Blue Marsh Lake’s waterfront.
by Edward Boice
People looking for fun, sun and a beach should look no further than Berks County’s Blue Marsh Lake.
As the dogged heat of July slides into August, many students are looking for someplace to cool down. Preparations for parties, vacations, and day trips are underway. With the with the sticky heat, the best place to enjoy the beautiful, sunny weather might be lakeside. Blue Marsh Lake is a great place to be outdoors, with an abundance of activities for every outdoor adventure seeker or even lazy beach bums.
Blue Marsh Lake is an engineered lake that is 35 to 45 feet deep and covers 1,147 acres located mostly along the border between Bern and Lower Heidelberg Townships. According to the Army Corps of Engineers website. Wikipedia states that the Governor authorized Blue Marsh Lake to be built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969 to benefit the areas of Reading, Birdsboro, Pottstown, Conshohocken, and sections of Philadelphia.
Construction was competed in 1979. The multipurpose engineering project was designed to prevent flooding, conserve the water supply, maintain water quality, and create recreation activities. Because of these considerations, Blue Marsh Lake has become vital to the ecology of the surrounding area.
Blue Marsh if filled by the Tulpehocken Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River, which has a history of massive flooding, especially with past hurricanes Connie and Diane in 1955 and Agnes in 1972. According to the University of Rhode Island’s website, Hurricanes: Science and Society, these tropical storm systems poured over 15 inches of rain into the Schuylkill River, causing record flash flooding, which is why Congress authorized the reservoir to be built.
Though the lake keeps Berks County safe from floods, the lake is probably most prized for the recreation it offers the general public—particularly during the summer months.
- Blue Marsh Lake’s waterfront.
Berks County being in a landlocked state forces area residents to travel long distances to get to already crowded beaches. Blue Marsh provides a local beach for all occasions. The Dry Brooks Day Use Area does not become as crowded compared to other beaches. In the past, a $3 dollar fee was charged before entry, but that fee has now been suspended, making entry free. There is no riptide in the lake, which allows young children to play on the edges of the lake without the fear of being dragged in. A gradual slope, not a steep drop off, dictates the lake’s depth. A red buoy alerts swimmers of a 5 foot depth. White buoys are placed for boats to stay away.
The land around the lake can be utilized to play a variety of sports. A beach volleyball pit with a professional volleyball net is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. for public use. Wiffleball and other smaller baseball games can be played on the more level area on top of the hill. A football or Frisbee can be tossed anywhere on the land around the lake. Be warned that ball throwing in the lake itself is prohibited.
Facilities surround the beach for everyone’s use. Roland Zitzman, a Blue Marsh Park Ranger for 26 years, reports that the beach is maintained based on state regulations. In the winter, trucks bring in tons of sand to refill areas where the lake has eroded the beach.
There is a large public building next to the beach containing changing rooms, cleaned bathrooms, and a concession stand. Surrounding the beach area are multiple pavilions for rent. Anyone interested in renting one can search http://www.recreation.gov and book one for $60 per day or $420 per week. If a pavilion is too big, there are picnic tables and barbecue grills spread conveniently along the lakeside.
Swimming and flood control are not the only uses the lake water has. Boating has become a popular pastime for nautical-minded people in Berks County. According to Zitzman, around 400 boats can be on the lake at the same time. Any kind of water craft is allowed, from kayaks to jet skis. Speed restrictions in the lake are enforced in the swimming area in the in the upper reaches of the lake, where the water flows into the main part of the lake.
Blue Marsh has three boating areas: Dry Brooks, State Hill Boat, and Sheidy Boat Launch. Dry Brooks and State Hill Boat are both run by the Army Corps of Engineers. Sheidy Boat Launch is leased by the Army to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. In order to launch from Sheidy, all boats, including non-power watercraft, must be registered by the state. In a phone interview, park staff confirmed that Dry Brooks and State Hill Boat launches require no registrations of permits for non-powered boats. Also, up to 150 trailers can park at the Sheidy site, while Dry Brooks or State Hill can hold only 87 trailers each.
Boating is just a one of the available activities on the water. The smooth waters make Blue Marsh Lake ideal for water skiing. Fishing off a boat is also legal. There are a number of fish available, including bass, tiger muskellunge, walleye, and yellow perch. Trout and other fish are stocked by the Army Corps of Engineers, which also maintains fish hatcheries. According to Zitzman, the population and catching chances are the same at any point in the lake.
While it is possible to scuba dive in the lake, it is not recommended. Zitzman has experience scuba diving in the lake, stating that the water is so muddy that just seeing a few inches ahead is a challenge. “Most people scuba to find lost equipment in the boat launch areas, with park rangers supervising.” Though scuba diving seems appealing, it is better left to experienced divers under supervision.
Nature lovers can find a place at Blue Marsh to unleash their passion for exploration. Trails surround the area, meeting the needs of every kind of hiker. Most of the trails are placed over old dirt roads that have been moved or eliminated, like the Squirrel Run Nature Trail, which used to be Plum Creek Road. Along these trails, trees are painted with markings to differentiate the multiple trails. For example, white downward lines show the National Recreation Trail. To help distinguish the different symbols, trail pamphlets have named and labeled each marking, also providing a map of the distance and geography of each trail. These pamphlets are found at the visitor center and some trail entrances.
The longest trail is a 30-mile multipurpose trail called The National Recreation Trail, which allows horses, bikes, and regular hikers. The trail splits off into two sections: one 22 mile section and one 8 mile section. In between the two paths is a beautifully scenic bridge over the lake that is a part of Old Church Road. There are several hiking loops that branch off of the National Recreation Trail. Two of them are Skinners Loop and Foxtrot Hiking Trail.
Myriad kinds creatures live on the waterfront, such as ospreys, porcupines, minks, and bald eagles. Nature trails were created to guide hikers to the best places to see these creatures. The Great Oak Nature Trail provides a station with bird, deer, and squirrel feeders, along with an exquisite view of the lake. Hunters are allowed around Blue Marsh during the hunting seasons, and though they are not allowed near the trails, nature watchers should be wary during these seasons.
If a person is unable to traverse the rocky converted trails, the Army Corps of Engineers provides an alternative trail for people with limited mobility. The trail itself is compressed, crushed gravel so that wheelchairs can traverse it. Guide rails run on either side of the trail for disabled.
With the amount of diversity in Blue Marsh Lake, there are activities for anyone looking to spend the day outdoors. Families and other large groups can enjoy the beach’s pavilions, swimming area, volleyball net, lands, and concession stand. The lake itself is perfect for sailors and water sports enthusiasts. Nature lovers will be at home along its converted trails meant for wildlife spotting, long distance hiking, and exercising. And with so many fish swimming the freshwater lake, the unique lake fishing experience is hard to beat. Blue Marsh provides a unique vacation experience for Berks County and the rest of Pennsylvania.