A slice of the lush Pennsylvania Highlands is nestled here in the Lehigh Valley, colloquially known to us as South Mountain. The Pennsylvania Highlands region is considered a significant national landscape by the U.S. Forest Service, as these dense forests not only support a diverse dwelling of plants and wildlife within its shady sprawl, but also protect and supply clean drinking water to more than 15 million people, including residents of New Jersey and New York.
More than 40 years ago, a small community group rallied behind their beloved South Mountain to protect it from encroaching urban development. With the help of Robert “Bob” Rodale of (the then) Rodale Press and, later, Air Products founder Leonard Parker Pool, these few impassioned community members blossomed into the Wildlands Conservancy, a nonprofit organization that has protected more than 54,000 acres of high-conservation value lands since 1973.
Chris Kocher, who has served as Wildlands Conservancy’s president for 11 years, grew up in the Lehigh Valley as an avid outdoorsman. Looking for a way to give back to the area’s natural setting that he enjoyed and realized the importance of as a boy, he joined the Wildlands Conservancy.
“South Mountain is important because it’s an enormous natural habitat in the heart of the Lehigh Valley,” Kocher says. “It’s surrounded by developments and developed spaces, so it’s very accessible, but at the same time, it’s vital ecologically because of the wonderful natural resources of the Pennsylvania Highlands.”
Indeed, South Mountain is more than just a pretty face – thanks to the efforts of Kocher and his staff, it’s also open to the public for stellar sights and leisurely activities from walking to mountain biking to bouldering.
South Mountain Preserve
341 Alpine Street, Emmaus
With over 340 acres, this private preserve is open to the public daily for recreation and nature viewing. The area boasts eight different trails for walking, hiking, mountain biking, and bird watching.
Pool Wildlife Sanctuary
3701 Orchid Place, Emmaus
This 77.5 acre space is home to Wildlands Conservancy’s main office, the Air Products Environmental Education Center, and more than just a few winged friends, making it a birdwatcher’s delight. “There are more than 130 bird species at the Pool Wildlife Sanctuary,” Kocher says. At the sanctuary, you’ll find hiking trails through deciduous and coniferous forests as well as a boardwalk along the Little Lehigh Creek.
Big Rock Park
560 East Rock Road, Allentown
The largest attraction at this 77-acre park is Bauer Rock, an enormous, dark gneiss that stands 40 feet above the crest of South Mountain. Accessible after just a short hike, Bauer Rock offers stunning views of Southern Lehigh County.
South Mountain Lookout
Lookout Drive near Lehigh University, Bethlehem
Perfect for panoramic wedding photos, watching fireworks, and early morning or evening views of the entire Valley, this spot is worth a quick stop if you’re passing through downtown Bethlehem.
Reimart Memorial Bird Haven
An extension of South Church Street, Macungie
Eleven acres of mature forest woodlands were donated for the purpose of preserving and viewing the native bird population. This bird haven offers a two-mile walking trail along the side of Macungie Mountain.
October Events at South Mountain
Looking for a reason to get outside with your family this fall? It’s last call for a mountainside adventure before freezing temperatures, snow, and ice keep you off the trails until the ground thaws.
Covered Bridge Park:
Thursday, October 13, 6 p.m.
Wrapping up with hot cocoa, this stroll through Covered Bridge Park includes a meet-and-greet with a raptor as well as overhead raptor migration sightings.
Fall Foliage Bike and Boat
Saturday, October 15, 10 a.m.
Close out the season with a traditional 9-mile paddle down the Lehigh River while enjoying the fall foliage.
Full Moon Hoot Hike
Sunday, October 16, 7 p.m.
Illuminated by moonlight, enjoy a walk through the woods at South Mountain Reservoir in search of owls and other nighttime creatures.
You & Me: To Mexico We Go
Thursday, October 20, 10 a.m.
Monarch butterflies are preparing to head to Mexico for the upcoming chilly season. At the Air Products Environmental Education Center, view butterflies up close, save the seeds of plants they love the most, and play an interactive game to replicate their migration experience.
Maple Tract Hike
Saturday, October 22, 10 a.m.
The Maple Tract Preserve is a glacial wetland – a natural pump that feeds local creeks and streams. This vibrant fall hike through the hilly, boggy area is ideal for wildlife observation, so bring your binoculars and cameras.
Space for these events is limited. To register, call 610.965.4397 ext. 136 or sign up online at wildlandspa.org.