French Creek Watershed
When we in Pittsburgh look out on the Allegheny River, it can remind us that the water flowing past has its origins in some faraway places worth visiting and exploring. One of these is the broad valley of the west branch of French Creek in Erie County.
Three miles northwest of the town of Wattsburg is a protected property, the West Branch French Creek Conservation Area, on the east side of Route 8. A small parking lot is available at the head of a loop trail into the area.
The lush vegetation gives a sense of the rich nature of the site where glaciers melted away 20,000 years ago. A short trail leads to a wetland, where the trail is augmented with a raised rustic log-walk known as an offset puncheon. As one arrives at the puncheon, off to the left is a beaver dam and pond, and the visitor may see a family of wood ducks or a great blue heron. Another part of the property includes a rare calcareous fen wetland with peaty soils, unique orchids and other plant species. In other parts, the trail loops around what appears to be an old Christmas tree plantation that has now gone wild—which would explain the non-native balsam firs.
Because this property is open to rambling, use a compass to head off the trail and down into the floodplain towards the creek. At drier seasons, the creek’s periodic use of its floodplain is evident, with some buttressing of tree trunks, blackened leaf-litter and driftwood caught in low shrubs. The final trip to the stream edge usually entails pushing through high ostrich fern and coneflower, and proceeding gingerly to avoid stinging nettle. At midsummer the striking cardinal flower is in bloom along the edge of French Creek. Standing on the high bank one would not know that French Creek is one of our most extraordinary watersheds in western Pennsylvania—in fact, the French Creek watershed supports some of the richest diversity of fishes and mussels in North America.