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Using the Garrett-to- Rockwood Section of the Allegheny Highlands Trail as an outdoor laboratory to study geologic history along one of the most scenic routes of the Appalachian Plateau.

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From Rails to Trails to Rocks: studying geology on the trail

James R. Shaulis and Thomas W. Jones (Pennsylvania Geological Survey in "Pennsylvania Geology," 2000)

photo of kid with rock on trail

Educational materials for use in outdoor classroom activities
were developed for the rail trail


The trail sections are located along abandoned railways that have been converted to public hiking and biking trails and are referred to as “rail trails.” During the spring and summer of 1998 and 1999, geologically related features visible from the rail trails in these two sections were examined. Rock exposures and other natural features related to the geology of the region and determined to have significant educational potential were described and interpreted. These features were designated as Geological Educational sites.


Railroads were once smoky, rumbling pathways that connected us to our mineral and energy resources, our industries, and to each other. Today, along many of these same pathways, the resources are depleted, the industries have disappeared, and the rail beds have been replaced with trails where travelers walk and bicycle instead of ride in passenger-train cars.

Even though much has changed, these pathways still serve as connections. They now link us to healthy enjoyment of leisure time. Through the identification of geologic features found along these pathways, there exists the potential for these former roads of rails to connect us to an educational resource, one that remains to help us better understand our earth and our history. Thus, in addition to the pursuit of fitness and fun, the trails link us to knowledge and understanding of our physical world and environment


In the spring of 1998, a “Rails to Rocks” pilot project was launched to develop educational activities in earth and environmental science for grades kindergarten through 12 (K–12). The project was based on geological features found along a 7-mile segment of the Allegheny Highlands Trail (between Garrett and Rockwood in Somerset County) and a 26-mile segment of the Youghiogheny River Trail North (between Connellsville and West Newton in Fayette and Westmoreland Counties). Both trail sections are part of the Great Allegheny Passage, a 150-mile trail corridor that begins just west of Pittsburgh and continues southeastward to Cumberland, Md. At Cumberland, the Great Allegheny Passage joins the C&O Canal Towpath, which extends to Washington, D. C.

Educators from the Pennsylvania State Department of Education and local school districts, Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey staff members, Bureau of State Parks Environmental Interpretive Naturalists, Somerset County Parks and Recreation Board members, Youghiogheny River Trail Corporation board members, Rockwood Borough Council and Water Authority members, Youghiogheny River Trail Council representatives, private consultants, and local experts all contributed to this project. Educational materials for use in teacher workshops and outdoor classroom activities for grades K–12 were created (Jones and others, 1999; Jones and Shaulis, 1999).


Field trips for earth science students are more important to their mastery of the curriculum than for any other subject because many basic earth science concepts are difficult to demonstrate in the classroom. Even though fossils and minerals can be examined in hand specimens at a student’s desk, their connection to the earth can remain abstract until they are seen in a natural exposure. Furthermore, because the geographical areas that rock formations and structures cover can be large, relating to them can be difficult for beginning students. Layers of rock that extend many miles horizontally, or a geologic feature such as an anticlinal fold that extends for hundreds of feet vertically, can only be fully appreciated in the field


Earth science educators are handicapped in Pennsylvania because extensive vegetation and thick soil cover obscure the bedrock. Because of this, opportunities to see bedrock geology are primarily limited to exposures along highways, railroads, and rivers, or in quarries, which are commonly noisy, dirty, dangerous, difficult to access, and fraught with liability concerns. Although these places may be suitable for college students and adults, they are not well suited for use by elementary and secondary school students. However, with the conversion of abandoned railroad beds into rail trails, exposures that were previously some of the most difficult and dangerous to visit and study are now the safest and easiest. Rock exposures and other geologically related features located along these rail-trail corridors are quiet, safe, available year-round, liability-free, easy to access by biking or hiking, and can be incorporated into K–12 earth science curricula.


Come travel back to a time when the climate was greatly warmer, when oceans were mountains and mountains were oceans. See the results of the greatest collision ever experienced by North America. See the effects that more than 200 million years of differential weathering has had on the landscape. Hear an expert guide point out important geologic features and relationships contained in the rock exposures that span 60 million years of geologic history along one of the most scenic routes of the Appalachian Plateaus province. See resources exposed in their natural setting and how society’s mining of these natural resources has affected the landscape and the environment.


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