Mason-Dixon Trail, Otter Creek: Trail(or) Trash

I don’t want to dissuade you from hiking this trail; there was a lot to love about this route. The overlook, and much of the Otter Creek stream valley were lovely. It’s just that there was a lot of trash. Much of it was along Otter Creek and looked as if it had been washed down in a torrent. There was evidence of recent flooding. Still, a lot of the refuse was in piles – piles that could not have been so neatly deposited by floodwaters. I wondered how it got there; the only way in or out was by trail. I decided that the piles must have been created by some trail-conscious soul (or souls) collecting the trash and piling it for eventual removal. I hope so.

I arrived at the Urey Overlook Parking Lot in Airville, Pennsylvania at a little after 3:00pm. Mine was the only car there. A sign told me that the Urey overlook was to the northeast … so I headed southwest. I intended for the overlook to be the payoff for the five miles I was about to hike. Crossing Furnace Road (Rt. 425), I strode into the woods of Susquehannock State Park. The trail was smooth and wended through tall hardwoods. I came to a junction where a red-blazed trail split off to the right. According to my map, this red trail was also the The Mason Dixon Trail, even though the MDT is blazed in blue. Either way it was part of my planned loop. I bore left and continued on. I was a little over a half-mile into my hike when the trail turned sharply downhill. There were switchbacks (kind of), but mostly, this section plunged straight down the hill into the stream valley. I slipped and slid, and when I reached the bottom, I looked back up the hill. I could barely discern the trail and realized that, had I hiked this route in the opposite direction, I would have unquestionably missed my turn!

I now stood alongside Otter Creek, a waterway which winds its way from points north and west to spill into the mighty Susquehanna near the Urey Islands. I decided to hike upstream for a while – this wasn’t my intended route but I wanted to explore. A few hundred yards later the trail veered away from the creek and began to climb. Wanting to stay by the water, I turned around.

I passed the sure-to-miss-it junction at the bottom of the steep hill and continued downstream toward the Susquehanna. Otter Creek cut a twisting path through the Pennsylvania woods, tall trees and massive boulders lining its banks as it flowed southeast. Sunlight dappled water and trail as I traipsed, and I was enjoying the mild September weather and the peaceful solitude. I hadn’t seen another person since I left the trailhead.

My reverie was broken by an unwelcome sight. Trash on the trail. Trash beside the trail. Trash up the hill from the trail. There was a lot of trash. This egregious aggregation of garbage was scattered among natural detritus washed up against trees and piled against rocks. It seemed clear that a flooding Otter Creek had deposited this mess. As I continued down the trail I passed more refuse; passing that, the trail would be trash-free for a half-mile. Then, more trash. Refrigerators, parts of boats, tires, metal signs, couches, lumber, car parts (there were a lot of car parts) littered the scene. I could’ve practically built a new car out of the … wait, what? No way, it cant be. It was. An entire extended-cab Dodge pick-up truck. It lay facing upstream, rammed against a tree, covered in vines and branches … and a large, decaying log. How did it get there? The only access to the creek for a vehicle is ostensibly Kline Road, a mile upstream from where this crumpled vehicle lay on the bank of Otter Creek. Wherever it came from, it seemed to confirm that flooding was responsible for the debris that littered the stream valley. There was simply no other way for a truck to have gotten there. I continued to see waste on and around the trail for the rest of the way down Otter Creek. There were, however, also great stretches of unspoiled trekking as well. Hopefully my September 2020 experience was the exception and not the rule. 2020 has been a trash year anyway.

I continued to follow the creek southeast. The trail was not difficult to follow but it was difficult to be sure I was still on the Mason-Dixon Trail. The MDT is often cobbled together from older, existing trails and, at one point, standing still, I could see an orange, red and blue blaze despite having but one path before me.

Reaching the mouth of Otter Creek, I was obliged to cross Furnace Road again. I was looking forward to the last leg of my hike being peppered with views of the Susquehanna, but as I started north I was initially disappointed. The trail kept inland, hugging the road and not the water The foliage to the east was too dense to glimpse more than a hint of what lay beyond. It was also a little overgrown. I was starting to feel cranky when the trail opened up and started to climb. Gaining the bluff, I was finally rewarded with some views out across the river. One mile after leaving Otter Creek behind, I emerged from the woods onto the Urey Overlook.

The overlook, perched almost 300 feet above the water, looks east across the Susquehanna to the little community of Pequea, Pennsylvania. In the middle of the river sits Weise Island, an almost one mile long islet that, despite sitting in the middle of the waterway, belongs entirely to Lancaster County – on the other side of the river. Looking north I could just make out the Safe Harbor Dam and power station. The slow-moving Susquehanna was glassy-smooth in places and the thick forest on Weise Island reflected in the river water. From a placard at the overlook I learned that below me, and generally only visible from boat, were petroglyphs left behind by the indigenous peoples that occupied the land on which I hiked. Many of the carvings are submerged, but there are hundreds of these glyphs between the Urey Overlook and the Safe Harbor Dam, two and a quarter miles away. When I had looked my fill, I turned west and followed the Mason-Dixon Trail (now blazed in yellow) away from the river and back toward the trailhead.

The path was wide and well used on the four-tenths of a mile trek back to Furnace Road. The sun was low in the sky and the shadows growing long as I traipsed up the straight, tree-lined path that led back to the parking lot. This was a good hike. If I had a list entitled “Things I Would Least Like to Encounter While Hiking”, trash ranks pretty high. Maybe not as high as bear attacks and swarms of angry bees, but still. Regardless, the Otter Creek stream valley was beautiful and its charms were apparent despite the refuse befouling the landscape. The views from Urey Overlook are quite spectacular and worth the five miles of effort, even though they can be accessed quickly and easily from the parking area. I would love to do this hike again sans trash, so if you are local to the otter Creek area and thinking of organizing an effort to clean up the stream valley, leave me a comment – I’ll come up and help!  ♦

Date: September 22, 2020
Location: Airville, PA
Trailhead: 39.887585, -76.387216
Distance: 5.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 436 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 “Mason-Dixon Trail, Otter Creek: Trail(or) Trash

  1. wonderful location. i have spent 3 of the last 14 days of my life walking around there. great geocaching. i recognize almost every one of your pics. the conestoga, MDT and the old MDT all in one place!


  2. The trash is horrible to see, but I think you’re right that it came from flooding. Hopefully it can be cleaned up soon! The views of the Susquehanna remind me a lot of the Wisconsin River…very beautiful. Too bad you couldn’t see the petroglyphs from the overlook, maybe it’d be worth a boat trip back…I know that’s what I would do, I’m a sucker for them haha.


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