Presque Isle State Park, Erie County, PA Edward Frank
August 26, 2009


On Monday August 24, 2009 I visited Presque Isle State Park, just north of Erie, PA.  The park occupies a peninsula that juts 2 miles out into Lake Erie forming a curved spit about 6 miles total in length.   Presque Isle is the most visited state park in the state because of a series of popular beaches facing Lake Erie.  

Presque Isle State park - photo from MapQuest

The park consists of a series of dune ridges separated by low lying marshes and lagoons.  

The beach ridges evolve as the offshore bars migrate onshore and weld onto the shore as a subaerial bar.  They probably build in height as they migrate onshore in response to the steeper waves of the surf zone. Sand is deposited in front of the bar; a lagoon is trapped behind it. Cottonwoods and other vegetation take root on the beach ridge, and dunes build on top of the ridge, increasing its height to about 20 ft above LWD. Low areas behind and between the beach ridges are submerged and appear as a series of elongated ponds oriented WNW-ESE. Examples of these ridge ponds are Long Pond, Cranberry Pond, and Ridge Pond (Figure 2). The recurving offshore bars at the distal east end form a finger-shaped array of ponds, which are oriented north-south. These distal ponds include Big Pond, Yellow Bass Pond, and Niagara Pond .The Presque Isle system is an eastward-migrating system which feeds upon itself as it migrates. Within the system, material is eroded from the neck to the shifting nodal point, which has recently been in the vicinity of Beach 10, and is deposited along the depositional feature (Gull Point) or offshore to create a new platform to the east, or landward, where it shoals in the harbor entrance channel.

The Erie County natural History Inventory (1993) prepared by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy for the Erie County Department of Planning outlines the vegetation present on the peninsula:

East of Long Pond, within the road that encircles the sandspit's interior, a considerable portion of the sandspit's interior natural communities remain in essentially pristine condition. Generally speaking, the natural communities on the sandspit are progressively older toward the Presque Isle Bay side and on the western end of Presque Isle Peninsula. The result is a mosaic of natural communities (i.e., habitats) supporting a diverse assemblage of flora that represents a continuum of successional seral stages, tending from palustrine ponds and bays (i.e., hydric) to a terrestrial (i.e., xeric) climatic climax community (Kormandy, 1984; 1969).

The dry-mesic Eastern Great Lakes sandplain community (NC007) is an open, dry grassland usually dominated by wood-grass (Sorghastrum nutans), a panic grass (Panicum virgatum), and a beardgrass (Andropogon scorparius).  NC007 consists of seven distinct natural vegetation assemblages and a mixed pine plantation that was planted in one of the NC007 communities. The natural vegetation assemblages include: a mixed graminoid sandplain vegetation assemblage; mixed forest sandplain savannah dominated by a black oak-sassafras-black cherry (Quercus velutina-Sassafras-Prunus serotina) savannah; a shrub thicket sandplain vegetation assemblage dominated by common cottonwood-wax-myrtle-morrow honeysuckle (Populus deltoides-Myrica-Lonicera Morrowi) shrub thicket; a shrub savannah sandplain dominated by wood-grass (Sorgastrum nutans); a Great Lakes broadleaf sandplain forest consisting of a common cottonwood loam forest; a crack willow-white willow (Salix fragilis-S. alba) forest; and oak-black cherry-red maple (Quercus-Prunus serotina-Acer rubrum) forest.

I have been visiting the park since I was a child, but this was my first trip back since I became so heavily involved with ENTS.  The park has been described as containing a generally young forest and shrub assemblage in generally younger stages of succession.  The comment about the interior being in essentially pristine condition caught my attention.  I wanted to see these areas even if they were not great in age because they could be considered primary forests.  I planned a good hike along several of the trails.  I started out across from the lighthouse exhibit and hiked the Dead Pond Trail to the opposite side of the spit, down the multiuse path to the start of the Sidewalk Trail back across the spit to the Marsh Trail, to the Ridge Trail, and along the Fox Trail back to my starting point - a total distance of about 5.5 miles.  

Dead Pond Trail: This trail leads over several former dunes and through several distinct ecological zones. You will walk through oak-maple forest, pines and sandplains. (2 miles)

Sidewalk Trail: This historic trail was originally constructed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a path from the Presque Isle Lighthouse to the U.S. Lighthouse Service boathouse in Misery Bay. The trail was once a wooden boardwalk and was resurfaced with concrete in 1925. (1.25 miles)

Marsh Trail: This trail bisects Cranberry Pond, one of the many ponds on Presque Isle. The pond formed as water was trapped between two ridges. (.25 miles)

Ridge Trail: This trail follows the edge of Cranberry Pond along a portion of ridge that was a beach dune 300 years ago. (.5 miles)

Fox Trail: This trail winds through wooded swamps and oak-maple forests. It is maintained and groomed as a cross-country ski trail in the winter. (.5 miles)

It was a little past noon when I headed out to the park itself after visiting the Tom Ridge Environmental Center near the park entrance.  The first section of the park consists of a narrow neck, in places less than 800 feet wide before opening out into the broader body of the peninsula.  I drove down various side roads checking out the landscape.  The trees in this section all appeared to be young and the area heavily used for marinas, docks and the like. 


The first place I stopped was at the Ranger Station.  Here was a very big cottonwood growing in the parking lot.  I measured it to be 102 feet high and 13' 11" in girth.  There were several others overgrown by vines in the woods nearby that are probably similar in size.   So there are some large trees in the park - just not many.  From here I drove around the rest of the perimeter of the island to Presque Isle Lighthouse and Exhibit.  

Lake Erie beach and shore line

This marks the beginning of the beginning of the Dead Pond Trail.  I immediately was plunged into a forest setting.  The trees were not that large and consisted primarily of black oak, sassafras, red maple, and some black cherry.  The trail continues out along the ridge on the north side of Ridge Pond,  Yellow Bass Pond, and Niagara Pond within the ecological reserve area.  The trees in this area were not very tall - the tallest were perhaps 50 feet tall and relatively small in girth.  

Near start of Dead Pond Trail

The branches in the crowns of these trees were broken and bent.  In another setting this might be considered a sign of age, but here on the peninsula the weather is harsh.  These features could develop in a comparatively short period of time.  The trees are growing in sand, with very high drainage rates and few nutrients.  Soil is thin or absent.  The trees are clearly stunted. But I don't know how old they might be.  The weather Along the side of the trail more open areas could be seen in the direction of the ponds.  Soon the trail dropped down off the ridge crest and out into a sand savannah.  Here the surface was dominated by grasses and sedges.  There were patches of buttonbush, and individual maple, oak, and sassafras trees.  

Sand Savannah along Dead Pond Trail

Sand Savannah - Forest Interface

The trail continued this under canopy and open area back and forth along its length.  Here and there among the open areas were scattered cottonwood trees sticking out high above the other trees maybe reaching 60 feet.  What was curious is the fact that the trees were bare except for balls of leaves near the top.  Other trees in the open areas had leafed branches extending all the way to the ground.  Eventually I reached the far end of the trail and emerged at the highway on the far side of the peninsula.  From here I walked down the multi-use trail paralleling the highway to the start of the sidewalk trail.  This portion of the island is on the lee side of the peninsula.  The trees along the shore consisted mostly of cottonwood and willows.  These are invasive species of crack willow and white willow rather than the native black willow.  One cottonwood in a small parking area measured 72 feet tall and 12' 9" in girth.  The willows were too bushy to easily measure, but ranged up to 60 feet in height and perhaps 7 feet in girth.

Soon I reached the start of the Sidewalk trail that cuts back across the spit.  Here were some larger trees.  The largest I measured in this section was a red oak 101 feet tall and 8' 10" in girth.  

This section runs along the southwestern side of Ridge Pond.  Here after an area of low brush an expanse of lily pads and some open water could be seen.  This was really the first place where a good view of the ponds themselves could be seen.  

Ridge Pond

Near the end of the sidewalk trail I made an abrupt turn onto the Marsh Trail.  This trail cuts across Cranberry Pond.  At the far side of the pond this trail meets the Ridge Trail.  It was in this area that the largest trees were found aside from scattered cottonwoods.

      Name       Species      Height       Girth

      Red Maple       Acer rubrum      81       9' 1"

      Red Oak       Quercus rubra       60       10' 10"

      Red Oak       Quercus rubra       79       7' 4"

      Black Gum       Nyssa sylvatica       60       3' 8"

      Sassafras       Sassafras       54       2' 1"

      Red Oak       Quercus rubra       78       11' 3"

      White Pine       Pinus strobus       57       3' 4"

      Black Cherry       Prunus serotina       60       3' 4.5"

Red Maple, 82 feet tall, 9' 1" girth

Mostly dead Red Oak, broken top to 60 feet, 10' 10" girth

None of these heights are great, but there were a few respectable girths.  These certainly were the largest forest section I encountered on the hikes.  I am trying to track down more detailed information about tree ages in the park.  So if you have any pdf's or access to online journals that might have articles you could send me I would appreciate it.  I plan to visit again later this fall, especially if I get any goo leads or information to better help me interpret what I am seeing.

Ed Frank

I mentioned that the short trees along the trails at Presque Isle had bent and broken limbs from the weather.  Here are a couple of shots:


Red Oak

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