Round trip distance: 4 miles round trip in the shade; additional 2 miles with the out-and-back side trails
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Caution: Closed for hunting on occasion during deer season. Heed posted signs.
Trail Map: http://goo.gl/maps/L9DpS (trail map is approximate)
Membership Information: http://www.brandywinemuseum.org/members.html
Chester County has some spectacular areas to walk in and the 771-acre Laurels Preserve, owned and maintained by The Brandywine Conservancy, is yet another jewel in the crown. Use of the Laurels is restricted to members, but I include this preserve because, despite this restriction, the Brandywine Conservancy’s work to sustain this area makes it a cause worth supporting and the Laurels a preserve worth visiting. The Laurels has been designated an Important Bird Area – I have seen a pileated woodpecker as well as a fishing eagle here – so don’t forget your binoculars. Membership information is listed above. The preserve is open Wednesday to Friday from 9am to 5pm. It is closed for hunting during the season and hunting dates are posted. Please follow all preserve rules. To get to the Laurels from Unionville, go west on Rte 82, and take a right turn onto Apple Grove Road. Go straight ahead through the gate onto the unmade road. The parking lot is at the entrance to the Laurels.
Enter the Laurels through the side gate near the information stand, which also has maps and membership information. The cool, shady path passing along the side of Doe Run Creek offers a pleasant soundtrack as well as visual appeal. Stop from time to time to look at the creek – the sound and sight of the stream rushing over stones in the streambed is lively but soothing. The path continues alongside the stream, and along the way are a few nice sights: a small rocky promontory with a sentinel tree overlooking a section of stream with tiny rapids running in to a small pool (0.12 mile); two little rocky outcrops which make a nice diversion for the child with or within you (0.12 mile; 0.3 mile); a tremendously large tulip poplar with three separate trunks emerging from a single, massive base (0.28 mile); an informational poster describing the “Streamside Forest Buffer Project” which describes how streamside vegetation serves to filter water and influence stream water quality (0.32 mile). Towards the latter part of the path, barriers have recently been put up along the bank to control erosion.
At 0.4 miles, the path forks, and the path on the left passes over a field and across two covered bridges (now restricted to pedestrian use) up the hill. This walk is rather sunny, so I will leave it for a time of year when it’s not as hot. The path on the right is tree-lined and shady and ambles up a gravelly path with views of the field on the left. At 0.59 miles, two paths to the left and one to the right follow in quick succession. Stay on the main path which curves slightly to the left. At 0.61 miles, the Redbud trail on the right leads up the hill. (Note: This path is quite steep, so if you prefer, stay on the main trail which the Redbud trail rejoins 0.5 miles further ahead. An alternate route is to take the right hand trail at 0.59 miles uphill at a less steep angle for about 0.15 mile and then go left on a poorly marked trail (Serviceberry trail) across the wood to meet Redbud trail – this cross-path is not shown on the Laurels map.) Follow the path up the hill. When planes are not flying overhead, a distressingly common occurrence in the Laurels, the summer woodland is suffused with the metallic whirring of cicadas, rising and falling, rising and falling. It’s quite hypnotic. The predominant undergrowth plants here are spicebush and ferns, and beeches, maple and tulip poplar in the upper story. You will see the signpost for Serviceberry trail on your right just beyond the steep climb. At the top of the hill, the path turns sharply to the left and heads down the hill. Immediately beyond the turn, a path to the left leads back to the main trail before the turn, and the path to the right is a pleasant out-and-back spur. It’s apparently used by equestrians, but seems otherwise little visited. The next mile or so on the main trail are amongst my favorite parts of these woods.
The trees are larger and set farther apart, occasional patches of sunshine gleam through, and while the path can get quite muddy, waves of coolness rise from the ground. Some impressively large trees flank the path including another massive three-trunked poplar. The path is crossed by a stream and then goes uphill to a junction where paths lead off on the right – out-and-back trails to the edge of the property. Turn sharp left at each of the two consecutive forks, and ford a seasonal stream flowing over the road. After cresting a slight rise, the path will turn downhill and parallel another of the gorgeous little streams, despite emerging from an ugly pipe, that so enliven this walk in the Laurels. This stream even has a tiny, charming, waterfall. If you are lucky you may see deer bounding up the hill on the other side. The view here is quite stunning after a snowfall when everything, including the trees lying around, is covered in snow with the indomitable stream still trickling through.
This path meets the main gravel path at the base of the hill (1.65 miles). Turn right and follow the main trail up the rise – I suggest leaving the loop paths on the left to the return trip – the views are better. Glimpses of Buck Run, now a broad and staid waterway, after merging with Doe Run near the covered bridges, are visible on the left. You may see a variety of birds here: kingfishers, ospreys, woodpeckers, as well as ducks raising their young. (Note: Please stay away from the stream to avoid disturbing waterfowl that nest on the bank.) On the right (1.75 miles) is a large and imposing outcrop of rocks. This gravel trail used to once be a public road – McCorkles Road – and I infer that this is McCorkles Rock. More paths on the right are out-and-back trails leading to the edge of the property.
At 2 miles, you will see sections of a large tree on either side of the path; Go down the short, steep, trail to the left just beyond the fallen tree; the paths straight ahead and on the right end at the edge of the Laurels. This is a loop trail and has a spur to a ford that crosses Buck Run to pass on to trails on the other side of the Laurels. Stay on the loop path which follows the stream, passes a scientific research site marked by posts, and then leads back on to the main gravel trail (2.18 miles). The next loop trail, with attendant stream fording site, is on the right (2.5 miles). There is a small island in the stream you can see from this loop. This trails runs close to the stream, and it’s soothing to watch the water slide by, shaded by tremendous sycamore trees. The contrast between the sedate, slow flowing stream on quiet days and the muddy torrent that it can become after heavy rain makes the Laurels one of those places where each visit can bring a new discovery. I once (and only once so far) came across a patch of Indian pipe (a ghostly white parasitic plant that lacks chlorophyll and obtains its nutrition from the roots of other plants) in these woods. I haven’t seen it again, but I keep going back and keep searching.
If you decided to eschew the loops and stayed on the main gravel trail, look for trees clinging by their exposed roots to the road cut. I was walking here about a year ago when I heard a tremendous splintering crash around the curve ahead. A massive tree had pulled out of the bank and crashed across the road. The branches were still trembling from shock when I got to it, and I thanked my lucky stars that I was not 10 yards farther ahead. This is the tree that now serves as a trail marker at 2 miles. But when they are not in imminent danger of falling over, roots of trees that cling to banks are beautiful to look at.
A third loop trail is at around 3 miles. While there are no stream views there are stands of wildflowers, including thin-leaved sunflower, phlox and goldenrod, which brighten this path.
Follow the trail back to the junction near the field. Here, I suggest doing a loop around the field – the path on the right curves around with better views of the hillside where you’ve just been, Buck Run at the confluence with Doe Run close-up, and of the Hayes-Clark covered bridge. Follow the loop to the gate (the bridges are closed at this time) and return on the path to the parking lot.
Nature Notes: The trees of Pennsylvania’s woods
Pennsylvania means “Penn’s Woods”. Many of us will be hard pushed to identify trees by name, though; call it the “not seeing the trees for the woods” syndrome. Here, I will give you a brief tutorial on trees. Bear in mind that some exceptions exist for most classes, and the following is a rule of thumb.
Common trees belong in one of two classes: Angiosperms (flower-bearing; hardwoods) or Gymnosperms (cone-bearing; softwoods). Angiosperms are further classified as monocotyledonous or dicotyledonous plants. Monocots (single cotyledon; parallel-leaf venation) tend to be shrubby or herbaceous. Occasional monocots with secondary, woody growth exist (bamboo, palms), but are not found in Pennsylvania’s woods. Dicots (two cotyledons; broad leaves with branching venation) and gymnosperms are common here.
Gymnosperms have no flowers; their branches contain female cones with exposed ovules that are fertilized by air-borne pollen produced by male cones, which are usually found on the lower branches and shed after pollination in spring. Seeds can take up to two years to mature. Gymnosperms have needle-shaped leaves and are usually evergreen. Common gymnosperms found in Pennsylvania are white pine and eastern red cedar. An unusual and evolutionarily ancient gymnosperm common in Chester County is the ginkgo, with exotic fan-shaped leaves that turn brilliant yellow in the fall. Look for this tree near the air-filling station at Landhope farms in WIllowdale or along the Longwood turnoff on Route 1.
Dicotyledonous angiosperms make up a substantial proportion of hardwood forests. Many of these hardwoods have familiar names: oaks, maples, cherry. But there are also poplars, redbud, magnolia, beech, elm, walnut, ash, mulberry, birches and the sublimely-named “Tree of Life” in these woods. Witch hazel and dogwood are understory trees, which do not grow as tall as the upper story trees. Many trees may be easily identified by their leaf shapes and bark structure. Plants in the walnut family (black walnut, hickories) have pinnately-compound leaves and produce an edible nut. The birch family includes the beautiful paper birch with its peeling white bark, and grey birch. Do not peel the bark – peeling bark from a live tree will kill it. The beech family includes the American beech as well as the oaks. It used to include the beautiful American chestnut before these trees were mostly wiped out by chestnut blight in the 1930s. The oaks are recognized by their lobed leaves – red oaks have a tiny bristle at the end of each pointed lobe; white oaks have rounded lobes and lack a bristle. The oak family is quick to cross-fertilize and some oaks are difficult to classify for this reason. All oaks have acorns. Beeches are my favorite trees with their smooth green skin (which sadly draws vandals to carve their names on it) and exuberant foliage. Maples are easy to recognize: they have typical “maple leaf” shaped leaves with three to five lobes and glorious fall leaf colors ranging from yellow to burgundy. The tulip tree or yellow poplar is a common, imposing, and easily-recognized tree with tulip shaped leaves (I once heard them described as someone taking a pair of scissors to a maple leaf) and beautiful tulip-shaped flowers as well.
More information on Pennsylvania trees can be obtained at: http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/forestry/commontr/.
I highly recommend The Sibley Guide to Trees (ISBN 978-0-375-41519-7) for its exhaustive information on tree identification.