Lancaster County combines all the essential versions of “outside.”
Do you want rolling hills of grass or fields of grain? Check. How about trails that crisscross through streams and rock formations? Most definitely.
But what about the highest and lowest points in the county? Where are those spots, and what geological boxes do they check? This thought crossed my mind one day, driving one of the county’s many winding backroads near Willow Street. Though Pennsylvania is known for its hills and mountains (it’s one of the least flat, along with West Virginia and Kentucky, according to a 2014 Smithsonian Magazine article), I can’t help but think of Lancaster as a place like Florida, where you can see for miles from anywhere you might be standing.
I did what any enterprising journalist might do first, which is type “tallest lowest spot Lancaster” into Google. This led me to a subsection of Lancaster County’s official website for “Spatial Facts,” which held the answers I was seeking … sort of.
Among many other fun facts – did you know that the geographic center of the county is just off Route 30 in a patch of grass between a church and a metal fabricating company? – were the “highest” and “lowest” points of the county, except that they weren’t specific points at all. The lowest point, at 115 feet above sea level, is said to be “Fulton Township at Susquehanna River’s edge,” while the highest is 1,183 feet up, in “West Cocalico Township, north of Deer Road.”
With such generalities, how is one supposed to stand at a cliff’s edge dramatically, or inversely, look up mournfully from the depths of some dark, shallow point?
Kelly Snavely, communications director for Lancaster Conservancy, explained that those points are vague for a reason and that the actual highest and lowest points in the county are on private property, so these approximations are as close as the average Lancastrian can hope to reach. For that reason, the Conservancy says that, generally speaking, the lowest point is “Somewhere near Susquehanna River’s edge” and the highest point is “basically anywhere on top of Texter Mountain.”
In looking at a map of where Pennsylvania and Maryland meet at the southernmost edge of the county, Peach Bottom Road is as close as one can legally get to the Susquehanna without jumping in to swim.
Well … OK? I thought about the hypothetical adventure I had created for myself and decided that if I couldn’t reach the actual highest and lowest points, it was at least worth a long drive to get as close as I could legally could and see what might happen along the way.
On a gray June morning, I pulled my car into a mostly empty gravel parking lot a couple of yards from a set of train tracks. Peach Bottom Road Boat Launch is aptly named, it being a place to launch boats from Peach Bottom Road. Geographically, it’s the southernmost road in Pennsylvania that happens to come closest to the river before it turns into Maryland at the border. There were many birds there when I arrived at 10 a.m., and they seemed to be squawking, “Go away! It was peaceful here before you arrived!”
And it was. Perhaps on a clear day, I could have seen forever, but on this cloudy day, I was grateful enough to see the nuclear power plant on the Slate Hill side of the Susquehanna. A little further down the river, I saw a pair of people fishing. I told them that they just happened to be fishing in the lowest area in the county, which didn’t get much of a rise out of them, perhaps as not to scare the fish.
“I’ve been coming here all my life,” said Joe Reed of Fulton Township. “I used to go out to the middle, up to my neck and fish.”
Here I was trying to find a low point, and Reed proved early that those figures are simply in the eye of the beholder. His fishing partner, Christina Eckenrod, of East York, said that she had fished in areas like Holtwood and Gap before, but that this was her first time fishing in Peach Bottom. Joe had lured her there with the promise of a catfish bounty – however, the day was young and the bounty was still a dream at that point. Standing at the river’s edge reminded me why humans don’t necessarily romanticize being at the bottom of something as much as they do being at the top of something. If you’re not down there angling for a specific goal, you’re probably already thinking about how you can rise above and get a better view.
While finding and going to the lowest point in the county was pretty straightforward, the tallest point took a little more work to discover. Where the boat launch merely required finding where the southernmost road along the Susquehanna lies on a map, Texter Mountain is mostly trees, with a few roads and a hiking trail in the shape of a melted lollipop.
The 51 miles between Peach Bottom and the highest publicly accessible point in Lancaster County pass through Buck, New Providence, Nickel Mines, Intercourse, New Holland, Blue Ball, Adamstown, Reinholds and then, finally, Texter Mountain Preserve. Though the elevation from point A to B is a thousand-foot climb, it felt very gradual up until the last few miles, when the mountain first began to come into view and my right ear popped.
The Lancaster Conservancy deems Texter Mountain as the highest “area” specifically to deter people from bugging the neighbors of the mountain – the actual highest point, at 1,183, lies on private property. But how high can someone feasibly reach without trespassing?
I decided that I would walk the Texter Mountain Trail, just to the south of the “tallest spot,” until I got to a point at least parallel to the supposed next highest point of accessibility on the mountain. Just before the trail is a helpful geographic map, which showed me another inaccessible peak of 1,080 feet.
The trail itself is an exercise in quickly alternating heights, with a starting point at 1,020 feet that eventually dips down to 700 feet before going back up again.
Getting close to that “peak” took roughly 50 minutes, but the hike was incredibly worth it.
At one point, I had to jump from rock to rock to cross a small waterfall-laden waterway called Harnish Run. I stopped for a moment to visualize this small waterfall, devoid of the lush forest that surrounds it, as if the water just happened to be flowing into a stream hundreds of feet up among the clouds (excusing the fact that clouds are roughly 10,000 feet in the air).
Finally reaching the spot I had ordained on the map, I looked up and saw … trees. Seemingly hundreds of thousands of trees, blocking any view I might have of an inaccessible peak that in and of itself is also surrounded by trees, further devoid of the magical view I had imagined for myself.
It was, in a word, anticlimactic.
Driving back to the city, I stewed about setting myself up for a failed adventure and decided that I needed more answers.
“I’m looking at the contours right now, and there’s a small outcropping of about 1,183,” Steve Gochenaur, a geographic systems analyst for Lancaster County with 23 years of experience, later told me. “It’s probably a mound of rocks that someone put there a million years ago, and it’s just a little higher. I can’t tell what’s there, but it’s not that big of an area.”
That outcropping, on private property, is in the region of Texter Mountain where Lancaster, Lebanon and Berks meet. It is littered with riding ranges for horses, and also the home of Ken Brown. Brown’s 18 acres includes a sliver of raised grass in his backyard that notches 1,183 feet above sea level. The view is mostly blocked by trees, but Brown says that he can see the Christmas lights below in Ephrata from his mountaintop perch during the winter months.
“We didn’t know when we first bought it, but we learned about it when people came asking,” Brown says.
That is essentially how LNP|LancasterOnline photographer Blaine Shahan and I came to eventually stand on the spot. Brown’s 18 acres are big enough for his 11 horses, including Max and Major, two older horses watching us stand around looking at a patch of grass. Halfway through the sun-hardened riding range is a makeshift marker splitting Brown’s property between Lebanon in the front and Lancaster in the back. Brown jokes that his neighbor has a three-county stone, though “Berks” was accidentally chiseled in as “Barks.”
Brown’s home is private property, and although he was kind enough to let us walk through his backyard on a hot afternoon, it’s not something that I’d advise a reader to do.
HOW IT’S MEASURED
Gochenaur was happy to explain the process of how the county’s peaks and valleys are measured, with, as he calls for a layperson like myself, a “plane that flies over that shoots down laser beams.”
“It shoots a laser down and can figure out the height from the ground, using GPS to get elevation points,” Gochenaur said. “So, for just about every meter, there’s three or four points that shoot down and then return to the plane and they can calculate the ground elevation. So, then you have this field of a million points all across the county and then you have the people that process the information that use software to produce contours down to like, two feet.”
I made another call to the Conservancy. In recounting my journey to Snavely, I made prominent mention of Harnish Run, the waterway at the heart of the Texter Mountain trail.
“Well, that is pretty cool, because Harnish Run feeds into Blue Lake, which Cocalico Creek flows through and feeds into the Conestoga, and flows down into the Susquehanna,” Snavely explained. “So, you drove between the points, but our water is doing it every single day from our highest point to our lowest point, that’s why our watersheds are important. It’s kind of funny that the water is making the same journey you did by car.”
Something clicked imagining the water flowing from that tiny waterfall in the sky down a winding 50 miles, through dozens of townships and municipalities, down flowing past where I had stood to start this journey. I wondered if, when I made a gentle wave in the water to cool off my hand, if it might have created the tiniest reverberation way down at the bottom of Peach Bottom. There are, of course, taller and lower points throughout the state and the world at large, but what are the odds that those other peaks and valleys all flow into each other?
Snavely said something else in our phone call that felt like a perfect encapsulation of my time searching high, low and in between.
“People should go out and adventure and learn more about our natural world, whether it’s geology, geography, the flora and fauna you find along the way, there’s a spirit of adventure there,” Snavely said. “I think whatever you’re searching for, as long as you’re showing respect for the natural world and leaving no trace, it’s always worth the adventure, even if it’s a little anticlimactic.”