Ohiopyle State Park, Ferncliff Peninsula, PA Edward Frank
Nov. 16, 2006

Ohiopyle State Park, Ferncliff Peninsula, PA


On Tuesday Nov. 14, 2006 Anthony Kelley and myself visited Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The park includes 19, 052 acres of land in Fayette County in the Laurel Mountains.  More than 14 miles of the Youghiogheny [yaw-ki-GAY-nee] River Gorge that passes through the heart of the park.  The 1,700 feet deep Youghiogheny Gorge was formed by the Youghiogheny River cutting through Laurel Ridge.  The Youghiogheny flows northward from Maryland and West Virginia to Pittsburgh, where it joins the Allegheny River to form the Ohio River.  Through this section of the park the river drops 60 feet in a distance of 2 miles.  The major waterfall on the Youghiogheny River drops 40 feet as this major river cascades over a sandstone cliff.  

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Falls of the Youghiogheny


Farther downstream are several series of whitewater rapids.  The famous Lower Yough begins after the Ohiopyle Falls and flows seven miles downstream to the Bruner Run Take-out. This is the busiest section of whitewater east of the Mississippi River.   There are numerous sections of  Class III and IV rapids and some sections of I and II suitable for beginners.  


The park itself receives about 2, 000,000 visitors per year, primarily to see the spectacular Falls of the Youghiogheny and other waterfalls in the park and to participate in the whitewater rafting experience.  Cucumber Falls is another  spectacular 40 foot water fall immediately off the roadway within the park.

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Rhododendron thicket near the falls

Our destination was the Ferncliff Peninsula immediately across the Falls of the Youghiogheny from the observation/viewing area.  This 104 acre peninsula was declared a National Natural Landmark. In 1992, Ferncliff Peninsula was also declared a State Park Natural Area.  Marcia Bonta, writer and naturalist, writes that Bruce Kershner rated Ohiopyle State Park's Ferncliff Natural Area Ferncliff Peninsula a Class B+  old-growth area including a 20 acres of old-growth along the falls and rapids of the Youghiogheny  River.  The peninsula is formed where the river makes a horseshoe bend around a harder outcrop of sandstone.  The bottom of the gorge is deeper and a somewhat  warmer than the surrounding territory.  Water flowing northward brings seeds from species that normally are found only in areas farther south to the peninsula.  

 The following is an excerpt from Trees & Shrubs of Ferncliff Park, a 1962 Pocket Guide by Dr. Otto E. Jennings. 


     “Ferncliff Park was saved for the enjoyment of the present and future generations in 1951 when the late Edgar J. Kaufmann purchased it as it was about to be lumbered. He presented the tract to Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.   Ferncliff Park, the "Peninsula," is formed by the Youghiogheny River as it makes a horseshoe curve at Ohiopyle, Fayette County, in south-western Pennsylvania. Its 100 acres have become the nucleus of a program destined to include several thousand acres of surrounding scenic splendor as one of the most beautiful spots in the state.  It is a botanically important natural area which for more than 75 years has been known as the habitat of many rare and unusually interesting plants, a considerable number of which are here at the northern-most limit of their range.   In the general Ohiopyle area there have now been discovered 127 different kinds of trees and shrubs. Notwithstanding its relatively small area and rather limited variety of ecological environments, Ferncliff Park contains at least 87 species and varieties of woody plants. It is quite probably that all the kinds of trees that were present when the first botanical studies were made - before the area was cut over in 1911 - are still present, although in different proportions. It is now beginning to assume a primeval appearance. The most common trees in the Park are the oaks - the black, red, scarlet, white, and chestnut oak. Among the various other trees that are sure to attract attention are shellbark hickory, the tulip tree with its straight column-like boles and artistically lobed leaves, the cucumber tree with large tropical-like leaves, and the beech with its pale, smooth bark.  Along the Magnolia Trail the three or four examples of the Umbrella Tree here reach their northernmost know limit, but they are among the large rocks near the river's edge and are so difficult of access that their preservation is fairly well assured.   The Youghiogheny River at Ohiopyle falls 90 feet in less than two miles. The major waterfall is about 40 feet. As the river sweeps around the bend during floods it scours the outer bank down to bedrock, thus exposing a rather flat area of rock strata slightly tilted upstream with numerous breaks and crevices which afford a habitat for various mosses and crevice plants, a number of which are rare or noteworthy for our region. Preserved as a protected area it continues to serve as a laboratory for the person interested in observing growing plants and trees reacting to nature's influences without human interference. At the same time, it provides healthful and aesthetic recreation for the visitor who respects its significance.”


The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy was the primary architect in the creation of the park.  In addition to the donation of the area including Ferncliff Peninsula help came from two more milestone land transactions. West Penn Power Company donated rights to land across the river from Ferncliff, and Mrs. Albert Keister donated a tract of land opposite Ferncliff, which contained the 40-foot Cucumber Falls. On May 2, 1963, WPC transferred 2,800 acres to the Commonwealth to form the nucleus of the new state park. By 1965, WPC conveyed nearly 10,000 of the 18,000 acres slated for the park’s initial landscape.


I arrived somewhat late, with Anthony waiting in the parking lot by the observation tower.  Traffic/road construction/wrong turns…  We hiked across the bridge and into the natural area.  There are a number of trails on the peninsula.  The “Ancient Forests of the Northeast” book recommended always taking the outer turns at every intersection, so that was out plan.  The outermost trail is called the Ferncliff Trail, and includes a few side spurs to various overlooks.  Going clockwise the trail follows the shoreline of the river to just past the Falls of the Youghiogheny before climbing up the slope to the ridgetop.  The rocks along the river and in the core of the peninsula itself are Pennsylvanian age Pottsville Sandstone.  Various plant fossils including giant horsetails, seed ferns and the like are preserved in the bedrock.  On the steep sides of the peninsula are massive thickets of Great Rhododendron.  Looking from across the river as we were leaving we likely missed the tallest hemlock on the peninsula as we walked by in while traversing this section of the trail.  Close up the Falls are very impressive.  You can feel the power of the water as it thunders down the waterfall.  Just past the falls the trail climbs up the cliffside. 


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Black oak  - cbh 10', height 90' tall
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Chestnut Oak - cbh 8' 07", height 105.5 tall


Along this section we stopped to measure our first tree.  It was a large Black Oak with a burl at its base growing on the upslope side of the trail.  cbh 10’ 0”, height 90 feet. (I think Anthony got a better measurement from atop the hill later in the trip).  The next tree was a Chestnut Oak, cbh 8’ 07”, height 105.5 feet.  Another Chestnut Oak was next on the river side of the trail.  The trunk curved outward and up from the side of the trail.  cbh 10’ 02”, height only 56.5 feet.  It was an old looking beat-up gnarled tree.  Impressive looking even if it not that tall. 


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Chestnut Oak (same tree as above)  - cbh 8' 07", height 105.5 tall
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Chestnut Oak on cliff side - cbh 10' 2", height 56.5 tall


We continued around the trail measuring trees.  There were wide variety of oak species present:  White Oak, Chestnut Oak, Red Oak, Black Oak, and Scarlet Oak.  There was some discussion over the identification of some of the species, but we eventually settled on what we believe are the correct identifications.  There are a number of trees of significant height along a lower level terrace above the river.  These include some taller white pines, hemlocks, tulip trees, and sycamores.  The limited time and the vertical cliff below the trail thwarted or exploration of this area, but we will return to get more numbers.  In addition, I measured a number of smaller species just to add to the species total for the area.  We collected enough for a Rucker index, but do not believe we have the tallest of any of the species present.  We did not locate any of the Umbrella magnolia on this trip.  Maybe when the leaves are out we can distinguish them.


Species                        cbh                   height


Black Oak                    10’ 00”            90                              1

Chestnut Oak               8’ 07”             105.5                           2

Chestnut Oak               10’02”             56.5

Hemlock                      5’ 11”             90.5                             3

White Pine                    6’ 10”             125                              4

Red Oak                      8’ 00”             90                                5

Tuliptree                       6’ 04”             108.6

Scarlet Oak                  7’ 11”             108.5                           6

Cucumber                    2’ 10”             65.2                             10 (darn)

White Oak                   5’ 11”             112.2                           7

Scarlet Oak                  8’ 05”             103.1

American Beech            5’ 04”             89.5                             8

White Oak                    5’ 08”  Giant burl 20 feet up the tree

Tuliptree                       6’ 09”             117.5                           9

White Pine                    9’ 08”             109.8

Striped Maple              1’ 09”              40.5

White Oak                   11' 2.5"            95.5 


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Large burl in white oak tree
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Rhododendron canopy in small alcove


The Rucker Index is not really representative of the trees on the site.  I am sure there are many taller specimens than what we measured, plus other species we did not measure on this scouting trip.  Even including the short cucumber I measured (because it was there) the Rucker Height Index is still 99.4, and if Anthony got a better height on the Black oak, we will be over 100.


Rucker Index:  99.4


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Striped Maple - cbh 1' 09", height 40.5'
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White Oak - cbh 11' 2.5", height 95.5


We measured as we circled around the peninsula.  Once the circle was completed we headed out the Oakwood trail to reach the first black oak we measured.  Anthony took some additional shots and got a better height on the tree (- I don’t have it).  I had climbed back down to the Ferncliff trail to confirm we were shooting the right tree.  We headed back from there.  When we reached the parking lot across the river we spotted a black oak with a really fat, unusually shaped trunk.  We had to stop and measure it:


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Parking lot Black Oak

Cbh                  16’ 11”

Height                69.3’


From here we headed to Cucumber Falls to see if there were any older trees in the steep gorge.  The waterfall was spectacular - unfortunately my photos did not turn out.  It tumbles from a flat streambed down a 40 foot drop in a fall 15 feet wide.  Below is a scenic rocky alcove formed by undercut cliffs.  It is only a short distance down the stream to the Youghiogheny.  With the light fading we headed for home.


Ed Frank


RE: Ohiopyle State Park, PA   Edward Frank
  Nov 17, 2006 18:16 PST 


There are a number of places you can get down to the river. We probably
can work our way around to the terraces from these locations. We'll
just have to see.   The peninsula was a popular destination in the late
1800's to early 1900's with visitors coming by train from Pittsburgh and
other areas. On the surface of the ferncliff area was a hotel, dance
hall, and even a bowling alley. These fell into disuse as travel by
automobile became more widespread. We did not explore much of the upper
portion of the ferncliff peninsula. I would guess if it was used as a
scenic park there might be some individual trees that are first growth
present, but most were cleared. What we saw looked pretty small.
Around the sides of the peninsula, there are many old trees.

Ed Frank

wad-@comcast.net wrote:
  Ed, Anthony

That sounds like a wonderful place. Sounds like you might need some
ropes to get down to the tall ones? Are you allowed to venture off the
trails at will? I wish I didn't live so far East. With the purchase of
my new home, I will have room for a couple of guests. Maybe we can make
a weekend trip into Fairmount park some time.

RE: Ohiopyle State Park, PA   Anthony Kelly
  Nov 18, 2006 06:57 PST 


Nice report on our trip to Ohiopyle. I measured a couple of trees whose
measurements I apparently didn't hand over to you:

Red Oak             7'11"          105.0
White Oak          5'11"          112.2
White Pine         6'10"          129.1

This would put the Rucker Index at 100.7 if my quick recalculation is
correct. I'm sure a more thorough search of the site will reveal taller

I'll probably get back down there sometime before spring.

Anthony Kelly
RE: Ohiopyle State Park, PA   Dale Luthringer
  Nov 29, 2006 16:17 PST 
Ed, Tony,

Great job in getting down to Ohiopyle. I've been wanting to get back
down there and do some measuring myself, but will probably have to wait
until I have a meeting in the area.

Ferncliff was nice when I was there last, but I wasn't overly impressed
with tree dimensions. There were some fat ones though on top, like your
chunky black oak! When I was there last, I actually went counter
clockwise around the peninsula. I'm not sure if I got down to the flat
that you guys were describing though in your. I was mostly on top or
maybe halfway down the slope all the way around. Of course, like usual I
was pressed for time and wasn't able to get a lot of measuring in.
Regrettably I had to toss ALL my measurements due to a bum laser. I've
yet to be able to go back and revisit... that must have been about 3-4
years ago.

Ed, are you keeping all the tree data for that site? I know I'd like to
have a copy when you guys get that far.