Park Perch: Susquehanna Riverlands is a new gem of a state park with a bird’s-eye view of the river

By Karen Hendricks

Photo by Karen Hendricks

It’s a stunning vista overlooking the Susquehanna River.

To the north, the river flows and swirls around the pillars of the picturesque Shocks Mills Bridge. If you stay perched on the rocky outcropping long enough, you just might spy a miniature train below, chugging across the bridge.

A patchwork of Lancaster County fields and farmland ripple into the horizon, on the opposite shore. To the south, the river disappears around a bend, lost in the Hellam Hills of York County, upon which you’re standing. It’s hard to believe this panoramic spot, frequented by hawks and bald eagles, is less than 10 miles from downtown York.

Most people would probably describe the scene as “sweeping.” But most people haven’t seen or even had access to this bird’s-eye view, until now.

New Views

“We had 135 people here for a ‘First Day Hike’ on Jan. 1,” said Nathaniel Brown, park manager. “It was quite a big gathering—more than we expected, especially with the way the road is. It doesn’t usually see that type of traffic, being a relatively narrow, gravel road.”

That’s because the 1,044-acre-park was just acquired from the nonprofit Lancaster Conservancy last September. But the Overlook Trail leading to Schull’s Rock was quickly blazed in November, powered by a Harrisburg-based crew from the Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps. Roundtrip, the hike is just under a mile and a half, from the makeshift gravel parking area.

“We worked quickly, to give people access to those views,” said Brown. “We expect usage to increase as people become aware of the park. But it’s a lot to balance at the moment—trying to keep people happy by giving them access to the new property, letting them satisfy their curiosity, while we make improvements where we can.”

Another major hiking trail traverses the new park—nearly three miles of the 200-mile-long Mason-Dixon Trail.

As the name Susquehanna Riverlands suggests, the park includes a mile of riverfront along the Susquehanna. But that’s not the only key waterway. The park includes a one-and-a-half-mile stretch of the Codorus Creek, flowing through a gorge, into the river. And that section of the Codorus not only includes Class I and II rapids—rare for this area—but history along its banks.

“The creek had a lot of historic uses from the [nearby] Codorus Furnace,” Brown said. “There was a canal that ran the length of the creek to York city, and the metal that was produced was shipped to Baltimore or Philadelphia.”

Establishing Susquehanna Riverlands gives the state a foothold, from which it’s hoped that additional nearby historic sites—such as the furnace—could be added.

“We know the geology informed the history of this site,” said Rachel Reese, division chief for the resource management and planning division of the Bureau of State Parks, under the umbrella of the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Diamond in the Rough

Environmental experts, starting at rock bottom, are building the park’s master plan—a process that will take at least a year.

“One of the first things we want to do is a complete inventory and assessment of the area—the physical and recreational conditions, if there are sensitive areas like wetlands, or rare species— we want to know all of that,” Reese said. “Once we have that information, the question becomes, ‘How do you connect visitors to those things, without damaging the things that create the desire for visitation?’”

Reese has long been involved in developing new trails and assets within existing state parks. But she’s “wildly overwhelmed” about the development of Susquehanna Riverlands—and two additional new state parks, Vosburg Neck in Wyoming County and Big Elk Creek in Chester County. That boosts Pennsylvania’s number of state parks to 124—one of the largest systems in the country.

Although every state park contains priceless natural wonders, it’s not without actual cost. And there are financial twists in the parks’ funding story. The price tag of three new parks, $45 million, is being underwritten partly by federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, but primarily by the state’s Oil and Gas Leasing Fund. That’s funding, fueled by oil and gas leases on state land, which has significantly swelled with an increase in Marcellus Shale region leases. Tapping into Marcellus Shale is seen as a controversial practice by many environmentalists.

Additionally, some might question how DCNR—with a documented $1.4 billion of backlogged state park maintenance—can add new parks into the mix.

“Our infrastructure needs received a $75 million down payment in the 2022-23 budget through ARPA funding, and Gov. Josh Shapiro has proposed adding another $112 million to address that infrastructure backlog, from the Oil and Gas Leasing Fund in the 2023-24 budget,” said Wesley Robinson, DCNR spokesperson. “All of that is said to note that we are consciously working to be stewards of public lands so that Pennsylvanians have the best recreation options possible. We will continue to push for investments into our public lands and prioritize critical infrastructure projects as we strategically address the backlog.”

As in nature itself, funding and land use are balancing acts. And pandemic trends turned many Pennsylvanians into outdoor enthusiasts, driving a greater need for recreational spaces, sparking the idea of new state parks.

“This is definitely a unique opportunity that hasn’t happened in a long time,” Brown said. “There were a lot of parks developed in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, but the last park that was built from scratch was Erie Bluffs in 2004. This is a new experience for everyone, from the central office to the field staff here. It’s a lot of work—a pretty heavy lift—but it’s a really cool opportunity to be part of the beginning of a new state park.”

For more information, visit Susquehanna Riverlands State Park.

“Park Perch” published in the April 2023 issue of TheBurg, here.

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