Hidden along the southern border of Pennsylvania are four preserves with a feature that might be unfamiliar to you. These preserves are known as serpentine barrens, and they are unlike anything you’ve seen in this part of the country.
These areas are unique because of the presence of serpentine rock. This greenish, waxy rock is believed to be bedrock from ancient sea beds that was pushed to the surface over time. Serpentine lacks the rich nutrients of the soil we’re accustomed to here in Lancaster County. While the unique toxicity of the ground doesn’t suit all plants, it still allows for a variety of plant and insect species to survive in the sometimes-harsh environment. In fact, some can only be found in the barrens. As such, it creates a landscape similar to that of the desert and prairie-like areas out West.
My favorite place to take in the beauty of the barrens has to be Nottingham County Park in Chester County. The park is monitored and maintained by on-site park rangers who are very helpful and knowledgeable about this unique area. Throughout the year, the park offers a variety of educational and entertaining events as well as playgrounds, ponds, pavilions, paved trails, rugged trails and more. We find ourselves here regularly.
The park’s serpentine outcropping measures 1 square mile, making it one of the largest barrens on the East Coast. It features former feldspar and serpentine quarries, as well as chromite ore mines. In 2004, the National Park Service deemed it a National Natural Landmark.
In order to protect the unique species that live in the park, the environment is maintained through controlled burns and other methods of preservation. That gives the park the most profound desert-like feel out of each of the barrens.
Be sure to keep an eye on the ground and see if you can spot the serpentine rocks. The ground is riddled with unique and eye-catching stones, but make sure you leave them in the park for others to find when you’re done for the day.
Other Chester County barrens include the Goat Hill Serpentine Barrens, which is part of the State-Line Serpentine Barrens near Nottingham, and Chrome Serpentine Barrens (Oxford), both of which are managed by The Nature Conservancy. They feature rugged trails through a combination of woods and barrens. (Note: These trails can be strenuous and are recommended only for more-experienced hikers.)
Lancaster County is home to the most rugged of the barrens – Rock Springs Preserve, which is located in Peach Bottom and is managed by the Lancaster Conservancy. The barrens’ ruggedness provides an excellent habitat for butterflies, birds and other small game.
One important thing to remember on your visit to any of the barrens is due to the desert-like atmosphere, temperatures can be as much as 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding area. Be sure to bring along a wide-brimmed hat and plenty of water. Bring a thermometer and test it yourself!