Hiking the Pinnacle in Berks County, PA

Cindy with her daughter at the Pinnacle.

HIKING THE PINNACLE
by Cindy Ross

To imagine how the Appalachian Mountains were formed in Pennsylvania, take a stretched-out blanket and bunch it into long narrow folds. On the earth, these are steep-sided linear ridges separated by narrow valleys. One ridge, in particular, seems to go on forever, so the Lenni Lenape tribe of Delaware named it Kittatinny, meaning “endless.”  In the central part of the state (and the northern end of Berks County), the Kittatinny Ridge makes a crazy jog…jutting itself abruptly into the valley’s fertile farmland before doubling back to continue its northeast track towards the Delaware Water Gap. The result is the Pinnacle…the only point where the ridge strays from its straight linear course. The Pinnacle dominates the landscape. It has an unmistakable presence. It offers the most spectacular view on the Appalachian Trail AT in PA, (50 miles under ideal conditions), and it is my power spot. I go there when I begin to feel disconnected when my life feels too crowded.

There are a variety of ways to reach this jewel of the Kittatinny. I like to take the most scenic way- a 15-mile day hike from the village of Port Clinton, PA which sits along the wild and scenic Little Schuylkill River. This isn’t the shortest or most direct way, but it is the most interesting.  My climb out of Port Clinton water gap is short and steep with views of the dam near the town of Hamburg and the winding Schuylkill River as it cuts through the mountain. I climb slowly and take my time on the narrow but fairly smooth trail. There are two-inch by six-inch white, painted blazes on the trees, leading me up this mountain and in the direction of Maine. When I stand at one blazed tree, I can see the next ahead.

The trail takes me through a forest that is predominantly oak and not very old, for the last major timbering occurred in the 20s, when the trees were harvested as supports for the anthracite coal mines Schuylkill County is famous for. Years before that, during the period between the Revolutionary and the Civil War, this same oak forest made the area famous.  All along the flanks of the Kittatinny Ridge were furnaces that produced more charcoal than any area in the entire state. Chunks of oak, covered with forest duff (decaying leaves and branches) to prevent air from entering, were slow-burned in log enclosures. The resulting charcoal was used to fuel the iron furnaces and forges that employed more than 11,000 workers in a 125 year period, in the making of tools and guns for the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

After 3/4’s of a mile, I reach the ridge and walk amongst the mountain laurel thickets, Pennsylvania’s state flower, until I reach Pochohontas Spring, 3.2 miles from Port Clinton. Here, I find the remains of an old charcoal hearth dating from the Revolution. The soil in the round burning site, (30-50 feet in diameter) was so sterilized and depleted from the many years of burning fires that only grasses will grow.  By the spring, I dip my water bottle into the gushing piped spring and taste the sweet water. Pocahontas Spring is reliable all year, whereas some springs are “intermittent,” meaning they do not run in times of dry weather.

For nearly three miles, my trail meanders on the ridge. I step quietly, looking for white-tailed deer but hear only squirrels making a racket in the leaves. The open area of Windsor Furnace, the site of an early pig iron works, soon comes into view. Pig iron is crude iron cast in blocks or “pigs,” which is the first by-product after a furnace melts iron ore. It is iron in a very crystallized form that must be processed/purified again before it can be made into something useful.  If I kick around in the dirt, I can still find smooth glassy slag in the footpath, a product of the burning process which is mostly silica.

A few tenths of a mile from the furnace site is the Windsor Furnace Shelter, a three-sided, log, lean-to, built and maintained by the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club of Reading, PA.  Appalachian Trail hikers spend the night, free of charge in the lean-to. Some are old log shelters dating back to the days of the Civil Conservation Corps. Others are stone or made of rough lumber. All have wooden sleeping platforms, nails for hanging foodstuff sacks and packs – to keep the mice out, and maybe even a shelf or a broom. An established water source is always nearby and often cleared tent sites for overflow. I take off my daypack and sit down in the cool shade of the shelter for lunch.

The final push to the ridge begins gradually and then steepens to a heart-pounding grade. I rest my extended leg on each step for a fraction of a second and look for the blue sky through the trees, a symbol that I’m almost to the top. Underfoot rocks turn to boulders which the trail builders arranged in convenient steps. The thing that’s nice about climbing is you can pause to breathe anytime you feel the need and move slowly enough to check out the opening views of the valley below.  At 1,582 feet, the trail breaks out to a super view at Pulpit Rock at 1,582 feet. Below me is Blue Rocks, a long, wide river of rocks.

There are a lot of misconceptions about this unusual rock formation. It is not glacial-formed, for the southernmost spot the ice flow reached was 45 trail miles to the north on the Pocono Plateau. But because this area was in close proximity to the edge of the glacier, the repetitive freeze-thaw cycles occurring during the 10,000-year winter caused the ridge-crest rocks to fracture. These rock fragments broke away from the outcrops and slid down the slopes where they accumulated as large masses of talus (a sloping mass of rock debris).

Two miles further along the ridge, is the Pinnacle, my final destination. The miles click by without notice and before long I am stretching out on a large flat rock. The drop-off is so steep it looks like you could bend down and touch the valley floor. A cool breeze dries my shirt, birds soar in the updrafts. I drink in the whole land of farms and fields and woodlots in browns and tawny colors, burnt siennas, and greens. I ask myself, is there another world more important or real than this, and are there any cares worth obsessing over? The answer is always “no” up here on the Pinnacle, and it is why I come home to this place.

Centuries earlier, Native American Indian chiefs, were drawn to this outcropping to worship the Great Spirit. Their people, the Delaware Lenape or “Original People, were about 11,000 strong until they were pushed out of Pennsylvania by German settlers, who unfortunately did not share their respect for the land. William Penn and his heirs, upon arriving in this area, devised an ingenious scheme for tricking the Indians out of vast quantities of their land. The Indians naively agreed to grant to the Penns, the amount of land a man could walk in a day. From the point reached at the end of a day, a line would be drawn to the Delaware River to define boundary lines. The Indians understanding of this “Walking Purchase” was how far an Indian could normally cover in a day’s walk, while hunting, preparing meals, and setting up camp. But the greedy white man staged a three-man relay, nearly running, and then instead of drawing a line to the Delaware River at its nearest point, they drew it so they doubled the acreage the Indians had expected to give them. The Indians accused the Penns of dishonesty and aroused bitter hatred for the whites. The famous Paxton Boys fueled the fire by leading grisly massacres against the Indians prompting Benjamin Franklin to describe them as “white savages.” A generation later, this smoldering resentment was fanned into the French & Indian War. Today only a handful of scattered descendants of the Lenape remain on reservations as far away as Oklahoma and Canada.

As I sit on the Pinnacle, it’s very sad to think of the Lenape’s terrible mistreatment, to be driven from such a beautiful home. All is peaceful now, with views on three sides of manicured dairy and hay farms dotted with ponds and pockets of forest in between. Stories of unsolved murders and devils appearing on misty nights in the Pine Swamp haunt the valley below. I’ve heard it said that there is an ancient Native American burial ground somewhere in the forested valley. There are strange stories of hovering spaceships, and a dragon that supposedly lives in the cave on top of the Pinnacle has been reportedly seen flying across the valley of Kempton.

What you can count on seeing in broad daylight soaring around the Pinnacle are turkey vultures, not hawks, contrary to what many visitors expect. It’s delicious to lie on a boulder and watch them play in the updrafts, moving their sensitive wing feathers like fingers. Up close, though, they are enough to make your flesh crawl, watching their ugly red bald heads, picking on dead things. When they feel threatened they regurgitate their meals onto their predators as a means of defense. They are extremely useful in the web of life but look most beautiful at a distance. The hawks, eagles, and falcons are here too, during fall migration, especially further down the ridge at North Lookout, lured by the topography unique to Hawk Mountain and this part of the Kittatinny Ridge.

The white man’s strange need to take the wild out of this place has been halted through legislation and the creation of public lands, but it remains to be seen whether he can control his thirst to build and develop the “view-shed lands” of the Pinnacle (what you can see from the trail). It has always been a popular hiking spot, and on any given weekend in the summer, you will pass dozens of Pinnacle-lovers heading out to the rocks with their lunches. It is possible even to spy a long distance hiker on his way from Georgia to Maine.

The reward for dealing with all these rocks is the smooth descent into Eckville – five miles on an old logging road.

Outdoor extremists who want rugged inaccessibility and elevation, won’t find that on the 1,500 foot Kittatinny Ridge. But the unique history of this place, the Appalachian Trail, and its subtle beauty make this a special place. Here, with relative ease, you can get up above the valley floor, see out over the land, and get as high as soaring birds.

 

Sidebar:
Wear boots with ankle support and good tread. Carry at least 1 liter of water, snacks, rain gear and a layer of warmth. Be alert in rocky areas for snakes and never put your hands anywhere you cannot see.

The 15-mile hike described in this story is a long day. A shorter route is from privately-owned Blue Rocks Campground, off of Route 143, north of Lenhartsville, PA. It is 1.5 miles up their yellow-blazed trail to the AT and another 1/2 mile to the Pinnacle. (fee charged to park)

Port Clinton is located 4 miles north of Hamburg, PA on Rt. 61. Trail parking lot is on the west side of the highway. Eckville is located at the base of  Hawk Mountain on Hawk Mountain Rd., off of Rt. 895 from the north or Rt. 143, from the south.

To obtain a map/guidebook for this section, contact the Appalachian Trail Conference, Box 807, Harper’s Ferry, W VA  25425, (304) 535-6331.