Wandering the wondrous groves of giant hemlocks is reason enough to come to Pennsylvania’s colossal and only national forest, the Allegheny National Forest, but the area offers so much more.
It sits in the northwest corner of PA on a huge chunk of land dominated by plateaus rising between 1,600 and 2,300 feet. It is heavily dissected by a myriad of rivers and streams that create glens, gorges and valleys. Fascinating rock formations of boulders, ledges and outcrops decorate many of the plateau’s edges and slopes.
More than 200 miles of hiking trails lace the national forest, and two national wild and scenic rivers, the Allegheny and the Clarion, slice through its wild lands. They offer stellar paddling opportunities from a short run to a multi-day trip, as well as great fishing.
In the heart of the forest lies the 12,000-acre Allegheny Reservoir with its 90 miles of shoreline. Some of the best hiking is right along the lake’s cliffs where hours can be whiled away winding among boulders that are perched on a rock top overlooking the lake. For longer backpacking trips, check out a section of the 96 miles of National Scenic North Country Trail, offering spectacular vistas of the Allegheny Reservoir on its way through rock outcroppings, open hardwoods, and old growth forests.
Even getting out for a short hike is incredibly satisfying. Rimrock Overlook and Jakes Rocks, at 700 vertical feet above the reservoir, are two stellar short trails that promise to provide an afternoon adventure. Rimrock Overlook Trail descends .2 among cliffs and boulders, down a rock staircase, and through a crevasse that narrows to only two feet wide. The trail wanders along the base of the cliffs and arrives at a rock amphitheater with a deep, dark crevasse.
The one-mile Jakes Rocks Trail, on the opposite side of the lake, features cliffs with incredible views, massive boulders and outcrops, crevasses and rock overhangs. The true highlight of Jakes Rocks is gazing up at the fascinating rock formations shaped like pyramids or triangles.
An out-of-the-way but well-worthwhile hike is to the beautiful and isolated Hector Falls. The one-mile, one-way trail to the falls follows a graded forestry road to a clearly established woods trail with only 200 feet of elevation change. Your destination is a 22-foot-high sliver of liquid silver that flings itself over a cliff of huge boulders. In low water, the stream descends through a narrow fissure with more monstrous boulders to explore.
Another favorite hike is in the Tionesta National Scenic and Research Area, one of the largest remaining old-growth forests in the eastern United States. This beautiful expanse of massive, old-growth hemlocks contains some of the largest and finest examples of old growth in the eastern United States. The sounds of unfamiliar, yet exotic-sounding birds echo from the canopy to provide a feeling of deep wildness.
Walking is the slowest, most absorbing way to soak in all the beauty of the north woods, but cycling is another great option for experiencing the Allegheny National Forest by land. The Kinzua Valley Trail along the banks of the Kinzua Creek follows the path of the old Valley Railroad through forest and marshland. Parts of the trail are grass covered and feel more like single track laid on a rolling, curving bed. For nine miles, the trail winds alongside deep swimming holes and cool sheltering hemlocks whose branches dip low into the stream.
The Kinzua Sky Walk pedestrian walkway in nearby Kinzua Bridge State Park allows visitors to perch high above the ground and observe what remains of one of the wonders of the modern world. The Kinzua railroad bridge was built in 1882 to move trains loaded with coal and lumber to market. The bridge stood 301 feet above the valley and traversed a 2,053-foot-wide valley, making it the highest and longest viaduct in the world. In the days before airplanes, people traveling in a train across the bridge would get the feeling of flying. You can see the topped Kinzua Viaduct from a lower observation deck, or walk out on the former railroad bridge to an octagonal, glass-floored deck.
For those who can’t walk or just enjoy motorized travel, the Allegheny National Forest offers many miles of trails dedicated to ATV’s, either your own (with permit) or from rental outfitters who manage their own myriad of trails.
Cabins and camping opportunities abound in this wonderful national forest, including 14 campgrounds, (1,000 sites!) The 2020 Visitors Guide can help you find the perfect place to recoup after a great day of recreating in the forest.