The large tracts of wilderness at the top edge of Lebanon County and the surrounding areas are some of central Pennsylvania’s best-kept secrets. Two of the most interesting features of the region, the Lebanon Reservoir and Jeff’s Swamp, can be visited on a beautiful trail loop that runs around the reservoir.
The Lebanon Reservoir, despite its name, is actually located within Pine Grove Township in Schuylkill County, though the Lebanon County border is only a half mile away. It’s also known as the Siegriest Reservoir, and it’s operated by the City of Lebanon Water Authority. Along with the Swatara Intake, it acts as a surface water source for the Lebanon system. For that reason, swimming and fishing are not permitted, though the perimeter is accessible to those looking for a good hike.
From the parking lot at Old Forge Road north of Route 443, the clockwise trail around the reservoir begins past the ruins of the Swatara Furnace, one of the few standing remnants of a notable operation that began around 1830. The historic district that contains the furnace also includes several other structures from the operation, such as the ironmaster’s mansion.
The trail at various points cuts through groves of rhododendron and mountain laurel, forming shady, comfortable tunnels. After a brief rocky climb, the path emerges at the western side of the Siegrist Dam. It continues along the western perimeter, converging with the tail end of the Stony Valley Rail-Trail, which extends almost 20 miles further to the southwest back through Lebanon County and into Dauphin County.
The Siegrist Dam is a concrete dam with the capacity to hold back 1.2 billion gallons of water fed into it by Fishing Creek. The massive structure, finished in 1994, is 600 feet long and 125 feet high and replaced an earlier reservoir that filled about half the land of the current one. It’s also known as the High Bridge Dam, a reference to the bridge that once stood there. The High Bridge functioned as a railroad crossing 75 feet over Mill Creek, and stood for over 90 years before being dismantled in 1950.
To continue around the reservoir, a detour is needed. Turning around the far end of the reservoir means cutting through to the Evening Branch stream. When LebTown visited, the banks of the stream were smoothed and pocked with pools of water from rain swells. Two cables stretch over the river, which is around 20 feet across.
The terrain on the northern side of the reservoir is somewhat more rugged and it can be difficult to suss out the right pathway. It cuts through an open bank before turning away from the water and up Sharp Mountain. Eventually, though, it winds back down to the eastern end of the reservoir, crossing Fishing Creek on two more cables.
After crossing, hikers can either continue back along the last leg of the reservoir trail to the other side of the dam, or follow a less-used path running upstream alongside Fishing Creek. Though unmarked, it’s this path that leads to Jeff’s Swamp, which the Patriot News called “one of the wildest pieces of property in central Pennsylvania” in 2004.
Jeff’s Swamp is named for Jefferson Umbenhaur, an “eccentric” farmer who once owned a farm in the area, according to Stony Valley, a website dedicated to information on features of the region. There’s little to be found about Umbenhaur in newspaper records, but it seems that once the property passed into the ownership of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, it became known as a haven for wildlife, including bears, herons, beavers, bobcats, and coyotes. For better or worse, LebTown didn’t run into any of these critters on the trek to the swamp.
The path from the reservoir sinks directly into Fishing Creek about halfway to the swamp, and from there it’s a matter of navigating along the riverbanks on one’s own. Eventually, though, the wide expanse of Jeff’s Swamp comes into view. Its shape is roughly the invert of the reservoir, and though it’s not exactly heavily trafficked, there are sections of recognizable trail around the perimeter.
The area has long been a destination for hiking groups, campers, and outdoor clubs. Before that, it was mining territory. Several drifts (horizontal mine passages) of the area have been sealed off to ensure safety and clean reservoir water, though remnants of the operations can still be found in the form of old roadways and tailings piles. In the 1980s, the land was “stripped bare” thanks to a logging operation that clear cut several thousand acres of forest from the western edge of Schuylkill County.
The return back to the reservoir and the parking lot includes more rhododendrons and some scenic views across the water. The hike takes several hours, though the detour to Jeff’s Swamp may add on an extra hour or two. Larger trail loops also exist for those familiar with back-country hiking.
It’s incredible to think that the water that sources Lebanon’s system originates from these mountain wildernesses so far from the city proper. Along with the area’s other features, including the Boxcar Rocks in Cold Spring and the Stony Valley Rail Trail, it’s well worth the hike to see in person.
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