Stony Garden

boulder field at Stony Garden
boulder field at Stony Garden

The request appeared in my junk mail from someone named Anna Mintz. She wanted to interview me about ringing boulder fields in Bucks County, most notably Ringing Rocks County Park, for a Russian television program. Somehow, she had discovered an article I had written about the park years ago.

I tried to discourage her, explaining that I was no expert on ringing boulder fields and that we lived four hours away from Bucks County and five from New York City where she was working. Undeterred, she rounded up a Ukrainian camera man and arrived at a parking area near our private access road in late February. My husband, Bruce, transported them and their equipment up our icy, north-facing hollow road.

Forewarned of their impending arrival, I reviewed my folder of pre-Internet information on ringing boulder fields. Their geological history began approximately 200 million years ago in the early Jurassic Age. Ancient Lake Lockatong had covered most of Bucks County and then had gradually filled with sediments that had hardened into shale. Molten rock within the earth was forced into the shale and hardened into a ledge of olivine diabase rock, sandwiched within the shale. But over the eons, the shale’s upper layer eroded and exposed the diabase. Subsequent severe freezing during the last Ice Age, when glaciers came close to but did not reach Bucks County, causing so-called periglacial conditions, broke the diabase into boulders.

another view of Stony Garden
another view of Stony Garden

Most boulder fields, such as the one at Hickory Run State Park, don’t ring, and researchers puzzled over why only the boulder fields in a thin line from northern Bucks County to nearby Montgomery County outside of Pottstown ring with melodious tones. Those tones inspired Dr. J.J. Ott, back in 1890, accompanied by a brass band, to play several musical selections at Ringing Rocks County Park. Current thinking is that they ring because of the density of the rocks and the high degree of internal stress that occurred when the molten rock came close to the earth’s surface and quickly cooled and solidified.

After cramming that information into my head I googled “ringing boulder fields” to see if there was any new information on them, and I discovered Ringing Rocks County Park was not the largest ringing boulder field in the East. That honor belongs to nearby Stony Garden on State Game Lands 157. According to a Wikipedia article, Stony Garden consists of “a series of disconnected boulder fields extending for almost half a mile,” making it much larger than the eight acre ringing boulder field at the park. It also mentioned a trail that leads into a portion of Stony Garden’s boulder field.

I was determined to explore this place and knowing that my younger brother, Gary, and sister-in-law Barb, who live in south Jersey, enjoy hiking in Bucks County, Bruce and I invited them to join us there last June 9. As it turned out, Gary had had a bad night due to illness, but he urged Barb to go.

Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field
Marcia and Barb at the edge of the boulder field

It was an overcast day, threatening rain, when we met at nearby Nockamixon State Park for a picnic lunch. Afterwards, following a game lands map, we found the parking lot and Stony Garden Trail off Stony Garden Road. Although the trail is only a little less than half a mile long, it had its challenges. It was rocky and wet and we had to crawl over and under several fallen trees and cross a tributary of Haycock Creek. For those reasons, we were glad to be wearing sturdy hiking boots and carrying walking sticks.

It quickly became obvious why this place is called “Stony Garden.” I was reminded of a rock garden, so neatly did the wide variety of wildflowers, ferns and shrubs grow in the soil between the rocks, such as blooming partridgeberry and Indian cucumber-root, the leaves of spring-blooming jack-in-the-pulpit, wild ginger, bellwort, and mayapple and especially the fern rock polypody, which is common in rocky areas. Along the tributary, tall meadow-rue flowered. We found a few spicebushes, a nice maple leaf viburnum, and even a small American chestnut tree.

When we reached the boulder field, Barb and I didn’t feel sure-footed enough to venture out on the boulders so we stayed on its edges tapping on small rocks and making a little “music.” But Bruce climbed out on to the open boulders and made them ring, creating a range of tones by tapping them lightly with a hammer. He quickly found that the best sound came from thin rocks.

Gary and Patrick Myers at-Ringing Rocks County Park
Gary (r) and his son Patrick at Ringing Rocks County Park

Remembering my childhood, more than 60 years ago, I was sorry that Gary couldn’t make it. We had often visited Pottstown’s Ringing Hill Park near the home of my paternal grandparents, and he and my younger sister Linda had leaped fearlessly from rock to rock while I and my youngest brother, Hal, being less surefooted, stayed seated on a boulder at the edge. I knew he would have enjoyed seeing this awesome place and joining Bruce in the middle of the field.

But on our day at Stony Garden, while Bruce made the rocks ring, Barb and I listened to wood thrushes, red-eyed vireos, and ovenbirds singing in the forest of red and black oak, black birch, basswood, American beech and tulip trees surrounding the rocks. We also noticed small weathering potholes in some of the rocks and intense pitting in others, photos of which appear in the Wikipedia article.

Later, we learned that an even larger boulder field existed deep in the forest. Unfortunately, by the time we made our way back to the parking lot, we had no more time to explore the rest of SGL 157. And by then the threatening storm was spitting rain. But all of the game land’s 2000 acres on the northwest slope of Haycock Mountain, including the boulder fields, were obtained by the game commission back in 1920.

According to LMO John Papson, the boulder fields themselves make attractive homes for chipmunks and probably a selection of other rodents. Furthermore, the surrounding rocky terrain does not prevent the deer from using the area, and, in fact, we did see a few tracks in the wet areas. In addition, the game land supports a healthy population of black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red and gray foxes, gray squirrels, and raccoons as well as white-tailed deer. Although there are food plots and some timber cuts, for the most part the forest we saw around the ringing boulder field is typical of the rest of SGL 157.

Marcia, Gary and Barb
Marcia, Gary and Barb at Ricketts Glen State Park

Today people come from Philadelphia and nearby suburbs, Papson told me, to hunt and hike, and they find it difficult to believe that this island of a forested mountain has such a wide variety of wildlife, especially black bears and bobcats, but their presence and other wildlife have been captured on trail cams. Judging from the mature trees growing in the forest, providing ample food for wildlife, SGL 157 should be a great place to hunt. But during the summer, when hunting opportunities are limited, taking your family to climb and ring the rocks should provide precious memories for youngsters, just as it did for me and my three siblings.

In Memoriam: Gary Alan Myers (February 12, 1946-June 24, 2014). He loved to roam the hills and forests of Pennsylvania.



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5 responses to “Stony Garden”

  1. Andrew Stroud Avatar
    Andrew Stroud

    I’m glad to hear that you found the Stony Garden. It’s the forgotten one of the three public ringing rock boulder fields. Surprising that it wasn’t made into a park. From your descriptions it seems to have developed an interesting micro environment. Another rock field that you might want to see is the Devil’s Potato Patch in the Craeg Fulshaw Nature Preserve. Check with the Natural Lands Trust folks to set up a visit. — On the ringing, it’s pretty clear that the stresses are due to pyroxene and olivine crystals in the rock. The crystals formed under extreme heat and pressure conditions in the upper Mantle, about 60 miles down, much about the same conditions as diamonds. When the magma injected upward into the crust and formed the sill, these heavy crystals settled to the bottom of the cavity before the magma solidified. This process created a thin crystal rich layer, about ten feet thick, along the bottom of the sill. The crystals had formed under such enormous compression that they remained in that state, even after 200 million years. That is why the ringing ability stops when a boulder is broken, because the compression stresses are released. All of the Rrock fields are composed of this same thin layer of crystal rich diabase. After having mapped the different boulder fields it was much easier to understand the geologic relationships at Stony Garden than at the county park, however the park attracts much more attention. If you check the TALK tab in the Wikipedia article you will find unpublished observations that I didn’t think were appropriate for the main article. — I believe one of the local historical societies was going to have a 125 year anniversary performance of John Ott’s musical rendition at Stony Garden this month. Thank you for a very nice article, and hope that you might find the time to report on some of the other boulder fields.


  2. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thank you so much for your excellent comment re this interesting phenomenon. I would love to hear/have heard the Ott memorial performance. I hope folks in the area knew about this and were invited to attend. Previously, I wrote about Ringing Rocks County Park in the now defunct magazine Pennsylvania Wildlife and also in my book Outbound Journeys in Pennsylvania, p. 47.

  3. Eric Avatar

    I realize this article is over a year old but I wanted to drop you a quick comment to say thanks for the history lesson. I’ve been to Stony Garden as well as few of the others at Haycock Mountain you mention in your article. The tough part was getting to the others because as much as I looked, I could not find any trails. It seems the stream you crossed will lead you pretty close to a few of them though. When i first explored Stony Garden, I was unable to find much information about it and it now seems to be getting a little more attention.

    If you ever get a chance and haven’t already done so, exploring Haycock Mountain is fascinating. There are huge boulders all over the place, especially at the top of the mountain. I look forward to returning there!

    1. Andrew Stroud Avatar
      Andrew Stroud

      I was surprised when I first visited the Stony Garden that there wasn’t a trail leading to the large Rrock field to the south of the main Haycock Mountain trail. A hundred years ago, before the county park in Bridgeton was created, the Stony Garden was the more popular site. You might want to read the 1905 article by P,W. Humphreys (see Wikipedia site under “Further Reading”) about driving between the various Rrock fields. –If you notice the area in between the boulder fields is pretty rocky. I suspect that 12,000 years ago the boulder field was a continuous strip for about a mile. Since then the forest has encroached into the areas where the dip of the formation and the slope of the hill are just a little steeper that the rest. Also, if you are higher up on the mountain you might find that the diabase is much darker in color and finer grained than the ringing rocks.

  4. Marcia Bonta Avatar
    Marcia Bonta

    Thanks for your comment. No, I don’t believe there were any trails to the others. Unfortunately, the Game Commission owns some amazing properties throughout the state, but they are often short on trails. That isn’t their mission and I can’t blame them. Around here in Blair County and beyond, the locals often make the trails through lovely areas. Others poke around and find real treasures that they don’t wish to share with others, which is understandable. I guess what I’m saying is that these properties belong to all of us and if we respect the hunting seasons, exploring the areas is something to do if you can use a compass or something similar and don’t get lost.

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