‘So big, so green’: Traveling the Wilds of Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of Allegheny National Forest Visitors Bureau Above, the reinvented viaduct at Kinzua Bridge State Park today allows visitors to walk out 600 feet and peer into the gorge. Below, a young girl checks out the valley 225 feet below the glass floor on the end of the Kinzua Skywalk.

This is the final article in the travel series “Hit the Road with Cherie Hicks.”

Twilight was tip-toeing over Bald Eagle Mountain as I headed north early on Holy Saturday, out to see more of God’s — and man’s — creations in these parts. Even if you don’t believe in a supreme being, you can’t deny the beauty that is Central Pennsylvania.

I will miss it.

As I leave for my native Florida in May, I wanted to check out a couple of spots that I would never get to if I didn’t go now. Kinzua Bridge State Park was at the top of that list, and I wanted to stop at every state park on the way.

Many PA natives take for granted that state parks don’t charge an admission, they’re generally open year-around and there is one within 25 miles of every resident of Pennsylvania, as proposed by Maurice Goddard, director of the Department of Parks and Forests, in 1955 when there were just 44 parks.

Today, there are more than 120 — and that doesn’t include state game lands, state forests and national forests — and far more between here and Kinzua Bridge than I had imagined. I wish I could see them all; you might consider putting them on your bucket list.

Byways

Taking Interstate 99 only to Port Matilda, I hopped on Alternate U.S. 220 that last day in March. Thinking I would be in a lot of “dead zones,” I had jotted down highway numbers and turns instead of solely relying on my phone’s GPS, which ended up working fairly well for the 12 hours and 365 miles I traveled that day.

If I had stayed on the main highway, I would have missed the brightly painted pink former church near Union Township that sells antiques, just not at the crack of dawn. I did miss Black Moshannon State Park, as the brown sign said it was seven miles west, or at least another half-hour added to the day’s already-long schedule, and I wasn’t sure the gate was open yet.

Twenty miles later, after staying left on Route 150, I found Bald Eagle State Park just off the road. Insects nor man could be found at the Butterfly Trail; I bet it’s pretty in June. The boat ramp on Sayers Lake was busy as anglers backed up their trucks on a chilly 26-degree morning to try their luck with crappie and yellow perch.

Heading north to Lock Haven, I took Route 120 for a most scenic drive. It wends through the 16,433-acre Bucktail State Park Natural Area and meanders along the West Branch Susquehanna River for a while and then along Sinnemahoning Creek. One positive aspect of traveling in late winter is the clearer view of the soothing water. But I imagined how beautiful it will be when the leaves pop out this spring and turn red and orange this fall.

You’ll eventually find yourself in Sproul State Forest, the largest in the state covering more than 305,000 acres. You can get a bird’s-eye view of it at Hyner View State Park, just off Route 120. Look for the brown sign just after crossing the West Branch bridge.

Hyner View SP is worth the six-mile drive down Hyner Run Road. But check your brakes. You won’t need them going up the mountain, but you will coming down. A deer ate breakfast on the side of the road; at the top, a woodpecker was at work.

Gliding

Only a few parking spaces are provided, which wasn’t a problem on this wintry day, but it could be in June or if more folks knew about this place. Thrill seekers have found it; it’s a popular hop-off point for hang gliding over the West Branch Susquehanna Valley. The small park features a few picnic tables, charcoal grills and non-flush toilets. Its focal points are a rock overlook wall constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and a monument to those men who were part of a work-relief program during the Great Depression.

(It has special meaning for me, as my grandfather’s job with the CCC took him to Northwest Florida where he met and later married my grandmother).

Another memorial erected in 1965 pays tribute to the state’s fire wardens on a large monolith surrounded by 20 stones, one for each of the state forests in Pennsylvania.

Just down the mountain to the right is an affiliated state park called Hyner Run, for the babbling stream you cross to get there. It has more facilities, including a modern campground, cabins and a swimming pool and its four-mile Long Fork Loop connects to the larger, moderate-to-rugged 50-mile Donut Hole Trail System. In fact, miles of scenic roads, foot trails and overlooks are dotted across Sproul.

When you backtrack to Route 120, turn right for more scenery, as public lands run for a total of 75 miles along the highway from Lock Haven to Emporium, even if the byway names change from Sproul to Elk. The borough of Renovo is just six miles away; I had packed a lunch that day, but it is home to a couple of cafes, motels and a “hunter’s paradise.”

I drove by those seemingly ubiquitous brown signs, pointing to Kettle Creek, Sinnemahoning, Sizerville and other state parks. The road was guarded on the left by an active railroad line and the Sinnemahoning Creek, which becomes the Driftwood Branch at the tiny borough by the same name.

A mountain is on the right, and the strata of its jagged rocks looks like art begging for your attention as they jut toward the road.

Eventually, the vistas turn to valleys with rolling farms and horse pastures and back into a mountainous road (Be alert as it goes to one lane with signs promising future construction).

Another sign points to the Elk Country Visitors Center, which you could follow if you’re ready to call it a day and loop toward the south. The center claims to have the best views of the largest elk herd in the northeastern United States. But I already knew that the best times for catching sight of the big beasts are September and October, when the center has its longest hours, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.

I stayed on Route 120 toward Emporium, guided by the white bark of the birch trees standing sentry over the creek. Drive too fast and you’ll miss The Little Museum in Cameron County. A trail marker advertises Sinnemahoning Path, a trail used by the Seneca and other early settlers.

Emporium is a quaint town where you can continue on Route 120 west and loop back south for home. But I was on a mission and followed the signs to the Victorian village of Smethport — check out a walking tour of the mansions built by lumber barons if you have time; brochures are in a kiosk in front of the courthouse. Then on to Kinzua Bridge SP.

Large as Liberty

The story of Kinzua — pronounced kin-zoo by locals and kin-zew-uh by the Seneca — caught my attention because the bridge was partially destroyed by a tornado in 2003. Having lived most of my life in tornado-prone areas of the South, I was surprised to find that those vicious storms strike in the Keystone State, as well.

Constructed in the early 1880s, the Kinzua Viaduct was the highest and longest railroad structure in the world at the time, measuring 2,053 feet long and 301 feet tall, four feet shorter that the Statue of Liberty. Thomas Kane, president of the New York, Lake Erie and Western Coal Co., helped design it to haul coal, oil and lumber across the gorge.

After a tornado brought down part of the structure, it was reinvented in 2011 into a pedestrian walkway that lets visitors stroll 600 feet, look out for miles across Kinzua Gorge and walk on and peer through a partial glass floor to the valley 225 feet below.

The Kinzua Creek Trail is a four-tenths mile, strenuous hike to the creek bed. An easier, 1.5-mile hike loops around the parking area.

Check out the new and sleek visitors center that is home to exhibits on Kane, how workers built the viaduct and the history of its evolution, along with a gift shop of locally crafted items.

Even with a brown countryside, it was worth the trip. I recommend visiting in spring or fall for the color.

So much to do

With the packed lunch long gone, I took my rumbling stomach just a few miles over to U.S. 6 and Mount Jewett. A country store and other small eateries promised to open in mid-April, so I continued another 12 miles, crossed U.S. 219, to the borough of Kane — named after the railroad executive — and found several dining choices. Pepe’s Pizzeria makes its own bread and Italian dressing, which made the Italian sub a great option. It also serves regional craft beers.

Kane also is home to a winery, a distillery, a bed and breakfast and other accommodations. It looks like a perfect spot to land for the night, but I hadn’t made arrangements and kept motoring.

But where to go? Thirty miles north up U.S. 219 is Bradford, home to the Zippo Case Museum, antique shopping and museums. The Allegheny National Forest was only a stone’s throw to the west, covering more than a half-million acres, a lot of it in old-growth forests, over 600 miles of trails for hiking, biking, kayaking and more. It also has a couple of scenic waterfalls, Bent Run and Hector Falls, which are “absolutely beautiful during the spring,” said Linda Devlin with the ANF Visitors Bureau.

It was too much to cover with only a few hours left of daylight and one more item on the day’s bucket list.

I took Route 321 south to U.S. 219, saw more of those brown signs –to Bendigo State Park, Elk State Park and others. Ninety minutes later, I was at my final destination, Bilger’s Rocks near Grampian in Clearfield County.

It was the most unusual rock formation I have seen, and knowing that they were formed 300 million years ago made it even more special. Visitors have been coming here for 10,000 years, they say, and some have left their evidence; one carving in the rocks dates to World War I. A nonprofit organization bought it for preservation. It is open dawn to dusk and it is free to climb the rocks and hike short trails.

Big and green

I don’t recommend covering 365 miles in one day as I did.

“It is such a beautiful area, but it is big,” said the ANF’s Devlin. “One of the most common comments we hear is ‘so big, so green.'”

And, that is just one national forest among many.

The state tourism department calls this huge region The Pennsylvania Wilds with good reason — and I haven’t even mentioned its Pine Creek Gorge, commonly referred to as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon; it’s only 20 miles northeast of Lock Haven. Fortunately, my family visited that gorgeous gorge on an earlier trip, after spending a weekend at a park that is home to one of the prettiest waterfalls I have seen outside of Niagara — Ricketts Glen State Park.

There, if you are able, hike the Falls Trail to see 22 named waterfalls, including the highest, Ganoga Falls at 94 feet, among old-growth timber.

Before we close this chapter on life in Pennsylvania, we have two more state parks to visit: Pymatuning and Presque Isle, in the Great Lakes Region. With time running out, I’m glad we already had checked out Ohiopyle two summers ago where we went whitewater rafting — another check off the old bucket list — and we’ve spent countless hours in our backyard at Canoe Creek and Prince Gallitzin state parks.

Get out your list and start checking.

See you later; this ‘Gator has to go home.

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.

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