A Walk in the Chester County Woods
“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” ~ Albert Camus
After a seemingly endless procession of sticky (and rainy!) summer days, autumn’s cool is finally upon us. Chester County boasts some of the best places to view fall foliage, so lace up your hiking boots, grab the dog (and his leash), and head out to explore!
First, a leaf lesson…
Think back to grade school when you learned about photosynthesis—the process by which plants use sunlight to manufacture glucose for their “food.” In autumn, as days become shorter, there is not enough sunlight for photosynthesis so trees begin to shut down this process. Green chlorophyll, a chemical essential to the photosynthetic process, slowly disappears from the leaves.
As the bright green fades away, oranges and yellows emerge. Small amounts of these colors have been in the leaves all along but were hidden by the green chlorophyll. In some species, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves turn this glucose into red and purple tones.
Fantastic foliage finds
Located in Elverson, Warwick Township, our Crow’s Nest Preserve is composed of several 19th century farms that were combined into one in the 1950s. The 612-acre preserve boasts woodlands filled with oak, hickory, tuliptree, beech, maple, and spicebush—which makes for a spectacular fall display. Visitors can traverse over seven miles of hiking trails that wind through these woodlands, over meadows, and along French Creek—designated by the Commonwealth as a “Scenic River.”
Hike along the preserve’s Deep Woods Trail and you’ll pass by piles of discarded granite cobblestones, evidence of an old quarry. You’ll emerge from this trail onto Northside Road, a sleepy country lane that was once frequented by love-struck youth on their way to the “courting tree.” Local legend has it that this majestic black gum—which turns crimson each fall—was where late 19th-century romances blossomed as beaus pushed young ladies on a swing tied to its broadly spreading branches. This area once supplied wood for the nearby Hopewell Furnace, but it’s believed the tree—about 150 years old— was spared because gum wood was difficult to split down for the charring process.
Located about 20 miles south of Crow’s Nest, the 513-acre Sadsbury Woods Preserve includes one of the largest remaining, unfragmented woodlands in Chester County. Because the extensive, largely undisturbed forest is so rare, Natural Lands Trust selected the Sadsbury Woods area a protection priority in the early 1990s.
Bring your binoculars! The preserve’s “interior woodlands” (defined as an area at least 300 feet from any edge, such as a road or meadow) provide critical habitat for many animals, especially neo-tropical migrant songbirds. The colorful, melodious birds winter in South America and summer in North America. To survive here, they need abundant food and protection from the weather and predators. The forests of Sadsbury Woods fill these needs quite well. Recent bird counts have identified over 40 species in one morning.
From the parking area, follow the Compass Quarry Trail for 1.5 miles to the remains of the old quarry. Bear left onto the Step Rocks Trail to access the step rocks themselves, a spectacular rock bluff that offers a great observation point to take in the colorful foliage.
Head east for about 15 miles to visit the 570-acre Stroud Preserve, which is located just outside of West Chester. Dr. Morris Stroud bequeathed his 332-acre farm to Natural Lands Trust in 1990. Since that time, the property has grown through acquisitions and donations of adjacent land.
The preserve’s landscape, with its picturesque meadows and crop fields, suggests the quintessential Chester County farmlands of the past. Remnants of the preserve’s agricultural past include the 19th century main house and barn, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (The buildings are private residences and office space, but can be enjoyed from a distance.)
Follow the gravel road from the parking lot along Creek Road. At the fork in the road, head left to enter Halfway Woods. Here you’ll find a kaleidoscope of leaves scattered on the forested foot path: purples of white ash, reds of maples, russet browns of oaks, and yellows of sassafras, hickory, and tuliptree. Listen for the burbling sounds of Halfway Run as you ascend the path and reemerge at a scenic overlook. Stretched out before you are rolling fields of corn and hay, and meadows filled with native grasses and wildflowers whose dried, golden brown stalks rustle in the October breezes.
Click on individual preserve web pages for directions, trail maps, or more information on these or any of Natural Lands Trust’s publicly accessible preserves. But hurry… the leaves are falling fast!