A $690,000 project has started at Wintergreen Gorge to improve visitor access, make existing trails more sustainable, and protect wildlife, Penn State Behrend announced Tuesday.

The first phase will stabilize and improve public access to an 850-foot trail that starts at Cooper Rd. The goal is to decrease erosion, protect native plant species and sustain wildlife, including the fish in Fourmile Creek. Boardwalks will be built over some protected, wetland areas.

A compact, aggregate surface will be placed on the Cooper Rd. trail to make parts of it ADA accessible. The material is more permeable than asphalt but is firm enough for wheelchairs and strollers.

The parking area on Cooper Rd. will be expanded to 17 spaces, including two ADA-accessible spaces, to address traffic and safety concerns.

Several rain gardens will also be added to filter runoff from the Bayfront Connector.

This work will reduce access to the trail system from Cooper Rd. The public will still be able to use the trailheads at the west end of the Prischak and Ohio Hall parking lots at Penn State Behrend. Visitors are asked to check in at the Police Services office in Erie Hall to see if a parking pass is necessary.

Other phases of the project will stabilize and improve a 2,300-foot creek trail. The work includes the use of boardwalks to protect wetland areas and the replacement of a deteriorating footbridge over Trout Run.

Planning for the project started in 2013. The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, Erie County Planning Department and Penn State are providing funding for the work.

Wintergreen Gorge is a 3,980-foot long canyon with mature forest and steep slopes that are susceptible to erosion. Heavy use by hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers have caused the hillsides to become unstable in places.

The primary trail was already cut when Mary Behrend donated her 400-acre property to Penn State in 1948. More than 14 miles of informal trails have now cut through the area.