The Mason-Dixon Trail, Lock 12: Hiking in Lockstep

It was another strangely mild August day in the mid-Atlantic. Like my Fair Hill hike the previous day (read here), the high for this atypical summer Friday was in the low eighties. What to do with such a pleasant day? I think you know. This time, Lisa joined me.

Lock 12 on the Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal is just north of Holtwood Road (Rte 372) and across the Susquehanna River from the Kelly’s Run Nature Preserve, where Lisa and I enjoyed a Valentine’s Day hike back in 2015 (read here). In that February hike, we had navigated snow and ice; at Lock 12 we looked forward to a comfortable, dry hike on the Mason-Dixon Trail that would roughly follow the tow-path of the S&T Canal.

From Wikipedia:

The Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal between Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, and Havre de Grace, Maryland, at the head of Chesapeake Bay, provided an interstate shipping alternative to 19th-century arks, rafts, and boats plying the difficult waters of the lower Susquehanna River. Built between 1836 and 1840, it ran 43 miles (69 km) along the west bank of the river and rendered obsolete an older, shorter canal along the east bank. Of its total length, 30 miles (48 km) were in Pennsylvania and 13 miles (21 km) in Maryland.

Canal locks are a system by which boats are raised or lowered over stretches of varied terrain on a canal or other waterway. Of the remaining locks on this defunct canal, 12 is one of the most well-preserved.

We parked at the Lock 12 Recreational Area just east of the Norman Wood Bridge. A concrete walkway led away from the parking lot and past the remnants of an old lime kiln before disappearing into the woods. Entering the copse, we crossed a picturesque bridge over Anderson Creek before coming upon the lock. Lock 12 was completely dry, so we climbed down into the channel to look around. Once we had taken stock of the 180 year-old structure, we crossed the canal by way of a wooden bridge and headed north on the Mason-Dixon Trail.

The trail tracked along the Susquehanna, winding among tall hardwoods and leafy bushes. We passed several large signs that warned of quickly rising water and advised us to leave the area immediately if sirens sounded. I wasn’t even aware that there were sirens!

In all my years of hiking near the Susquehanna River, I have never been privy to the sound of high-water sirens. I don’t doubt that they exist – the Susquehanna has many dams, and the opening and closing of their floodgates can cause significant changes in the water level. I don’t live close enough to the river to be concerned but have routinely seen news reports of flooding in the lower Susquehanna River Valley. Additionally, at 444 miles long, the river drains 27,500 square miles of America’s east coast, so there is an almost unimaginable potential for dangerous water levels during a major storm.

Three-quarters of a mile into our trek, we came to Mill Creek. A spur followed the creek down to the banks of the river, and we took some time to explore. The creek bubbled and spat as it tumbled over tiny falls on its way to the Susquehanna. As we approached the riverbank, we passed through a pleasant, sandy area which was sheltered by trees and a massive rock shelf. Beyond, between tree-line and water, lay a wildflower-laden sward .

After enjoying the views of the river, we retraced our steps to the Mason-Dixon Trail and headed west up Mill Creek. We crossed River Road and continued upstream to Mill Creek Falls, a splendid cascade with multiple tiers of frothy water rushing over moss-covered rocks. Continuing on, we discovered many more tiny falls as the creek gamboled on its way to to join the Susquehanna.

The blue blazes of the MDT eventually guided us north and away from Mill Creek. We began a steep ascent up to the bluffs that overlook the sixteenth largest river in the United States. Although this hike packed less than five-hundred feet of elevation gain, almost all of that came in the mile between Mill Creek and the top of the bluff. The ascent was abrupt and punctuated by short switchbacks that wriggled up the hill like a zig zag stitch joining the bluffs to the rolling Pennsylvania countryside. Gaining the scarp, we were treated to views of the Susquehanna and the hydroelectric plant at the Holtwood Dam.

The 2,392 foot long, 55 foot high Holtwood Dam and associated plant generate 252 megawatts of hydroelectric power by way of 14 turbines. The original dam, built between 1905 and 1910, included an ineffective fish ladder for migrating shad. Almost ninety years later, a motorized fish lift was installed to help the declining American shad population reach its spawning grounds. Today, the shad get an elevator ride up and over the dam. I was unable to determine if there is an operator or if the little guys have to push the buttons with their fins.

From the bluff, the Mason-Dixon Trail immediately commenced a descent and eventually intersected River Road. There, we road-hiked several hundred yards before picking up the trail again as it veered into the woods and toward the river. The MDT cut a narrow path through dense forest, passing, uncharacteristically, through a stand of tall bamboo and ultimately sidling up to the wide, slow Susquehanna. Standing on the rock-strewn bank, we gazed across the river to Lancaster County, a half-mile (as the boat floats) away.

After enjoying some startlingly unspoiled views of Pennsylvania’s lower Susquehanna, we headed back. We had traipsed three miles; six miles total seemed just right for that August afternoon. We retraced our steps to (and along) River Road, but when we reached the turn off back into the woods, we made a decision that shortened our hike. The trail on the climb over the bluff had been narrow, often without opportunity to step aside and allow other hikers COVID-safe passage. With that in mind, we chose to return to Mill Creek via the road. Road hiking is not a favorite of mine, but this time it turned out well. We didn’t have to cover already-hiked trail and we gained an opportunity to explore the Holtwood Dam floodplain.

Less than a quarter-mike south of the MDT on River Road, we turned down an access road that led to the base of the dam. We walked out into a wide expanse filled with rocks of varying sizes, from bowling-ball sized cobble to boulders the size of compact cars. Interspersed among the rocks were tall grasses and wildflowers. Yellow, purple, pink and white stippled the floodplain and brightened an otherwise bleak landscape. We also had a unique river-level view of the dam and power station. Down river, in the distance, was the Norman Wood Bridge.

Continuing south on River Road, we rejoined the Mason-Dixon Trail at Mill Creek. As we reentered the woods, we noticed the less well-preserved ruins of Lock 11 – overgrown and moss-covered in the brush that flanked the trail. From there, it was less than a mile back to the Lock 12 Recreational Area and the trailhead.

The Lock 12 section of the Mason-Dixon Trail is delightfully scenic and full of historical interest. Had we simply hiked out and back, we would have netted six miles and nearly a thousand feet of elevation. However, returning on the road treated us to the flower-laden floodplain at the base of the dam and only comprised three-quarters of a mile on gravel. The river views are numerous, and Mill Creek Falls is a glittering gift along the way. Give it a try, and if you have a friend who is into locks and canals and dams (oh my), bring ’em along and hike this trail in “lock” step.  ♦

Date: August 21, 2020
Location: Lower Chanceford Township, PA
Trailhead: 39.813418, -76.329029
Distance: 4.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 495 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Susquehannock.

2 thoughts on “The Mason-Dixon Trail, Lock 12: Hiking in Lockstep

  1. I was there while camping nearby on the PA side of the river. I had my young son with me so we didn’t go too far, but did explore the ruins and early pieces of the trail. That was about ten years ago, and It’s been on my list to explore further ever since. The siren signs kinda freaked me at the time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comment, Ned. There’s a lot of great trails along the Susquehanna – one gem is Susquehanna State Park near Havre de Grace, MD.

      As I said, I’ve never even heard these sirens in many years of hiking in the area. I think they are primarily to warn people should the dam decide to unexpectedly open its floodgates. Typically, the only time that happens (in good weather in PA or MD) is if there are storms up in New York that are swelling the river and stressing the dams.

      Liked by 1 person

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