Nottingham County Park: Serpentine Barrens … What, Again?

Ten days prior to this I had never heard of serpentine barrens. On September 30th I had hiked at Soldiers Delight (read here) in Owings Mills, Maryland and learned about these unique areas, so-called for the properties of the resident soil and rock. Now I stood facing a sign informing me that I was once again hiking in similar topography. I was forty-seven miles east-northeast of Soldier’s Delight, but this time at a National Landmark in the state of Pennsylvania. Nottingham County Park is in Chester County, just across the Mason-Dixon Line from Rising Sun, Maryland. I shook my head in disbelief. Although there did not seem to be any chromium mines at Nottingham County Park, that element is one of the main ingredients in serpentine soil.

But I get ahead of myself.

October ninth in southern Pennsylvania was sunny and warm. I arrived at Nottingham County Park mid-afternoon for a relaxing hike in a small local park. There was no parking allowed at the trailhead I had identified on a map, so I drove around the park for a few minutes before arriving at a parking lot with a picnic pavilion. Perfect. I shouldered my pack and set off down the Chrome Trail. Chrome? That was curious. I looked around. At the first trail junction, I saw the sign.

After reading the sign and marveling at the coincidence, I turned right (west) onto the white-blazed Doe Trail. I hiked into some astonishingly familiar terrain. Trees were more abundant than they had been at Soldiers Delight, but I trod through the same open grassy areas flanked with greenbrier. The brown grass was dotted with late-blooming wildflowers – purple thistle, white meadowsweet, and goldenrod among them. The sun was out, the temperature mild, and the hiking pleasant. Soon, I began to descend.

That descent was short and gentle, and soon I came to a small brook that meandered through a grassy draw. A metal bridge spanned the stream and the marshy area around it. According to the map, this was Black Run. At the base of a flagpole, atop which the stars and stripes gently waved, was a granite marker dedicating the waterway to the veterans of World War II, but this marker called it “Victory Run”. I took a moment to consider the memorial. Chester County sacrificed three hundred twelve soldiers to that conflict. I walked on, a little more contemplative than I had been moments before.

Moments later, the Doe Trail came to a dead end at the Feldspar Trail. I turned left and continued my counter-clockwise circuit of Nottingham County Park. Had I turned right, I might have found the (unmapped) spur cutting over to McPherson Lake, which I was hoping to see. Instead, I traipsed nearly a half mile southwest on the Feldspar. When it, too, dead-ended, I turned north on the Buck Trail until I drew (latitudinally) level with the lake. I found no spur to the water’s edge. Disappointed, I turned around, retracing my steps and then continuing south on the red-blazed Buck Trail – I would drive over to the small lake post-hike. The fruitless attempt to find McPherson Lake had added some elevation to my hike as well as introducing me to the burgandydrop bonnet mushroom, a heretofore undiscovered (by me) species of fungi. A healthy-looking purple cluster of these gems grew from a stump next to the trail.

On the Buck Trail, I traversed the southern end of the loop. The trail was wide and undulated over small rises and in and out of patches of scrubby trees. Most of the park’s trails were quite beautiful, but some on the south side looked as if they had simply been bulldozed through the surrounding bramble – the rubble from which had been left in piles at trail junctions. These rubble piles were few and far between and did not detract from my enjoyment of the easy mile and a half I spent on the red-blazed Buck Trail. With an eye to increasing my mileage, I eventually parted ways with the red trail. When I reached the southeast corner of the park, however, I lost my way.

I had deviated from the Buck Trail in order to cobble together the largest loop possible in the little park, but this trail soon resolved into a dirt road with a gate, beyond which was a farm. I looked around for Firebreak #4, my route back. I saw nothing. I saw nothing, but something saw me. I was being watched. A majestic brown and white horse stood in the paddock beyond the gate staring unconcernedly at me. It was pretty clear that I was only interesting because he was bored out of his ever-loving skull. His dumpy sidekick, a nearly all-brown Shetland pony, showed a little more curiosity and edged closer as I stood. We eyed each other for a few moments before I went to find my trail.

Firebreak #4, along Nottingham’s eastern boundary, started out as a wide, uneven, overgrown break in the trees but quickly turned into a narrow, uneven, overgrown, sliver of a path. I would not recommend this trail. It was rutted and rocky, and, to add insult to injury, these ankle-twisting features were hidden beneath tall, thick grass, and as such, almost impossible to avoid. Combined with the brush that pawed at me from either side of the path, it made for an unpleasant quarter-mile. I fought my way through and was ecstatic to finally rejoin the wide, level Buck Trail. I had added six-tenths of a mile to my hike. Not sure it was worth it. The horses were pretty, though.

Moments later, I turned northwest on the Doe Trail and headed back to the junction where I had learned that I was once again on serpentine barrens. From there, I retraced my steps to the car and drove over to McPherson Lake. On the way, I passed a ranger’s SUV parked alongside the road and immediately thought Sheriff of Nottingham County … Park. No “Merry Men” were to be found. McPherson Lake was really more of a pond, but beautiful nonetheless. Surrounded by grass and trees, it made an ideal place to sit and reflect on my hike before my drive home.

Nottingham County Park provided me with a pleasant afternoon of hiking. There’s nothing spectacular here and the terrain isn’t as diverse as the barrens at Soldiers Delight, but it is still worth your time. Just off of Route 1 and halfway between Baltimore and Philadelphia, this National Natural Landmark is a delightful place to stop for a picnic or while away a few hours on the trails. And if you’re into Serpentine soil … well, you may have struck chromium! Give this little corner of Pennsylvania’s Chester County a try … but, if your name is Robin, you might want to give the rangers a wide berth. ♦

Date: October 9, 2020
Location: Nottingham, PA
Trailhead: 39.739877, -76.037042
Distance: 5.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 434 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.

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