(Editor’s note: What follows is part of a summer-long series on Lebanon County’s recreational parks, which first appeared on Lebanon Sports Buzz in 2014.)
BY JEFF FALK
LICKDALE – Did you know that Pennsylvania’s park system is regarded as one of the finest in the country? But here’s the real beauty of it, no matter where one goes in the state, he or she doesn’t have to search far to find a state park.
In many ways, Swatara State Park, located north of Lickdale jut this side of Pine Grove, is a hidden gem among local parks, a secret seeking to be discovered, a prize waiting to be unwrapped.
Elongated in shape, the 3,520-acre park borders a ten-mile stretch of routes 72 and 443 in Cold Spring township, Swatara State Park is situated on both sides of the Swatara Creek. It is one of the most scenic areas of Lebanon County, but perhaps the best part of it is that it’s outside, and enveloped in nature.
“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Corey Snyder, one of Swatara State Park’s ranger and its manager. “I don’t think people understand what kind of a hidden gem they have just north of them. I’m not sure why. But I think the secret is getting out.
“There’s no camping, but you do have something for everyone,” continued Snyder. “You have the locks for history buffs, and there’s a lot of native-american history here. There’s the water. And whether you like mountain-biking or the old ten-speed, there’s lots of trails. If you want to get back to basics and how Pennsylvania started, this is the place to be. You’re always engulfed in the resource. We care for it, and our visitors care for it too.”
The land that now makes up Swatara State Park was set aside by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in the early 1970s, but for many years went undeveloped. The work that completed the park was finished in 2012.
But it still remains not too developed.
“It’s a park. It’s nature. It is what it is,” said Snyder. “You’ve got to find a balance between wilderness and making people aware of their surroundings. It’s a growing, up-and-coming park. It’s really being populated.
“It’s a project-70 park,” Snyder continued. “Seventy parks were created in 1970, and this was one of them, although it wasn’t developed until recently. In 2011 and 2012, the park was developed into what it is today, and the land is preserved. It’s going to stay as pristine was we can keep it. At first, there was minimal parking and people mainly used it to hunt. As far as recreation, there wasn’t much out here. Some slow attempts were made in the late 1990s, but the huge leap came in 2011 and 2012.”
So what do people do at Swatara State Park? When it comes to nature, a better question might be: What don’t they do?
Hiking, biking, fishing, boating, hunting, walking, running, exploring, horseback riding, cross-country skiing, bird-watching, relaxing and picnicking. Swatara State Park is home to a four-mile equestrian trail, a ten-mile mountain biking trail complex and 24 miles of hiking trails, including the Swatara Rail Trail, Bear Hole Trail and a two-mile portion of the national Appalachian Trail.
“They’re riding bikes,” said Snyder. “There’s a lot of bicycle riders. They’re kayaking. They’re canoeing. They’re walking and running. Even in the off-season there’s a lot of people riding bikes and walking. There’s some fishing, but not as much as I thought there’d be.
“During the off-season, there’s a lot of hunting here,” added Snyder. “It’s a very popular park for hunting. They pull out some nice bucks, and doe.”
But Swatara State Park is also home to turkey, grouse, pheasant, bobcat, trout, various species of fowl and the occasional bald eagle sighting. In addition, it features four spectacularly preserved locks from the old Union Canal, native-american fossil grounds and an iron bridge relocated south from Waterville, PA.
“It reminds me of when I was younger,” said Snyder. “It brings back memories of growing up. You could take fossils home. You can walk back there. You can bike back there. But there are no motor vehicles allowed on our trails.
It’s ten miles long, from Exit 90 to Exit 100 on Route 81, from Lickdale to Pine Grove, and some of it is just trail trail,” Snyder added. “It’s a pretty decent sized park, but it’s almost impossible to get lost because it’s thin and long. It contains five linear corridors, whether it’s creeks, trails or roads, so it’s not easy to get lost. At least it hasn’t happened yet.”
Last year, a total of 151, 986 people visited Swatara State Park, a good mixture of locals and tourists. Though no camping is allowed, Swatara State Park is indirectly supported by Twin Valley Campgrounds and Lickdale Campgrounds.
“The majority of people are locals who have been coming here for years,” said Snyder. “Now that we put trail-heads and bathrooms in, we’re getting more visitors. It is a goal to have more people come out here. There was an issue at our fossil site a couple of years back where we had four-wheelers going up the side of the hill, where there’s million-year-old fossils. Since we closed access to that area, it’s nice to see the change back to families and children. When I see families out here, that makes me happy.
“Physical activity is important,” added Snyder. “With the way everything is changing, it’s more important to just get outside. Getting to the fossil site, it’s a half-mile, flat easy walk. The exercise does sneak up on you, just walking around here.”
Snyder is one of three rangers who split their time between Swatara State Park and Memorial State Park in Grantville, just outside of Fort Indiantown Gap. Their full-time efforts are supported by part-time employees and a group of essential volunteers.
“We have volunteers who help at the park, and they’re very important here,” said Snyder. “They make a big difference. But I don’t think they know they make a big impact. But they’re indispensable. I’m glad for it. They have the passion for it. They genuinely care.
“Specifically with the park, handling the different invasive species is the biggest challenge we face,” continued Snyder. “We don’t have the manpower for it, the time for it, the funding for it. You can only do so much in so many areas. They’re tough to deal with.”
While Swatara State Park certainly has a storied past, it may be that its best days are ahead of it.
“As far as the facilities go, I’d like to have a couple more bathrooms,” said Snyder. “I’d like to continually improve the trail system. Nature always wants to grow back in on them. I’d like to see more pavilions out here. We’ve got the room for it. And I’d like to see more parking lots.
“One thing I really focus on, I want to sure up the foundation,” concluded Snyder. “Whether it’s a new coat of paint or putting down new stone. It doesn’t have a lot of glitter and rainbows. But if it is done right, people will notice and they won’t be complaining. It shouldn’t break or look run-down. It should look nice.”
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