Jennings Environmental Education Center
Jennings offers a full range of educational programs. A unique attraction at the center is its relict prairie, which includes the spectacular and well-known prairie flower, the blazing star. The relict prairie ecosystem is rare in Pennsylvania. Visitors should try to visit in late July or early August when the pairie is in full bloom.
Jennings Environmental Education Center is one of several state parks specifically dedicated to provide environmental education and interpretation to the community. A variety of programs are available for children, teachers, and the general public that increase knowledge and awareness of the beauty and importance of our natural resources. By taking some time to explore Jennings through its trail network or community programs, visitors can enjoy the outdoors while learning the skills needed to be good stewards of Pennsylvania’s outstanding natural resources.
Jennings provides a unique combination of prairie and forest, which offers a wide array of resource and education opportunities. One of the park’s main features, the 20-acre prairie ecosystem, is home to distinctive prairie plants and the endangered massasauga rattlesnake. The most noteworthy and spectacular prairie flower is the blazing star. Jennings was the first reserve established in Pennsylvania to protect an individual plant species and remains the only public and protected prairie in the Commonwealth.
Picnicking: Two picnic areas are available and provide tables and restrooms. The Woodland Picnic Area is behind the center office at the beginning of the Woodland Trails System. The Prairie Picnic Pavilion Area overlooks the relict prairie and has a pavilion that seats 50 people. The picnic pavilion may be reserved up to 11 months in advance for a fee. If unreserved it is free on a first-come, first-served basis.
Make a reservation.
Hiking: 5 miles of trails
Black Cherry Trail - (0.5 mile) – moderate: This loop trail travels through both upland and bottomland habitat and is popular for spring wildflowers, ferns and birding. The trail follows Big Run, a small stream that flows through the park, for 0.12 miles.
Deer Trail - (0.35 mile) – easy: Accessed by following Blazing Star Trail for .22 miles, this short, flat loop trail travels through thick, brushy habitat. Deer can often be seen from this trail.
Glacier Ridge Trail - (0.31 mile) – difficult: This trail travels through some of the most scenic woodlands of Jennings. This 15-mile trail links Jennings to Moraine State Park. More information about this trail is available at the center office.
Hepatica Trail - (0.26 mile) - moderate: Spring wildflowers, such as the fragile hepatica, can be seen along this connecting trail that links Oakwoods Trail to Glacier Ridge Trail.
Massasauga Trail - (0.47 mile) – moderate: Starting in the prairie but soon entering a mixed hardwood forest of predominately oak and hickory, this trail provides an excellent opportunity to view squirrel activity. The dry forest soon drops into the damp, scenic Big Run Valley for a short time before rising again to meet Deer Trail.
Oakwoods Trail - (1.20 mile) – moderate: This is the longest trail at Jennings and covers varying terrain and several different types of habitat. It can be accessed from Deer Trail or Massasauga Trail. Unique to this trail are several man-made pits. It is believed that the pits were excavated in the 19th century for ore bearing clay, which was taken to local iron furnaces.
Old Elm Trail - (0.25 mile) - easy: Starting west of the center and looping back to it, this trail passes through an area of the park once dominated by large elm trees. Most succumbed to Dutch elm disease in the 1930s, leaving nothing but rotting logs behind.
Old Field Trail - (0.18 mile) – easy: A connecting trail which links Deer Trail to Oakwoods Trail, Old Field Trail passes through an area dominated by hawthorns and other small shrubs. This is evidence that the area was a farm field many years ago.
Old Mill Trail - (0.14 mile) – easy: Accessed by following Woodwhisper Trail for .04 miles, this trail connects the center office to Black Cherry Trail and passes by the remains of a 19th century saw mill.
Ridge Trail - (0.68 mile) – difficult: This rough, wooded trail passes through the only area open to hunting in the park and can be an interesting extension to Black Cherry Trail. The steep ridge that this trail follows is actually a lateral moraine left over from the last glacial advance 14,000 years ago.
Wetlands Kiosk Trail - (0.04 mile) – easy: Accessed by following Woodwhisper Trail for .08 miles, this short extension trail leads to a kiosk overlooking a passive wetland treatment site.
Woodwhisper Trail - (0.16 mile) – easy: Popular with people with strollers and those with a disability, this paved, flat, loop trail travels through an upland, mixed hardwood forest.
The North Country National Scenic Trail passes through the park and utilizes a number of the woodland trails including, Glacier Ridge Trail, Ridge Trail and Black Cherry Trail. The North Country National Scenic Trail system is identified by blue blazes. This unique trail system will eventually link North Dakota to New York traveling through seven states for a distance of over 3,200 miles. More information on the North Country National Scenic Trail is available at the center office.
The eastern prairie is a rare ecosystem that is home to the endangered massasauga rattlesnake. Although this small and reclusive snake is very timid, it is venomous and visitors should be careful when walking through its home. Remain on the mowed paths and stay alert to reduce the chances of an encounter.
Blazing Star Trail - (0.22 miles) – easy: Named for the beautiful wildflower that turns the prairie purple in late July and early August, this self-guiding interpretive trail travels through the middle of the prairie. Follow the interpretive signs and discover how the prairie was formed and why it is unique.
Prairie Loop Trail - (0.28 miles) – easy: The interpretive signs continue on this short loop trail that can be accessed from Blazing Star Trail. This trail is recommended for viewing wildflowers in the summer and fall and for cross-country skiing in the winter.
Explore the Winter Report for the current snow and ice depths.
Cross-country Skiing and Snowshoeing: All 5 miles of the hiking trails can be skied and snowshoed with proper snow cover.
Access for People with Disabilities
If you need an accommodation to participate in park activities due to a disability, please contact the park you plan to visit.
Natural Resources Management and Research
Managing and protecting the natural resources of the park are two of the foremost goals of Jennings. The prairie, surrounding woodlands, streams and wetlands have distinct management requirements. The uniqueness and diversity of these resources requires a holistic approach to management.
A dramatic technique that benefits the prairie is the use of fire, which occurs naturally in many prairie ecosystems. At Jennings, a controlled burn is used to slow the growth of woody plants and rejuvenate the native grasses and wildflowers.
The American columbo is an endangered plant species in Pennsylvania. Jennings has the only significant population in the state. The life cycle of the columbo is unusual and not well understood. This mysterious plant will bloom only once in its lifetime and then dies. Continuing research by staff is necessary to prevent the American columbo’s disappearance from Pennsylvania.
Past Problems, Future Solutions
Drainage from abandoned coal mines has a tremendous impact on Pennsylvania’s water quality. Coal seams exposed to air and water produce sulfuric acid and an orange precipitate known as yellow boy. These abandoned mine drainages flow into streams causing pollution so severe that plant and animal life may not survive.
At Jennings, abandoned mine drainage flows into Big Run from an abandoned mine nearby. In cooperation with other agencies and private organizations, Jennings is exploring several new, passive technologies to combat this pollution.
These technologies were initially modeled after wetlands, which act as natural filtering systems. The passive systems now in place provide a unique site for continued research, experimental management and environmental education.
“Prairie” is a French word for meadow, which was used by early explorers to describe any open, grassy area. The forests of that time were extremely dark and immense, making open areas rare and valuable. Open areas provided an opportunity for pioneers to see the sun, rest and feed their animals. Today, we define prairies as distinct communities of plants and animals.
One particular flower that is abundant in the Jennings prairie is the magnificent blazing star. Normally associated with midwestern prairies, its occurrence in Pennsylvania is unique because it is outside of its normal range. These bright purple flowers clustering on 4 to 6-foot stalks create a spectacular show during peak bloom time in late July and early August. The late bloom time is common for prairie plants, which prefer the hot, dry weather of midsummer.
Wildflowers and grasses support a vast array of butterflies and moths as well as other insects that serve as food for amphibians, birds and small mammals. These amphibians and small mammals in turn provide food for a special prairie resident, the massasauga rattlesnake. The Jennings prairie is one of the few places in our state where this snake is found. Due to the loss of its wet meadow habitat, the massasauga is endangered in Pennsylvania and is strictly protected. Like all rattlesnakes, the massasauga is venomous and may bite if surprised or threatened. Please stay on the trails for your own safety and the snake’s protection.
The Jennings Woodlands
Over three-quarters of the park is covered by forest. These woodlands include stream valleys, upland forests, and wetlands, which provide diverse habitats for wildlife. Stories from the past can be revealed by closely examining these forest communities.
The stream valley along Big Run was once filled with majestic American elms. Sadly, most of these trees have succumbed to Dutch elm disease, a fungus introduced to North America in the 1930s.
Other common bottomland trees stand where the elms once grew. Yellow birch and basswood are among the trees that prefer the rich, moist soils and cooler temperatures found in Big Run Valley. In spring, this valley is carpeted with delicate woodland wildflowers. Hepatica, spring beauties, and other flowers race to bloom before the tree canopy closes and blocks sunlight from the forest floor.
A gentle climb out of the valley leads to the drier, hardwood forest consisting primarily of oak, maple, hickory and cherry. Early colonists realized the economic value of these hardwoods. By 1820, Butler County’s timber was nearly gone. The size of the trees at Jennings today indicates the relatively young age of the forest.
Today, the forest is valued for more than economic reasons. By providing food, shelter and cover, the Jennings woodlands are home to an abundance of wildlife, where visitors can enjoy solitude and experience the natural environment.
Legacy of the Land
The Paleo-Indian People were the first humans in the area. Arriving about 15,000 years ago, these nomadic hunters followed the retreating face of the glacier in search of wooly mammoths and giant ground sloths. The constant pursuit of these giant animals is believed to have helped force the animals to extinction. Little is known of the early cultures that inhabited the area after the Paleo-Indian People.
By the end of the 16th century, the Seneca Nation of the Iroquois Confederation controlled the area. Dependent on agriculture, the Seneca used fire to open areas to plant crops, which may have helped sustain prairie openings.
Trade and travel were an important part of American Indian culture. The Venango Trail lies beneath PA Route 528, a major road dividing the park. The trail connected Pittsburgh to Franklin and was traveled by a number of historic figures like Tecumseh, George Washington and Lafayette.
The 1800s brought an influx of settlers who altered the landscape and depleted the resources through lumbering, agriculture and hunting. Once the resources above the ground were exhausted, a new generation looked below the surface. Coal mining became a booming industry during this era. While mining provided a needed source of energy, techniques of that day left significant scars on the land.
At Jennings today, it is hard to see the scars from previous uses of the land. As educators, the Jennings staff strives to help people understand that we continue to be a product of our environment and need to make informed decisions concerning the immediate and long-term effects of our actions. The decisions we make today on how to use the land will leave our legacy for future generations.
The Faces of Change
A million years ago, Jennings looked dramatically different than today. Glaciers, water and climate have all played a part in changing the face of the landscape.
Immense glaciers scoured the earth removing soil and exposing bedrock. Fine sand, silt and clay particles from glacial meltwater settled in prehistoric lakes, forming new soil. Changing climate conditions resulted in a warm, dry period, which allowed prairie plants to extend from the Midwest into Pennsylvania. Gradually the climate became cooler and wetter, more closely resembling our weather today. Eventually, through succession, forests replaced all but a few prairie sites in Pennsylvania.
The Jennings prairie remains due to a thick layer of impermeable clay that prevents most tree species from becoming established. Plants and animals that do live on the prairie must tolerate shallow soils, fluctuating periods of drought and saturation, and fire. Even under these harsh conditions, this ecosystem teems with life.
Otto Emery Jennings
The Center is named in honor of one of Pennsylvania’s most renowned botanists, Dr. Otto Emery Jennings. It is said that Dr. Jennings explored western Pennsylvania with the “energy of a pioneer” and acquainted many with the botanical treasures he encountered.
Dr. Jennings first discovered the prairie in 1905. He was influential in the purchase and protection of the area by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a private conservation group. The Conservancy was instrumental in establishing environmental education at Jennings.
By teaching others to appreciate Pennsylvania’s unique natural areas, Dr. Jennings helped to ensure that this and other special areas would be preserved for future generations. Almost a century later, we continue to teach others in this tradition.
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Jennings Environmental Education Center
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Jennings Environmental Education Center Map (.pdf) (172 kb, 3/11)
Interactive GIS Map
The Interactive GIS Map uses Geographic Information Systems to create a map that does not need to be downloaded and features driving directions, searchable park amenities and customizable maps. Please note that the background maps are maintained by a variety of public sources and driving directions usually go to the nearest large road.
The Center is 12 miles north of Butler, PA on PA Route 528. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekdays. The grounds are open from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, for hiking and other nature-related activities.
Driving Directions: The Interactive GIS Map has turn-by-turn driving directions to the park office from the Park Information Window. Please note that the background maps are maintained by a variety of public sources and driving directions usually go to the nearest large road.
Jennings Environmental Education Center