A visitor studies the trail list at the Trexler Nature Preserve near Allentown. (Photo by Gettings Photography)

A visitor studies the trail list at the Trexler Nature Preserve near Allentown. (Photo by Gettings Photography)

by Debra Wolf Goldstein

One breezy weekend day last month, I made a stack of peanut butter sandwiches, grabbed my husband and dog, and went elk-watching in Lehigh County.

Elk? Near Allentown?

Yes, and bison too, at the Trexler Nature Preserve, about 45 miles north of Philadelphia.

A sprawling, 1,108-acre park criss-crossed with 18+ miles of trails and sweeping views of hemlock forests and farm fields, the Preserve is home to the Lehigh County Zoo. It also contains an American chestnut orchard, established to help reintroduce the trees to their native woodlands after a blight wiped them out in the early 1900’s.

The Preserve is dotted with kiosks containing easy-to-read trail maps and photos of park wildlife. We picked the green-blazed ridge trail and navigated over miles of scenic, well-groomed hiking paths, encountering no one but a few mountain bikers circling the Preserve on the 8.5-mile Trexler Border perimeter trail. Along the way we enjoyed expansive views of the Pocono Mountains to the north and the rolling hills of the Lehigh Valley to the south and east.

We enjoyed our sandwiches at a sunny picnic table perched next to stubbled cornfields, hawks gliding majestically overhead, craning our necks to see if we could spot any elk. We couldn’t see any, but did see a scattering of father-son duos enjoying their Sundays, knee-deep in the Jordan Creek, fishing for trout under a covered bridge the color of a Bloody Mary.

The trail map explained that General Harry C. Trexler established the Preserve a century ago to help save the American bison, elk, and – surprisingly – white-tail deer from extinction. Trexler, who made his fortune in timber and cement and was the founder of the Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., bought up small farms in the valley to create the Preserve, to which he then transported dozens of these then-endangered hoofed animals. Nationwide efforts to restore the animals from near-extinction have been very successful, as we know, with buffalo now considered livestock, elk roaming freely in many parts of Pennsylvania and the western United States, and white-tailed deer herds so plentiful that they are considered a nuisance in many areas.

Trexler left the Preserve to Lehigh County when he died, and in 2004 the Preserve finally was opened to the public.

Determined to see the elk and bison promised in bold lettering on the trail map, we gathered dried milkweed pods for a memento, hiked back to the car, and drove along the winding road bisecting the park to a large fenced field fronted by a line of creeping cars filled with gawkers. We were rewarded with the sight of shaggy, mud-colored bison and, in the next paddock over, a cluster of lounging, leggy elk. Munching contentedly, they looked as out of place in Lehigh County as a gang of hairy cowboys relaxing in a Pennsylvania Dutch diner.

A trail map, driving directions, and more information about the park can be found at www.TrexlerNaturePreserve.org.

Debra Wolf Goldstein is a land conservation attorney who enjoys hiking in little-known gems in the Delaware Valley and beyond. She can be reached via her website www.ConservMatters.com.