Recreationists discovering beauty on the Susquehanna and along its banks

(Another in a series of occasional columns about York County and its relationship with the Mason-Dixon Line and its other borders, too. This column, the second of two, explores York County’s eastern border, defined by the Susquehanna River.)

Those promoting the Lower Susquehanna will tell you that county folks and visitors from outside the river region are traveling in greater numbers from Lancaster to York.

And vice versa.

That’s been the instincts of leaders of the Susquehanna National Heritage Area and Lancaster Conservancy and others.

Susquehanna Heritage’s Abigail Teaford has dug deeply into visitor logs and produced numbers to show that attractions at Long Level in York County, indeed, are drawing people across the bridges.

For about 110 years, the Chief Uncas cruised Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y. – the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. On Memorial Day, it will start a second season in excursion service as part of River Discovery Boat tours offered by Susquehanna National Heritage Area.
For about 110 years, the Chief Uncas cruised Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, N.Y. – the headwaters of the Susquehanna River. On Memorial Day, it will start a second season in excursion service as part of River Discovery Boat tours offered by Susquehanna National Heritage Area.

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Susquehanna Heritage’s Lower Windsor Township sites include the Zimmerman Center, with its Native American exhibit, vintage river art and neighboring Native Lands County Park. And there’s a Memorial Day weekend kickoff for a second season aboard the Chief Uncas, a 1912 electric-powered craft, the major feature of Susquehanna Discovery River Tours.

Those who signed the guest book at the Zimmerman Center show that 32% were from York County and 24% were from Lancaster County and about 45% came from more than 50 miles away.

As for passengers touring aboard the Chief Uncas, 35% came from York and 22% came from Lancaster.

The route from the Wrightsville bridgeheads to Long Level is beautiful, hilly and hardly direct. But people are finding their way.

So I commented in an email to Abby about the Discovery River Tours: “I'd say getting 1,134 people to travel to Long Level is appreciable.”

She responded: “It was amazing to see us hit the over 1,000 mark, when on our pontoon boat tours (predecessor craft to Chief Uncas) we would hit 1,000 passengers at the end of (a) 5 month season and we hit that number last year in 3 months!”

Favorite places to visit

This might lead some to wonder about favorite attractions on each side of the Lower Susquehanna or farther inland in the two counties.

We asked those charged with creating and advocating for visitors’ sites — trails, parks, preserves and museums — about their favorites.

Here are their go-to sites:

When some people think about Pinchot State Park in northern York County, they remember the old toboggan run. The concrete toboggan supports are still visible at the park. The park remains popular today for its offerings of a host of outdoor activities.
When some people think about Pinchot State Park in northern York County, they remember the old toboggan run. The concrete toboggan supports are still visible at the park. The park remains popular today for its offerings of a host of outdoor activities.

York County Economic Alliance’s Silas Chamberlin, an environmental historian: On the York side, Pinchot State Park is my favorite — mostly for nostalgia and personal connections that go back to my first camping and fishing experiences with my parents and friends. And memories I have made there with my kids.

Last year, I discovered Lancaster Conservancy’s Otter Creek Preserve near the Urey Overlook on the York side of the river. Standing in the gorge, you have the feeling of being in the PA Wilds or the Adirondacks, not southern York County. It’s an amazing place.

On the Lancaster side, the newly opened Martic Forge Trestle is one of my new favorite places — and has already become a regional draw. But admittedly, whereas I know my Adams, Franklin and Cumberland public lands well, I have a lot to explore in Lancaster County.

Phil Wenger, Lancaster Conservancy president: My favorite preserve in York County is Otter Creek. You can park at Urey Overlook parking and head down into the gorge. It’s got amazing views, rocks, wildflowers, fishing and still has a few old hemlocks. Once you hit the Susquehanna, you can do a loop back up to Urey Point on state parks lands.

My favorite hike in Lancaster County is the Clark Nature Preserve. Head upriver to Wind Cave, then follow the Conestoga Trail (on Conservancy land) downriver to House Rock, then up and down several time to Tucquan. It’s a 6-mile hike in and out, but the topography, views of the river and exercise are hard to beat.

This high trestle on the Enola Low Grade trail on the Lancaster County side is a major walking and biking attraction. (
This high trestle on the Enola Low Grade trail on the Lancaster County side is a major walking and biking attraction. (

Mark Platts, Susquehanna Heritage president, who points out that the Susquehanna is within Lancaster County’s borders: My favorite place to be along the river is aboard Susquehanna Heritage’s quiet, green and historic Chief Uncas motor launch. It leaves from the York County shoreline but cruises through Lancaster County’s waters, so it’s a favorite that touches both counties.

If I had to pick from just land-based sites, they would be Sam Lewis State Park in York County (where I’ve  been going since I was a kid in the 1960s) and riding the Northwest River Trail in Lancaster County, which is the type of easygoing, mostly level and scenic bike trails I like.

Top-of-mind thoughts

When these advocates were asked for top of mind thoughts about the Susquehanna conservation landscapes, they gave insightful responses, included here, in part:

Chamberlin:  … I think it’s entirely natural and appropriate for economic development professionals, including York County Economic Alliance, to be deeply engaged in this work.

Not only is there a huge economic impact to recreationists visiting an area but access to recreational assets is also a primary consideration for where people choose to live and work. And that’s one of the key economic determinants in whether or not a region will be competitive in the 21st century.

Wenger: We now have three state parks, multiple county parks (Apollo, Chickies, Northwest River Trail), many, many municipal parks, public utility lands, long hiking trails (Conestoga, Mason-Dixon), rail trails. The list goes on and on.

This is an under-appreciated area that will grow in popularity as county populations in both Lancaster and York continue to grow and people recognize (especially young people) that you don’t have to travel to Colorado Springs to enjoy truly wild areas within 30 minutes of your home.

Platts, about the Cuff’s Run pump storage hydro project, proposed down river in York County: With all of the investment over the past 20 years in making the river a more attractive destination for local residents and heritage and outdoor travelers, it’s really distressing to see such an old-school proposal like this one be revived once again (fourth time in 50 years).

The Susquehanna Riverlands of York and Lancaster counties are a conservation landscape now, not a development landscape. The future is heritage tourism, outdoor recreation, river towns revitalization and small business development, not massive, man-made impoundments that flood woodlands, farms, homes, hiking trails and historic landscapes to generate power that uses more energy than it produces simply for higher corporate profits, and then sends it out of state with little value to Pennsylvanians.

It will actually produce fewer permanent jobs than local heritage and conservation groups have already created in just a few years by focusing on preservation instead of more industrial-scale development.

Imagine if we instead invested the $2 billion proposed for this project in more land protection, historic preservation, parks, trails and community revitalization efforts. Now that would be true sustainable economic development and make this an even more desirable place to live, work and play than it already is!

The two highlighted preserves across from Marietta in York County represent Lancaster Convervancy land. The preserve marked “new acquisition” is a new state park, Susquehanna Riverlands State Park.
The two highlighted preserves across from Marietta in York County represent Lancaster Convervancy land. The preserve marked “new acquisition” is a new state park, Susquehanna Riverlands State Park.

City sites popular, too

And what sites does Abby Teaford enjoy, when she’s not handling Zimmerman Center visitor services, boat tours and queries from journalists? She has some York city sites high on her list.

York County History Center’s Colonial Courthouse is her favorite because it helps her connect with the nation’s early history and gives visitors an understanding of York’s role in America’s founding.

Kelly Summerford sits on the bench next to a statue of William C. Goodridge, mid-1800s owner of the townhouse now known as the Goodridge Freedom Center. This museum at 123 E. Philadelphia St., York, is a growing destination for Underground Railroad and early American photography enthusiasts.
Kelly Summerford sits on the bench next to a statue of William C. Goodridge, mid-1800s owner of the townhouse now known as the Goodridge Freedom Center. This museum at 123 E. Philadelphia St., York, is a growing destination for Underground Railroad and early American photography enthusiasts.

The Goodridge Freedom Center, she says, provides an appreciation of the work of William C. Goodridge and others as station masters on the Underground Railroad.

“I think these two locations highlight York city’s past,” she said, “and help us have a better understanding and appreciation of people who have lived before us.

Then she returned to Lancaster County and the Susquehanna corridor.

The old Wizard Ranch Boy Scout camp in Hellam Township is a preserve operated by Lancaster Conservancy. Plans call for the old site to be improved for outdoor enthusiasts.
The old Wizard Ranch Boy Scout camp in Hellam Township is a preserve operated by Lancaster Conservancy. Plans call for the old site to be improved for outdoor enthusiasts.

The Northwest River Trail is her favorite, giving people a better appreciation of the Susquehanna and the Veterans Memorial Bridge connecting Columbia and Wrightsville.

And it takes you through historic towns.

“Starting in Marietta to Columbia and beyond,” she said, “this trail takes you past historic homes, buildings and structures that have a history all their own.”

Jim McClure is a retired editor of the York Daily Record and has authored or co-authored nine books on York County history. Reach him at jimmcclure21@outlook.com.

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: Recreationists discovering beauty on Susquehanna and along its banks