Bear Meadows Natural Area is an 890-acre protected zone within Rothrock State Forest that is known for its unusual swamp and rare plants.
The Bear Meadows swamp is in an enclosed valley that has been poorly drained for thousands of years. Although Pennsylvania has many swamps, most were formed by glaciers that disrupted water flow during the Ice Ages. In contrast, Bear Meadows is believed to have been formed by beavers.
The swamp occupies an unusually flat valley within a bend of the long ridge known as Tussey Mountain, and the valley is almost entirely surrounded by steep ridgelines. Over millennia, beavers dammed the only outgoing stream, creating a succession of ponds. The ponds gradually filled with silt, forming a peat bog, and the soggy soil prevented a robust growth of trees.
Bear Meadows is protected both as a State Forest Natural Area and as a United States National Natural Landmark. The area designated for protection in 1965 contained 500 acres. It has since been expanded to 890 acres.
Pennsylvania began protecting forest districts for their natural and scenic value in 1898. Starting in 1921, particularly noteworthy groves of trees were given extra protection and designated as “Natural Monuments.” Gradually the protection was expanded to any type of ecosystem with scientific or scenic value, and the title “Natural Area” was adopted in 1970.
The peat at Bear Meadows has attracted scientific interest because it preserves spores from plants and trees that have occupied the area for more than 10,000 years. The spores indicate that the area once hosted plant species now found only in Siberia and northern Canada, a fact that suggests long-term climate changes.
In the present day, the swamp is home to plant species that are rare in Pennsylvania, including several varieties of spruce trees and carnivorous plants. Bobcats and bears (the area’s namesake) have been reported. Ornithologists have identified more than 100 bird species, and entomologists have found Pennsylvania’s largest and most diverse concentration of dragonflies.
The Natural Area can be reached via the unpaved Bear Meadows Road, south of Tussey Mountain Ski Area. A hiking trail of about 3.5 miles loops around the entire protected zone. Bear Meadows is also visible from several vistas on the Mid State Trail, which follows the tops of ridgelines that rise above three sides of the bog.
Fergus, Charles. Natural Pennsylvania: Exploring the State Forest Natural Areas. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002, pp. 67-72.
National Park Service, Bear Meadows Natural Area, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nnlandmarks/site.htm?Site=BEME-PA.
Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, Natural Areas and National Natural Landmarks, https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/Recreation/WhereToGo/NaturalAreas/Pages/default.aspx.
Thwaites, Tom. 50 Hikes in Central Pennsylvania, third edition. Woodstock, VT: Backcountry Publications, 1995, pp. 99-102.
First Published: June 6, 2022
Last Modified: July 7, 2022