2nd ed. (AMC Books); White Mountain Guide Online
SheldrickForest Preserve | Wilton, N.H.
The Sheldrick family protected this property for nearly a century, never allowing it to be logged. But when it was sold to a developer in 1994, it came under threat. The plan was to harvest the wood and mine gravel deposits. A forester called in to mark the trees convinced the developer of the forest’s ecological importance.In 1996, The Nature Conservancy was able to purchase the 227-acre forest. Some of the pine, oak, and hemlock trees are over 30 inches in diameter.
Distance:3.2 miles of trails
Mahican-Mohawk Trail | Deerfield, Mass.
The Mohawk Trail State forest is known for its tall trees. The Mahican-Mohawk trail,blazed in golden markers with a green leaf, passes under pines over 100 fee ttall. A 130-foot tall red oak is said to be the tallest in New England. Many of the trees are over 150 years old. The trail follows the Deerfield River and climbs to the summit of Clark Mountain.
Distance:4.2 miles out and back
Info: Massachusetts Trail Guide, 9th ed. (AMC Books)
Jacobsburg Environmental Center | Wind Gap, Pa.
Henry’s Woods is an old-growth forest with hemlock, yellow and black birch, oak, sugar maple, basswood, and sycamore. Some of the trees are over 350 years old and some are over 130 feet tall. Heading left from the trail head off Belfast Road will take you to Henry’s Woods Trail toward the Boulton Historic Site. Loop back on the Homestead Trail.
Info: Best Day Hikes near Philadelphia (AMC Books)
Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness | Staunton, Va.
The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are home to nearly 230,000 acres ofold-growth trees. Ramsey’s Draft Wilderness is mostly old-growth Canadian hemlock. Other species include tulip poplar, eastern white pine, sugar maple,black birch, shag bark hickory,and northern red oak. Try a combination of the Shenandoah Mountain and Jerry’s Run trails for an easy and relatively flat snowshoe trip.
Distance: 6 miles out and back
Info: nationalforests.org; wilderness.net; vawilderness.org
For hundreds of additional trip ideas throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, visit the Get Out archives.
CONTRIBUTORS: RobertN. Buchsbaum, John S. Burk, Daniel Case, Susan Charkes, Peter W. Kick, Rene Laubach, Charles W. G. Smith